All posts by Justine Bothwick

Since childhood I have found solace in two things: nature and books. Now I live in Rome, Italy - beautiful but frustrating, glorious but chaotic. I'm learning to appreciate the details, to see the natural world that still survives and even thrives in the city around me. And when I feel like staying in then, as the saying goes, 'a book is like a garden carried in the pocket.' A myriad other places to discover and explore through the written word.

A Swoop of Gulls

“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”

Mrs. Bundy in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

 

Things got a little Hitchcock here a few days ago when the rose-gold evening sky above our apartment block suddenly filled with a swirling monochrome cloud of crows and gulls. Drawn by the cacophony of screeches and caws, we watched the aerial spectacle from the shelter of our balcony, wondering what on earth had caused such agitation.

A few days previously, on my way to work, I had seen one of the local ‘eccentrics’ in the nearby piazza, throwing handfuls of food high above his head, and a flock of perhaps thirty yellow-legged gulls swooping down to catch the scraps mid-air. Of course, I’m all for good karma, and feeding the birds, but the net result of our friend’s activity is that the place is now knee-deep in rotting vegetables and guano. I tried running round there in the evening and it was like an ice rink. Looking at the birds flocking in the sky above our balcony, I wondered if perhaps Birdman had changed the location of his avian restaurant and was serving up dinner in the garden beneath our flat.

After about half an hour things settled down and then I noticed that all of the neighbourhood crows had gathered on the roof of one of the buildings opposite. They were staring us down in quite the threatening manner, as if they’d really taken the whole ‘murder of crows’ collective noun idea to heart. We decided it might be best to go inside and close the doors for the evening.

IMG_6717

Whatever the hysterical flocking had been about, it seems that the gulls have won the turf wars for now. There has been an absence of crows, but the air has been thick with the wheezing, whinging calls of gull nestlings, hidden from view on the rooftops behind television aerials and satellite dishes. Until yesterday that is, when, as we were washing up after dinner, the whinging grew even louder and suddenly two young birds stuck their heads over the parapet of the house opposite.

IMG_6718
So that’s who’s been making all the noise.
IMG_6726
A quick, pre-flight preen

The parents wheeled off to sit in a tree on the other side of the garden, apparently finally sick of the noise and constant demands, while their offspring hopped and flapped up and down and contemplated the fifty-foot drop to the ground below. Then, without any pomp or ceremony – one, two – the youngsters launched themselves from the roof and circled away to try out their newly-discovered wings.

IMG_6719
Ready, steady…
IMG_6724
…Yawn. I’m going to have another think about this flying business. (Who knew gulls had such long tongues?)

 

Advertisements

‘Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’

‘Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ Shakespeare, Hamlet

‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

IMG_6704IMG_6702

In these lemon-yellow days of a Roman spring, exam season gets underway for my students. Once again, Year 9 have studied Romeo and Juliet, taking it ‘from page to stage’ and practising essays on Juliet’s emotional journey through the play. Once again, we have watched the baby-faced Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes as star-crossed lovers in the film version that never fails to entertain. And once again, I have imparted the occult information that wherefore actually means why, causing my pupils to reassess their entire understanding of the balcony scene.

I wake early every day, and the dawn chorus that filters in through the shutters puts me in mind of those ‘two houses, both alike in dignity’, the ‘enemies to peace’ with their ‘ancient grudge’. On one side, the croaks and caws of the hooded crows that populate the pines around us; from the rooftops instead come the cackling belly-laughs of yellow-legged gulls, who have recently moved into the neighbourhood.

IMG_6476

IMG_6477
At sunrise and sunset, the crows stand sentinel.

