Wednesday 19 February 2014

Bats and mushroom growing underground in France.

One thing I've learnt is that when you get out and about you never know what that day will bring and that was certainly the case again the other week when I went to do a bit of underground Bat recording organised by Samuel Ducept and Miguel Gailledrat of Vienne Nature. We met at the bureau at 9am which is early enough for me in winter and as soon as everyone was present set of in two vehicles, 5 people in each to go our separate ways for the day.

I must mention that for some unknown reason it seems that it’s mainly females in France that are “into” bats and Saturday was no exception. Other than Sam and Miguel I was the only male the other 7 being “girls”, (any female under about 35 or possibly 40 is a girl to me these days).

We were going to try and research some underground cavities that either hadn't been looked at before or hadn't been researched for several years. These are all old workings, principally underground quarries in the first instance to provide the limestone that was used to build the châteaus and houses and most were then used for other functions, storing food such as cheese if part of a large property or used as champignonnières – commercial mushroom production. This was the principle means of commercial mushroom production in France during the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century thanks to the ideal conditions they provided, a more or less constant temperature, easy to regulate air flow and a good level of humidity. The process is quite complex and rather than make gross errors I have linked to a good site below in French with some interesting old photos but all methods required the use of containers filled with compost made with a mix of manure and straw plus lime.

Click on photos to enlarge.

These old underground caves or cavities are always on private land, often some distance from a road and sadly many have become blocked or overgrown. Of course overgrown or even partially blocked isn't necessarily a problem for over wintering bats providing they still have reasonable access but it obviously reduces the ability to record numbers effectively. Inevitably for us it meant drawing several blanks which is always disappointing however we did manage to find and gain access to several caves of varying sizes over the course of the day even when it meant overcoming a few obstacles.

It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that these caves are used by all manner of other species besides bats and in two caves there was the unmistakable and all pervasive smell of fox and even a brief glimpse of one as it ran away from our lights. Large numbers of Peacock butterflies and literally hundreds if not thousands of Herald moths Scoliopteryx libatrix hibernating all over surfaces of one cave and even a small cluster of Eristalis tenax hoverflies in a shallow hole in the rock face. There are always small clouds of lethargic mosquitoes and other midges waiting for spring and even quite large numbers of chocolate coloured slugs in one cave.

Not all bats favour caves to over winter with many species using houses, buildings or cavities in forest trees. The common pipistrelle Pipistrellus pipistrellus, one of the commoner bats prefers buildings and when found in a cave it will usually be near the entrance as will be Barbastelle Barbastalla barbastellus. The Large and Small Horseshoe bats are to be more likely found far from the entrance in the warmer air where they can sometimes remain moderately active even flying around sometimes and as they are often not actually asleep greater care needs to be taken not to disturb them.

Totals for the day.

Greater Horseshoe bat    73
Lesser Horseshoe bat      12
Brown Long eared bat     5
Daubentons bats             8
Whiskered bat                42
Geoffroy's bat                23
Natterer's bat                  6
Bechstein's bat                5
Greater mouse-eared bat  33

Although there was a reasonable number of Greater Horseshoe bats they weren't in substantial groups.


Monday 17 February 2014

Spring is in the air - well almost.

Not quite out of the woods yet with a sharp cold spell always possible ‘til mid March but today after all the rain the sun is finally shining, 11°C+ in the shade and life is emerging again even if perhaps only briefly taking a break from hibernation for some creatures.

I have to confess that this is always a somewhat nervous time of year for me waiting to see how many of my occupied bee hives are active. Even though activity in itself is no sure sign that the colony is OK and has a good Queen it’s quite a good indication if they are taking in pollen but even now if a Queen fails before the end of March there is no chance of a naturally mated successor. Most of the hives looked good, all were active and I even managed to get my first sting of the year right on the face, not too happy about that I have to say, never a pleasant experience however much it goes with the job.

Butterflies today were much as to be expected, all the common over wintering species, Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Red Admiral but good to see them however common they are, after all it wasn't so long ago that the Small Tortoiseshell was a common species in our region, now it's getting quite rare. Also saw a Humming bird hawk moth a species that didn't over winter in our region at one time but increasingly some do now. Carpenter bees are always early risers on a warm sunny day and there were a few of them around “inspecting holes” although it’s hard to believe they could really be laying eggs at this time of year. Found this very pretty and immaculate Ground beetle with very orange legs.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Hazel catkins have been open a while now and many have been washed out with all the rain, none the less there are plenty that are fresh with pollen, goat willow is starting to show and will be open in a matter of days as is the wild plumb blossom.

Found some quite nice clumps of Agile frog spawn, perhaps a little early due to the mild wet winter so far……

…… and at 4.30 a few groups of Cranes totalling some 400 flew over chattering their way north east, (recorded on line with the LPO). All in all a pleasant day with the promise of the big spring rush just around the corner.


