Safety first

P1060936Not a warning sign you’d ever see in the UK, but in Big Bend National Park in Texas, yes you would.

This was on display near the main visitor centre, and looked new. It was different and more detailed than the warning sign I’d seen about Mountain Lions when I visited the park 10 years ago. This was an update, and it included Black Bears. I had no idea they were in the park.

We didn’t see bears or lions. The nearest we got to a lion encounter was from the safety of our air b’n’b accommodation just outside the park. You can read about it here.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed as there seemed to be less wildlife about on this trip. Yes, there were birds – mainly hawks soaring overhead, and the ever-present turkey vultures. There were small birds too, in the scrubby bushy areas of the desert, which sent me scrabbling for my Birds of Big Bend laminated fold out to ID them, The best and closest sightings were of road runners – appearing too quickly to whip out the camera, and one anxiously rushing past 2 or 3 feet away. It was good to get a close look and see the colours on the head of this eccentric-looking bird.

This trip excelled in the desert flora, with magnificent views of the mountains just about everywhere.

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Flowering Ocotillo and the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend

A strange gurgling in the night

P1060986There it was again –  a loud, odd gurgling sound – a bit like the warble of a bird but far more urgent. I was suddenly wide awake. Confused too, as I briefly wondered if I was at home and hearing the dawn chorus. But no, I was definitely not at home because I was sleeping in a cabin-style house in the desert, surrounded by mountians. And it was dark.

Something was definitely going on outside. Scuffles? That gurgling noise again, like an alarm call. It stopped and I went back to sleep.

Next morning there was excited talk amongst our family party about the noise which I’d heard, husband had heard, son and daughter-in-law had heard. The grandchildren slept through it all.

Our cabin’s location was just outside Big Bend National Park in the far south of Texas. Wildlife in that area includes deer, road runners, javelina and mountain lions. The conclusion was that what we’d heard was a mountain lion in pursuit of prey. The gurgling sound could have been the prey, or the alarm call of a bird aroused by the lion.

Our son, sleeping at the front of the house, had got up and looked out, shining a torch into the blackness of the night. He’d seen the lion attacking something else; the light from his torch had startled the lion and it (and preseumably the prey) hadP1070004 (2) run off.

We went to look at the loose sand and soil outside the cabin where he’d seen the activity and found the evidence – paw prints and what looked like deer hoof prints. No blood.

Just another night in the desert maybe – but a real bit of colourful excitement for us.

Ever faithful

Dogs with bone

When I visited the Basilica of St. Denis, in the Paris suburb of St. Denis (also the banlieu where, a couple of years ago, an armed seige by police took place after a terrorist terrorist attack in central Paris), I came away with plenty of photos of the stunning tombs of the kings and queens of France who are buried there.

It’s an amazing place to visit, especially if you like cathedrals, but this one is full of effigies, each depicting the deceased in repose with symbols relating to their life included in the marble sculptures. It’s like a cross between a cemetery and an art gallery.

The details on the effigies are impressive, giving them a life-like appearance, even in death. Hands, feet, faces and draped fabric all have an aesthetic beauty.

I was particularly drawn to those effigies which had loyal dogs at their feet. This signifies loyalty to the crown and the sovereign, and dogs are usually found beneath the feet of women or children. If the dogs have a bone between their paws, as in the photo above, it means that the body is buried in the tomb.

Some effigies have lions at their feet and these will always be on the tombs of men. Other animals found beneath feet are dragons, a porcupine and there’s a ferret beneath the feet of a count who was reputed to be a great hunter.

The day I visited Saint Denis it was bitterly cold outside and not much warmer inside the cathedral either, but I forgot about the cold, so stunning were the statues.

It’s beginning to look a lot like that time of year again….

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I’ve just put our very ancient vintage Christmas tree up. It’s an artificial one, made of plastic (shock horror – but it’s not as bad as it sounds). I bought it long long ago – so long ago I can’t remember when, and certainly when excessive use of plastic wasn’t a known problem –  but it was probably sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s. It cost £17, which was quite expensive at that time.

Daughter, who was at primary school when we got this tree, recently sent a link to a short video outlining the pros and cons of plastic v. real Christmas trees. Watching this with the 30+ years of annual outings our tree has had in mind, I know its carbon footprint debt was paid off long ago. We did have a real tree for several years before we went plastic; at the time it seemed more sustainable to have an artificial, reusable tree than to “kill off” a real one every year.

Our trusty tree looks surprisingly good and passably realistic (if you ignore the brown plastic trunk and branches), especially when the lights and baubles are in place hiding the more naff details. It has its own peculiar cachet.IMG_0507

Comparing it with artificial trees in garden centres, it can certainly hold its own, and doesn’t appear too dated. Of course it’s a bit of joke in the family as it has been around for so long, but when grandchildren stayed last year they thought it was pretty good and there were no complaints. Nine-year-old granddaughter’s eyes might have widened a little though, when we told her how old the tree was!

This year, with an 11 month-old-puppy now part of our household, we’ve decided to introduce it gradually to keep the excitement and potential destructive chewing under some kind of control. I put it together in another part of the house, added the lights, then brought it into the room where it now stands, as yet untrimmed. There was interest, sniffing, a quick grab at the festive “skirt” I’d put around the base, which he sank his fangs into immediately. That won’t be going back! Then said puppy, curiosity satisfied for the time being, settled down to snooze beside the tree. Maybe that’s a good sign.