There are various theories as to why the number of yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) is rising in Rome, from the closure of an enormous rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city in 2013, to the overall increase in seabird population in Europe with a consequent need for more nesting sites, to the fact that temperatures in the capital are higher than surrounding coastal areas. Gulls are also attracted by the easy pickings – rubbish bins that are left to overflow in the road, the detritus left behind once the street market has packed up for the day. Outside our apartment block, a well-meaning neighbour leaves food out for the local stray cats. As soon as she turns her back to leave, the gulls muscle in, strutting along the wall and eyeballing the bowls of Kitty-Kat until the wretched felines slink off in the knowledge that they are no match for that slashing blade of a beak.

The hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also a relatively recent arrival in the city, with colonies moving in along the Tiber river in 1996. Like the gulls, they are omnivores – carrion feeders as well as nest robbers and therefore the only natural threat the gulls have in the city. In the umbrella pines (Pinus pinea) that flourish in the gardens around our apartment block, the crows make their nests and then spend their days loudly protecting them. As the gulls are also partial to a freshly laid egg or a plump nestling, this has resulted in some spectacular aerial battles between these two enemies, played out in front of our balcony while I drink my morning coffee. Who needs the Capulets and the Montagues, when you have the crows and the gulls?

IMG_6700

IMG_6481

IMG_6703
A gull swoops in on a crow: their aerial fights leave feathers whirling in the air.

(According to the journal Wanted in Rome, there are several measures Romans should take to discourage these birds from invading terraces and balconies, including not leaving left-overs or rubbish outside, never offering the birds food and, disturbingly, not leaving small pets outdoors on their own. You have been warned!)

IMG_6694IMG_6480

IMG_6672
Crows also like to add a point of interest to the urban sculpture of the surrounding rooftops.

 

The law of the jungle: one touch of nature in Rajasthan’s cities and villages

“Mowgli had never seen an Indian city before, and though this was almost a heap of ruins it seemed very wonderful and splendid… Trees had grown into and out of the walls; the battlements were tumbled down and decayed, and wild creepers hung out of the windows of the towers on the walls in bushy hanging clumps.”

“There was a ruined summer-house of white marble in the centre of the terrace, built for queens dead a hundred years ago. The domed roof had half fallen in… But the walls were made of screens of marble tracery–beautiful milk-white fretwork, set with agates and cornelians and jasper and lapis lazuli, and as the moon came up behind the hill it shone through the open work, casting shadows on the ground like black velvet embroidery.”

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

The cities of Rajasthan teem with people and with vehicles – filling the air with deafening noise, and pollution you can taste on your tongue. In Delhi and Jaipur’s urban jungle, the roads are a slow river of thick, unending traffic and the pavements stream with humanity. It can be hard to put one foot in front of the other without risk of stepping ankle-deep into a worryingly coloured pool of stinking liquid, while motorbikes, tuk-tuks and overloaded carts bearing curious and precarious loads – flattened eggboxes stacked three metres high, bulging sacks of tumorous tubers – barge past, horns blaring as you jump for safety. Nature is not immediately evident in the face of all this urban chaos.

6jod16
Street market in Jaipur
6jod46
Jodhpur centre
And yet, look – the family of monkeys lolling above the sign on the jewellery shop; the pack of black kites wheeling in the sky. And human inhabitants live comfortably side-by-side with their fellow creatures, sometimes quite literally: we pass a house in Udaipur where one of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a stable; a white horse hangs his head out of the window while the family prepare their evening meal in the adjacent kitchen. In Agra, pigs root through piles of rubbish and sacred cows wander, miraculously unharmed, along dual carriageways, along with the occasional elephant walking the slow lane. Sometimes there is the surprising vision of a camel, festooned in bright ribbons and daubed in colourful paint, trotting past your car window.