Monday 10 February 2014

Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin die in their thousands.

Much has been made of the human situation recently with flooding and all that goes with it but additionally the recent rain and persistent Atlantic storms have had severe consequences for wildlife in many places, not least the Atlantic coast of France where thousands of birds have been washed up on the coastline in recent days.

Principally Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin the main cause of death is from exhaustion and lack of food according to analyses carried out at Nantes, although there have been some with traces of oil that may be from the ships that leaked fuel after running aground.

Hegalaldia, (Centre de sauvegarde faune sauvage du Pays Basque) have taken in 85 birds to date with the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO) and other sources indicating that as many as 500 in Loire-Atlantique, 500 in Vendée, 1000 in Charente-Maritime and more than a thousand on the rest of the coast have been affected.

With the sea “like a giant washng machine” there is too much swell and reduced visibility for these birds to fish and following three weeks of these conditions the recent surge has driven these birds on to the coast where they have been beached after fighting for days and days to survive.

Although Atlantic storms are “the norm” for the west coast of France the difference in this situation which is being experienced by everyone affected is the duration and strength of these storms.


As of the 18th February it is estimated that over 11 000 birds were stranded along the Atlantic coast, the main species being affected are Puffin (over 8,000 individuals) , followed by Guillemot.  Among all these beached birds some were ringed and they come mainly from the United Kingdom.

The statistical report is still provisional.

It should be noted that the exceptional nature of this mass stranding has never been observed before  in France other than by marine pollution.

Every winter illegal discharges from ships are recorded off the French coast, and now following successive storms the Atlantic coast is witnessing the arrival of tar balls. Increasingly oiled birds are reported.

It is probable that more birds will be found on the Atlantic coast throughout the month of February.

As of the 25th February 34,121 birds dead and 2,784 sent to rescue center. Many birds floating off the coast have been reported by fishermen. The still provisional toll is likely to rise in the coming days.

Photos from LPO France.  Click on photos to enlarge.


Sunday 26 January 2014

Salamanders, newts and frogs in January.

So far this has been a mild winter in France, particularly so in the west and south west. This always creates a risky situation for amphibians, especially those that are temperature sensitive when it comes to breeding such as the Common frog that is always an early breeder. Although the Common frog, (Rana temporaria), is a species that isn't present in Vienne I understand from talking to people in other Departements that Common frogs started to spawn in December and there are already tadpoles to be seen. Severe cold weather is always likely here until at least the end of February and any sustained freeze will destroy spawn that is on or near the surface or in the case of shallow water that freezes completely any tadpoles.

Salamanders, (salamandra salamandra), will also release their egg sacs or young larvae into the water any time from Autumn 'til Spring if it's mild and my pond currently has larvae in various stages of development with adult females at the waters edge last night.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Also to be seen in the water last night were a few Palmate newts, (Triturus,(Lissotriton), helveticus), perhaps a little early in the season but unlikely to be a problem for them.

Also I saw this little frog, either Edible frog, (Pelophylax kl. esculentus), or Pool frog, (Pelophylax lessonae), no more than 3 to 4cm making its way to the pond, again very early but it would soon find somewhere to hide away should the weather turn very cold.

Plenty to come on Amphibians in the near future.


Saturday 11 January 2014

What's hiding under the hive roof

I think it's best to start for non Bee keepers with a short explanation of a basic hive structure. Shown below is a French Dadant Ruchette which is basically a small starter hive and is exactly the same as a full size Dadant hive in design, Dadant being a style of hive.

The box structure at the bottom is called the Brood box which is where the bee colony lives. 

Next with the hole in the middle is the Crown board or the cover that goes over the bees. The hole in the center is for placing a syrup feeder over or for placing a block of fondant for the bees to eat. When not in use it is normal to close it with a small cover.

Finally standing on edge in this photo is the outer metal covered weatherproof lid. All very simple really.

From time to time I lift the outer lids on my active hives to check everything is OK and as it's quite common to find various creatures that have made it their home I thought I'd take a few photos over the last week to have a reference for the future and of course a bit of winter fun. 

Perhaps no great surprises but here they are:

Mottled shield bug Rhaphigaster nebulosa and Common European earwig  Forficula auricularia 

Heterogaster urticae Nettle Ground Bug and Aphanus rolandri.

Melanocoryphus albomaculatus, Seed bug 

Rhyparochromus vulgaris 

Ruby Tiger caterpillars Phragmatobia fuliginosa with Pupa below.

Seven spot ladybird Coccinella septempunctata

Anyphaena accentuata ??

Garden spider Araneus diadematus??

A nest of  four Wood Mice Apodemus sylvaticus (Mulot sylvestre in French)

Clubiona stagnatilis ?? 

Harvestman spider sp??