As long as he realises it’s not a pee post!

Don’t read this if you don’t like dogs!

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This sign is a take on the French notice seen by level crossings all over France: Un train peut en cacher un autre (one train may be hiding another).

This sign was on the large gate next door to the house of our belle-fille’s family in northern France – and behind the wooden gate were two dogs (friendly and curious), poking their noses through gaps at the bottom of the gate. There was a bit of barking, but mostly sniffing and peeping at our 8 month old pooch, on his first trip to France.

Aware that in the event of a no-deal, hard Brexit (aka nightmare scenario) it could become more complex taking a pet abroad under the pet passport scheme, we had our doglet vaccinated, got the paperwork done and set off for France, via Le Shuttle so he could travel in the vehicle with us, and introduced him to some of our favourite places, as well as some new ones.

Everywhere we went in France we found people with and without dogs wanted to say hello/bonjour and ask us about him. We spoke to many more people on this trip because of the dog. He met French, Dutch and German dogs as well as other British pooches en vacances. He had a whale of a time and was welcomed everywhere – in shops, cafes, restaurants. We became very confident having doggy discussions in French too, and met some friendly people because of this.

In the DoP1060194rdogne, he made friends with a local lady dog, Luna, who joined us for walks. He also met two huge mastiff-like dogs – Dogue de Bordeaux – who were like gentle giants and towered over him, but they were friendly and well-controlled.

No problems at all. Easy.

Until we were on our way back, staying in La Fleche so we could fit in the necessary vet visit, when an officious Brit on the campsite told me I wasn’t allowed to exercise him on site. Oh? I queried that and said we’d not been told this at reception 5 minutes previously when we arrived. Having travelled for several hours the first thing a puppy needs to do is have a pee. How you stop a dog peeing when it needs to I have no idea. We always carry poo bags and clean up deposits.

The man clearly didn’t like dogs. I wonder how he gets on with people?

Dear Prince George….

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I understand that Mummy took you along to a grouse shoot in Scotland a few days, so that you could watch Daddy killing lots of birds which were flying up into the sky.

He was shooting them dead, along with lots of other people. These people say that shooting birds in this way is sport, so I took a look in my dictionary (it’s a bit like the first dictionary you will have at school, but without the pictures) to find the definition of “sport”.

It says Sport: A game or competitive activity, esp. an outdoor one involving physical exertion, e.g. cricket, football, racing, hunting. (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Two words jump out when I think of the grouse shooting you went to see Daddy taking part in. One of them is competitive, the other, hunting.

If something is competitive it usually means there is a contest between two people, or two teams, usually equally matched, with one side or one person pitting their wits and skill against each other. Daddy is keen on football. That is competitive. Shooting birds which fly up into the air, frightened and scared by people called beaters, so they can be shot and killed is not a competitive sport, is it? How can innocent birds be equally matched against people with guns? Does that seem fair?

So what about hunting? This is different from driven grouse shooting. The shooter might still want to kill grouse, but instead of standing inside a bunker waiting for the birds to be scared into flying upwards so they can be shot and killed, the hunter will have to engage with certain skills, such as walking quietly in the countryside, reading the signs and listening to the sounds of nature to find the bird of animal he or she is trying to shoot and kill.

Why might the hunter want to shoot and kill birds or animals? Good question. If someone is hungry, or depends on living on the land in the wild, then they need to eat. Not many people live like this. Mummy and Daddy certainly don’t. But some people, who do not have a lot of money for food, or who live off the land, might need to shoot birds and animals sometimes, so they have food to eat.

Hunting for grouse like this is different from the driven grouse shooting Mummy took you to see. There is a fair chance the hunter will not be successful in shooting and killing anything, so it seems a bit fairer and more competitive; the grouse stands a good chance of getting away.

I wonder, George, if Mummy and Daddy told you that lots of other wildlife is put to death to make sure that the grouse that are killed are kept healthy before they are shot. If you like the bunnies and hares you see in your story books, and the foxes and big powerful exciting birds, like eagles and harriers, and swift-of-speed peregrines, these are often culled (that’s a grown up word for “kill”) so that they won’t get hold of any grouse chicks and eat them for food before they’re old enough to scared into the sky so they can be shot.

Funny old world isn’t it?

I’ve put a picture into this letter for you. It’s of a bird called a Hen Harrier. They are hunters and kill other small birds and animals for food. It’s their nature to do this. But some of the gamekeepers, and some people who work on the shooting estates you’ve been to, do nasty things to Hen Harriers and their chicks, even though it’s against the law to harm them. They trap them, kill them, poison them, shoot them and generally do away with them.

Crazy old world.

Maybe Mummy and Daddy will take you birdwatching one day and you’ll be able to enjoy the magnificence of these birds (they’re called raptors) for yourself. There is a place for everything in nature, especially if it’s allowed to be how and what it’s meant to be.

With affection,

Nannybirds  (my grandchildren made this name up for me as they know I like birds)

 

Broccoli overhead

 

P1030091This may be a reminder to eat your greens, inspired by the overhead view of what appears to be a large head of broccoli.

In fact, it’s a shot of the lush vegetation seen on the Hanging Bridges rain forest walk I did inP1030093 Costa Rica last year.

I also saw a snoozing snake, its skin coloured like savoury sprinkles or nutty seeds.