5jai33
Snake charmers in Jaipur. Unwelcome snakes are removed from local houses by these Hindu snake men, who first apologise to the snake, explain they are doing it for their wages and promise to keep it no longer than an agreed amount of days before setting it free.
5jai05
Rhesus Macaque monkeys in Jaipur
2agra16
Driving out of Agra
5jai21
On the road in Jaipur
8udai38
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis on Udaipur lake
5jai27

Moving into the villages of rural Rajasthan, nature regains its dominion. People still live in thrall to its caprices,  from the unpredictability of the monsoon rains, to the leopards that visit in the night and carry off the family pig or dog.  In Rohet, outside of Jodhpur, we visit a tiny, one-family village of Bishnoi people, living in circular huts moulded out of mud and dung with straw roofs. The members of the family are grinding spices and tending the cows and they give us a cheerful wave as we arrive and as we drive away.

6jod58

6jod56
Blackbuck or Indian Antelope, around Rohet

6jod55
Rohet Garh haveli
The old haveli where we are staying is opulent by comparison. It also affords a great view of a small lake where bee-eaters whirl and swoop like colourful paper kites over the trees, and sunbirds hop and hover in the blossoms of the frangipani bushes.

6jod53
Purple Sunbird Cinnyris asiaticus
6jod49

6jod52

6jod48
Female purple sunbird
6jod14
Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis
6jod30
Local women in Rohet carrying stones to build a path
We are also lucky to spend two nights in Ranthambore national park. Early morning jeep safaris, complete with thick blankets and hot water bottles, take us into the countryside where we see a tigress sated by her kill, parts of which remain scattered around her as she yawns, stretches and sleeps. Above her, the sun’s rays break through the mist, silvering the surface of a lake where wading birds bob and scoop amongst the lilies and weeds. As the light strengthens, the forest comes to life with the sounds of birds and other fauna: sambar deer and spotted deer – both trying to impress the females of their respective species as they lock antlers and fight. Treepies squawk in branches, and there’s the ‘pick-pick’ of bulbuls as they land on a bush. Once, a glorious lesser-goldenback woodpecker swoops past.

4rantham174rantham204rantham13

4rantham27
Spotted deer
4rantham26
Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
4rantham03
Large Grey Babbler Turdoides malcolmi
4rantham04
Collared Scops Owl Otus lettia
4rantham05
Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger, alarmed by a crocodile
4rantham28
Male Sambar deer
4rantham31
Grey Langurs warming up in the morning sunshine
4rantham32
Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
In Narlai, another village between Jodhpur and Udaipur, grey langur monkeys stare back at me from the other side of the window when I open the shutters in the early morning. We go down into the still dusky courtyard of our haveli and climb into a jeep that takes us out into the countryside to look for leopards. Farmers in their huts are starting their day’s chores, lighting fires; the women walk out – pots balanced on heads – to get water from the pump, or go to visit one of the many temples that dot the landscape. Woodsmoke rises from the huts and mingles with the still dawn-grey sky. Peafowl are everywhere, perched in trees, on top of temples, or running down the road while Indian robins hop up and down in the branches next to us.

 

7narl14
Narlai haveli courtyard in the evening
7narl17
The distinctive landscape around Narlai
 

4rantham33

A gazelle gazes at us from the safety of a screen of trees; a wild boar charges behind a cactus hedge. A large moving blob on a distant rocky outcrop provokes excitement, but it proves to be, not a leopard, but a very large mongoose. Minutes later, a family of three more run across the road in front of us and a honey buzzard surveys us regally from a tree-top. As the sun appears, pink and rosy over the horizon, we stop and drink hot chai and eat sweet biscuits. A tiny temple, high on a rock, is surrounded by peacocks, one of whom is dancing a sun salutation, tail feathers fanned behind him as the peahens look on, unimpressed. No leopards, then, but a very special, peaceful way to see the land and wake up with its inhabitants.

7narl47
Oriental Honey-buzzard Pernis ptilorhyncus

7narl32
Sunrise over the Narlai countryside
“Now Rann the Kite brings home the night

That Mang the Bat sets free.

The herds are shut in byre and hut,

For loosed till dawn are we.

This is the hour of pride and power,

Talon and tush and claw.

Oh, hear the call!—Good hunting all

That keep the Jungle Law!”