Leaf cutter bee "nest"

Weevil -  Larinus sp. (poss-turbinatus)

Agonopterix arenella a moth that hatches in the autumn and spends the winter as an adult and a mud nest of Auplopus carbonarius a solitary wasp that eats mostly spiders.

Asian Harlequin ladybird, an introduced species. 

Invasive Harlequin ladybird France

Reduvius personatus or the masked hunter, an Assasin bug that covers itself with dust and other particles in the Nymph stage.


Sunday 5 January 2014

Skylark hunting in France

Skylark hunting in France - a tradition that should be confined to history books?

Most people are unaware that Skylarks are still legally hunted in some member countries of the EU and are equally unaware of some of the methods used in the name of tradition.

In France Skylarks can be shot anywhere in France during the open hunting season, normally set from around the middle to end of September until the end of February. In practice for most of France this may only amount to perhaps a few thousand in total although it’s unlikely that any serious reporting of numbers of kills takes place.

The main hunting using clap nets takes place in the Departemnets of Gironde, Landes,  Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

This is from CABS.

Although shooting of Skylarks is permitted in France, as in other Mediterranean countries, four French Départements also allow trapping of the endangered species in nets. In the Bordeaux region of Aquitaine 10,000 trapping installations with gigantic trapping nets lies between the migrating birds and their winter destinations in the south. The dunes on the Atlantic coast and the harvested fields in the immediate hinterland are full of nets in autumn.

Live decoy birds are used as lures. The larks trapped for this purpose are tethered by their feet and are connected to the trapper who sits in a hut at the edge of the installation, by a long cord. When birds approach the nets the trapper pulls on the cord and the decoy bird starts to flutter its wings. At the same time the trapper mimics Skylark calls on a pipe and so lures a whole flock to their doom. When enough birds have landed the trapper releases a mechanism and the nets, several hundred square metres in area, clap together over the birds.

As if this wasn’t enough, two Départements also allow each trapper to set out up to 300 cage traps for larks!

More than 3,000 bird trappers are officially licensed to catch larks. The trapping quota varies in each Département - in Gironde for instance each trapper can catch 336 larks annually. Altogether one million Skylarks can legally be trapped in France every year; the true figure is probably a few hundred thousand in excess of this figure.

Below: Official figures for the EU countries that have derogated using “tradition” as a reason to allow hunting of Skylark.

Below we have school children on an arranged day outing being taught the wonders of trapping and killing Wood pigeon and Skylark. (Travail réalisé par les élèves de la classe de CM1 CM2 de l’Ecole de CASTETS en DORTHE dans le cadre du projet sur le patrimoine cyclo.)

Tying a skylark SOURCE

Needless to say this is only part of the picture. There are large numbers of Finches and Ortolan Bunting illegally trapped and killed in south west France with impunity mainly to supply an elite market but more of that another time.

Although the Skylark has a huge range and benefits from having a large population base it has been in decline now for many years and most would conclude that habitat loss is the root cause. On the basis that they are in decline should be good enough reason to call an end to killing this tiny bird just because it’s deemed to be traditional.


Saturday 4 January 2014

Peregrine Falcon 2013 Poitou-Charentes

Peregrine Falcon - A good news story !!!

That's right, it's not always bad news.

This is a bird that requires a relatively specific habitat for a nest site and in Poitou-Charentes there is very little suitable natural habitat for Peregrine Falcons to nest, the region is generally quite flat with some small hilly places here and there.

Although they will use old unused large nests in tall trees this is not generally their preferred location and overall when old nests from other birds are used there is an increased chance of failure in bad weather or if the nest structure collapses. By preference a natural site will be a relatively high ledge or rocky outcrop that is usually slightly earthen, perhaps where a small amount of scree has accumulated with some light vegetation. Here they don’t actually make a nest but scrape a small hollow or clearing where the eggs are laid.

Following the massive population declines from the 1950’s the Peregrine has slowly recovered since about 1985 / 1990 and the first couple were recorded nesting in a natural situation in Poitou-Charentes in the Vienne in 2004. In 2006 this became two couples and in 2013 6 couples were recorded.

The oldest couples from 2004 and 2006 both successfully raised one chick each to fledging.

One couple failed to produce for reasons unknown.

One couple raised two chicks to fledging and the other two couples both raised three chicks to fledging.

10 young Peregrines in total that flew their nests is good news for a species that still has a relatively fragile population.

Outside of the breeding season Peregrine may be seen at a number of other locations throughout the region as they disperse for winter often to wetlands, lakes and marais where there is good hunting.

I should add here that this bird when nesting is extremely sensitive and vulnerable to any human disturbance. This is an increasing problem with the growth of rock climbing and should you become aware of a nest you should only mention its presence to a recognised ornithological group / association or the ONCFS. This is one of the bird species where actual nest sites are kept from the public domain for obvious reasons.

On no account should you approach any actual or potential nest site any closer than 200 metres.