Thursday, February 26, 2009

Winter Visitors

At this time of year, even a shopping trip can be an ornithologist’s delight. The French have long been accused of eating all their small birds, and to a certain extent this has been the case. Nevertheless, France has come into line with general thinking and small songbirds are not slaughtered in the numbers that they were thirty years ago. Old habits (or cuisines) die hard however. As recently as 1996, a dying Francois Mitterand (the former French President) ordered a dish of ortalon as a final treat.

This lovely little songbird, a member of the bunting family, was considered the 'hautest' of haute cuisine, and as such its capture and cooking was shrouded in tradition and myth. I'll not sicken you with the details of the preparation, but for some bizarre reason, which seems to have no sensible explanation, the dish is eaten whilst the diner covers his head with a white cloth. Legend has it that a gluttonous priest, who was anxious that God should not recognise him, first practiced this. He must have missed the vital piece of information in his theological teaching that nothing can be hidden from God.

Fortunately, these barbarically arcane traditions only survive now amongst the very oldest French gourmands. In nearly ten years, I have never come across thrush pate or lark's tongues on a village meal menu. Thank God!

But to return to our shopping trips. We are almost guaranteed to see a couple of heron, usually in the same place...a field bounded by a swift running water channel that takes the snow melt from the mountains, and for the last two winters our cattle have been joined in their pastures by an influx of cattle egrets. They spend a few weeks with us every winter now, and the cows seem very unfazed by them. I wonder why they choose to share accommodation with such big animals? They're never seen with the sheep, or in a field of horses, cattle are obviously their soul mates. Very strange.

The colder, snowy foothills of the Pyrenees bring down the birds of prey at this time of year. There really does seem to be a buzzard on every telegraph pole. The red and black kites circle endlessly round, as they do in the summer, but in winter, they seem to be higher in the sky.

There's quite a few small birds around too, fieldfares swooping and swarming, and of course the starlings who seem able to survive anywhere. We were lucky enough to see a swarm one day as we were driving towards Narbonne. What I thought was someone burning old tyres was in fact a cloud of starlings performing an aerial ballet over the flat terrain of the Minervois vineyards.

We never see any gulls as we're too far from the coast. For this reason, we never see wild duck or geese. I do miss the geese. The eerie sound of a skein of pinkfoot heading inland on the North Norfolk coast (to drive farmers ballistic!)is one of those experiences you never forget however far away you travel.

Another visitor in the skies over us isn't a bird, but nearly as exciting, well to Captain Sensible of course. It's rather larger than a bird; in fact, the Airbus 380 is rather larger than any other plane. So frequently does it appear that I hardly bother to look up now when I hear it droning over en route to the mountains, where the crew test the cockpit instruments for magnetic interference. We actually saw it on its maiden test flight. Well, I saw it ... in the distance. The Captain didn't because he was driving at the time. I said nothing for fear of looking stupid (I have been known to confuse large birds with planes and vice versa due to my short-sightedness) so it wasn't until I saw it on the telly that night that I realised what I had been looking at.
"I saw that this morning on the road from Le Cuing" I said. I was not popular.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snow, Floods,Fires, What Next?

What a strange start to 2009 we are having. Right now I'm writing up my blog as large snow flakes drift down from the skies like white confetti. When I was little, I was told that somewhere up in the heavens an old lady was plucking a goose. What a load of old cobblers kids were told in my day. Parents would never get away with it these days. Kids are far too smart to be fooled by daft stories like that.

But back to the present century. Only 6 weeks into 2009 and what have we got? The most severe winter conditions in the UK for 20 years, (or 10, or 50 depending on what newspaper you're reading), horrendous fires in Australia, and here, three weeks ago, the most violent winds for years, the effects of which we are still discovering as we drive around, with hardly a wood without fallen trees somewhere in it, either flat on the ground or leaning at crazy angles on neighboring trees. Strangely most of our old houses still have their roofs on; they must be a lot tougher than they look. Like their inhabitants I guess.

And today, the snow is not only settling but piling up ...well it has snowed all day. The lights are flickering ominously as well, and although The Captain has bought new wicks for our emergency oil lamps, he hasn't tracked down the oil for them yet. When the electricity went off in the storms, like the foolish virgins that we were, our lamps hadn't been maintained properly, so we were caught out, and had to resort to candles.

I can't begin to imagine the full horror of the bush fires in Victoria. My own experience of wildfire was on a minute scale compared to the Australian disaster, and that was scary enough.

We were living just outside Carcassonne in the heat wave summer of 2003, and we had become accustomed to the daily patrols of the Canadair fire fighting planes droning over, and even when we noticed a puff of smoke on the other side of the hill we weren't unduly worried. We still didn’t worry too much when twenty or so fire engines were seen up on the main road, and smuts began to flutter down in the courtyard. We maintained our British sang-froid and took tea on the terrace, as usual, and watched the planes ‘water- bombing’ the woods on the other side of the hill. The Captain, who takes on the characteristics of a ten year-old when confronted by planes doing exciting things (well, things he considers exciting, anyway) enjoyed it all immensely. It wasn’t until I went into the kitchen at about ten o’clock for ice for my bedtime drink (well, it was stiflingly hot so a good excuse for a G&T) that I noticed the sky had turned red and the hilltop was flickering with flames. Simultaneously two battle-weary pompiers appeared at the front gate and announced we were to evacuate the cottage. Then it got scary. We grabbed our passports, the dog and prayed the cats, out on their evening hunt would be alright.
An hour later the wind changed direction and our little house and the cats were saved.
It was alarming at the time, but nothing to what the inhabitants of Victoria have had to deal with.

I wonder what the elements have in store for us all this year. And what the global warming-in-denial lobby will have to say about it.