 

Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book

Borage and Bees on the Balcony

I made a mistake. I really should have paid more attention to detail, and in particular size, when it came to choosing which plants to grow on my mini-balcony this year. I blame the bees.

I discovered this lovely company www.realseeds.co.uk which sells heritage and heirloom vegetable seeds. Of course, I bought a selection, including bicolour sweetcorn, physalis, yellow podded mange-tout, cherry vine tomatoes and borage, forgetting for the time it took me to order that I do not possess acres of land around a country house, or even a substantial allotment, but rather a balcony that measures 1 metre by 2.5 metres. Ah well.

Still a week or so later, my package arrived and I commenced the process of planting seeds (lacking proper seed trays, I found plastic egg boxes make a good substitute) and soon our bedroom (the only sunny room in the apartment) was full of sprouting shoots and tiny leaves. The peas and the sweetcorn were the first to get going, unfurling and growing as fast as a  time-lapse video. The tomatoes followed suit, and the borage and finally, after a delay of two weeks, even the physalis started to show.

That was a couple of months ago. Since then, the sweetcorn has grown man-sized, although whether we will actually get any cobs remains to be seen. Still, its foliage is beautiful, waving in the Roman sun like translucent green ribbons trailed by a rhythmic gymnast. The mange-tout didn’t make it, victim of a minor heatwave when I was away for a few days. The tomatoes are just starting to fruit and the physalis are very slowly growing a new leaf every week or so. But the borage…

I had read about borage and it sounded interesting firstly because it is a salad flower, so I thought it might be entertaining to pretty up our side dishes with some edible blooms. Secondly, it is known for attracting bees – one of its common names is bee-bread –  and considering the current plight of our melliferous friends, I thought supplying them with dinner if they happened to be in the area would be the decent thing to do.

(In the UK, urban bee keeping is apparently a new trend, but a lack of proper bee-hive maintenance has been causing a few alarms in some town centres. Even I can see that trying to keep an entire hive on the balcony might be a little over the top, so I thought a few borage plants would be a reasonable substitute.)

While reading about borage I noted that you could do fun things like this with the flowers…

IMG_4012
Borage flower ice cubes: just add a splash of your favourite tipple
…as well as add them to salads. The flowers are so small and delicate I assumed the plant they grew on would also be of a reasonably diminutive scale. I happily planted out my many seedlings in and around my existing plants: under the bougainvillea, around the hibiscus, in between the rosemary and the marigolds. And they grew.

IMG_4003

Noticing the rapidly diminishing space in my pots, I tried a recipe for young borage leaves, which you can fry up in a pan with some oil and a little garlic. The taste is delicious, but even the young leaves have a hairy surface which doesn’t entirely disintegrate with cooking. Appealing as the flavour was, I couldn’t get rid of the sensation that I was eating fried fibre-glass. So I let the plants continue to grow.

IMG_3991

As the stalks grew taller and the leaves grew wider, and we started to lose the light in our once sunny bedroom, I thought I had better thin a few of the plants out, but not too many – I was doing this for the bees, remember. Still no flowers appeared.  The large, bristly leaves started to scratch at the windows at night in a most disconcerting way but I let them continue to grow. Remember the bees! Finally, as the vegetation began to reach prehistoric stature, and all available space in my vases and containers had been consumed, a spray of those tiny, fragile flowers uncurled and opened up at the top of each stem,  utterly out of proportion with the rest of the plant. And finally today, I saw bees.

IMG_3996

There can’t be many bees in my immediate neighbourhood of traffic-heavy roads and densely constructed, eight-storey apartment blocks, but there are some. And for the next few weeks at least, they are welcome to have their meals on my balcony.

IMG_3998

IMG_3990

IMG_3988

(In 2013, the EU voted to ban the use of bee-harming pesticides neonicotinoids. However, a submission has been made to the UK government asking to lift the ban this autumn. Campaign group 38 Degrees has called on the Secretary of State not to lift the ban. You can sign the petition at www.speakout.38degrees.org.uk)

IMG_4000

IMG_4004

Toads, and birds. Lots of birds.

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?...

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout, Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow...

Extract from Toads  by Philip Larkin

It finally feels as though spring is unfolding here in Rome. The sun is strong today as I plant out a few seedlings on the mini-balcony. Work and weather have conspired to keep me fairly house-bound of late, so touches of nature have been few and far between. I did enjoy finding a baby gecko inside the classroom clock yesterday as I went to wind it on in preparation for daylight saving, but I feel I have been out of touch with the pleasures of the natural world of late.

This time last year we were preparing to go on a trip to Bonaire. This small island, not far from the coast of Venezuela, is more arid than  its Caribbean cousins – although in its favour, it is a world class windsurfing spot.IMG_2351

We had one of the best days ever birding while we were there. Looking at these photos and reading the extracts from my journal has certainly helped to put that toad work back under its stone for today.

22nd April 2014:

“We hire an enormous pick-up truck for the day which is the only vehicle available. I’m glad I’m not the one having to steer this cruiser around the tricky island roads. IMG_2140First we head into the small town of Kralendijk to stock up on picnic supplies, and the bird spotting begins. An Orange Troupial perches in a cactus tree on the road out of the resort and in the supermarket car park a Bare-Eyed Pigeon peers down at us from a tree.

Orange Troupial (Icterus icterus ridgwayi)
Orange Troupial (Icterus icterus ridgwayi)

Bare-eyed Pigeon (Patagioenas corensis)
Bare-eyed Pigeon (Patagioenas corensis)
Then it is onwards to the Slagbaai National Park in the north of the island. The road snakes along the coast for about half an hour before turning into a single track next to the shore-line. Red triangular road signs, adapted for purpose, warn us of the existence of divers crossing the road – a common hazard here.IMG_2100

We enter the national park and it is soon apparent why all the rental cars are high clearance pick-ups: the roads are rocky and pot-holed and the going is slow. Along the west coast the landscape is harsh. To the left, a cliff rises up, ledged and carved out by the elements, indicating the previous level of the sea. IMG_2119The water is deep blue and whipped up into crashing waves. We stop the truck and a blow-hole forces the spray up high as we walk towards the edge.IMG_2129

Then, a great spot. A Caracara eating a lizard not too far down the road from where we are standing. As I approach with the camera, it flaps up onto the rock face above and regards me with suspicion. It is a young female, large and with light brown plumage.

Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) female
Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) female
We continue along the road and veer inland from the coast towards a fresh-water pond. Parking the truck, we walk down a path through a crackling, dry forest. Giant iguanas crawl away in front of us. IMG_2147All around are birds: warblers, flycatchers, bananaquits and doves.

Northern Scrub Flycatcher (Sublegatus arenarum)
Northern Scrub Flycatcher (Sublegatus arenarum)
IMG_2273

Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)

Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola bonairensis)
Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola bonairensis)
At the water-hole we sit on a fallen tree trunk and wait. We hear a rustling in the dry scrub and see a Caracara stalking down to the well to drink. It is a real Discovery Channel moment as he dips his head, throws it back and then eyes us up through the branches.

Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) male
Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) male
On the way back to the truck, I spot a humming bird, emerald and blue, tiny and impossible to photograph. An iridescent gem hovering in the branches overhead.

Blue-Tailed Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)
Blue-Tailed Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)
The road continues round the north of the island. We stop at a beach, descend steps to the wet sand below and don snorkel and masks. In the sea, fish appear immediately – large blue sad faces lazily swimming past

.IMG_2200

We dry off and drive to the last bay for lunch. It is a fantastic landscape: salt lake, a scree of ochre stone, thousands of cacti and the moody hills of the interior. IMG_2268In the shallows of the lake, flocks of flamingoes stalk and dance a ballet, then launch into the air with a racket of cackling calls.IMG_2239

Caribbean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
Caribbean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
We have our picnic accompanied by a pair of Mockingbirds staring at our food.

Tropicak Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus)
Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus)
The abandoned buildings on the beach are painted bright egg-yellow, complementing the blue of the sky.IMG_2230

IMG_2250Many photos of flamingoes later, we get back on the road.IMG_2243a Exiting the park, we drive through the one-horse (one-donkey) town of Rincan and back down to Kralendijk for a welcome cold beer on the pier outside Karel’s bar.IMG_1496

IMG_2282

A day immersed in the natural world that I will always remember.”

And a few other spots during the week:

Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata vinaceorufa)
Eared Dove (Zenaida auriculata vinaceorufa)

Brown-throated Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax xanthogenia)
Brown-throated Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax xanthogenia)

Yellow Oriole (Icterus nigrogularis curasoensis)
Yellow Oriole (Icterus nigrogularis curasoensis)

Scaly-naped Pigeon (Patagioenas squamosa)
Scaly-naped Pigeon (Patagioenas squamosa)

Ruby Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus)
Ruby Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Carib grackle (Quiscalus lugubris)
Carib Grackle (Quiscalus lugubris)

magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Dolomite Days

‘…come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.’

W.B. Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire

‘How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!’
John Muir

The morning sun greeting the peaks on a mass of dolomite rock is a fine sight on the first day of the new year.

IMG_2025
We take a path in frozen early shadow that climbs beside a descending stream cast into sculptures of ice as it pours over boulders that have journeyed from the same needles and chimneys that rise before us in the distance.

IMG_2036

Later, a sunnier route beside sparkling soft cushions of snow, the click click click of the poles on the icy path seeking out friction and a footing across the stilled stream that has been stopped in its track down the slope.

IMG_2037

These are savage mountain tops rendered sweet by a sifting of confectioner’s sugar; snow has fallen into crevice and gulley, resting on stone, bluff and precipice so that we say ‘Oh, how pretty’ and stop to take a photograph as, for a treacherous moment, we forget our sense of awe.

IMG_2014-0

The gloaming arrives early here. A blue light issues from the ground, creeping up the glowering rock to extinguish the rosy alpenglow still lighting the tips and jags until all is gloom and frozen shadow once more.

IMG_2034

IMG_2021

Colourful Characters

A stroll down the Appia Antica on a very warm (t-shirt weather) end-of-October day in search of some autumn colour. What I found wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but colourful none the less.

Monl Parakeet - Myiopsitta monachus
Monk Parakeet – Myiopsitta monachus

Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are a common sight in Rome’s parks. They are called an invasive species, but that’s a rather negative viewpoint to take, I think. They are very noisy, approachable, love hanging out in big groups, race at breakneck speed from place to place – in fact, very similar to many of my neighbours. They are a perfect Roman bird.

IMG_3560IMG_3561

Back in England for a few days and, despite the drizzle and gloom, the garden was turning into a mosaic of bonfire tones. The flame at the heart of it was the robin eyeing me from the fence. He’s very territorial, curious – although he keeps his distance, but you can rely on him to be around when you need some company doing the weeding. Certainly more the English country gent.

IMG_3553IMG_3554

Two Look at Two: a touch of Robert Frost in the Abruzzo National Park

“Two had seen two, whichever side you spoke from.
‘This must be all.’ It was all. Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour
Had made them certain earth returned their love.”

From Two Look at Two by Robert Frost.

Unusually, we are up and out before the crowds, and the day is just unfolding itself across the softly wooded hills in front of us as we set out along the track. We soon leave the sunlit open land behind, where a fox is running from scrub to boulder in the meadow, and enter a cool tunnel of branches accompanied by a rushing stream and the calls of a nuthatch. The oaks and copper beeches are just about to turn; green edges catching fire in yellow and orange. Then, in the shadows on the path ahead a shape appears, grey and silent. A doe has stepped out from the forest. She stops and stares and we return the gaze. Minutes go by and we remain fixed. Well, that must be all, but no – there is more. Another grey shape appears, stops behind her. Stares.

I have read this poem before.

deer_crop
Two look at two.

See the full poem at http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/two-look-at-two/

hill_edit
Morning along the Camosciara trail
IMG_3517
Into the woods
IMG_3522
The Scerto river flows next to the trail
IMG_3499
Fox following a scent in the meadow

To catch a kingfisher

To catch, as in to capture on film – of course. To put one of these   neon blue light-lasers in a cage would be like trying to own the beauty of a butterfly by pinning it to a board.

25 kilometres outside of Rome, by the coastal town of Ostia, lies a small nature reserve. Run by LIPU, the Italian equivalent of the RSPB, it contains a small lagoon and a few trails with three hides for observing the variety of aquatic birds and passeriformes that either nest in or visit the area.

IMG_3287
Lesser Egret (Egretta garzetta) meets Great Egret (Ardea alba) in the lagoon
As per usual, it’s a spur of the moment thing and we pick a day right in-between what are generally considered the right seasons to go birding here. The bee-eaters have already left and it’s still too early for the flocks of migrating birds resting on their way to Africa, or for those species that choose to overwinter in this temperate zone. Still, we pack the binoculars and the camera and head along the trail.

egret1
Great Egret prepares for take-off

wader
Lesser Yellowlegs – Tringa flavipes. A good spot among the cormorants and egrets.
We pick the hut nearest the water, creak open the wooden door and enter into the gloom. There are three other figures already inside, lined up along the observation hatch. Their photographic equipment is very impressive and for the first time I understand why Cannon cameras chose the brand name: they are weapons waiting to fire – enormous expanded cylinders poised at the ready. Quietly my husband unpacks our camera. Until now I’d thought we could acquit ourselves quite competitively in the lens department, but his just doesn’t compare, poor guy! We manage to refrain from laughing at the scenario (this is a serious pursuit), and get down to the business of trying to spot some birds.

Immediately there’s a flash of preternatural colour, electric turquoise and vivid orange, and a kingfisher lands on a branch right outside the hide. Shutter sounds fill the hut with whirrs and clicks. The kingfisher pipes his reedy song once, twice and darts away.

‘Did you get it?’ I mouth. He checks the screen and then looks at me guiltily.

‘I hadn’t set it up. The exposure’s all wrong,’ he whispers back.

Indeed, the screen shows mostly black with the hint of a bird-like shape in the centre.

I say nothing.

After that, we try and try but it’s impossible to catch them in the viewfinder, to anticipate their flight patterns or keep up with their speed. I can almost hear the camera’s auto-focus laughing at me for being fool enough to even consider it feasible.

In the end we just take to watching these fantastic creatures through the binoculars. They flash and dash, skimming the water, or diving from branches to grab a silvery fish with needlepoint accuracy, tiny jewelled jet crafts captivating us with their capacity for aerial manoeuvres and precision plunges. We capture their activity only in our mind’s eye. But that’s enough, and as I drift into sleep later that night, they continue to dance into my dreams.

IMG_3269_A
Well, we did manage to get something, with much adjusting of the light levels afterwards. Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis – on a branch in the LIPU lagoon, Ostia

kingfisher2
And with a lot of cropping

Who knew crickets liked Shakespeare?

Back at work and adjusting to city life after five weeks of being outdoors and at one with the elements in Greece. The balcony, despite the best intentions of a neighbour, had shrivelled to a brown tangle of dried-out twigs. I thought it was done for. Yet, with a generous daily dousing of water, the lantana is back in flower, the hibiscus unfurling new blossoms and the clematis clearly thinks it is spring all over again. The gecko looks happier now he has some foliage to hide in once more. The only plant that has continued its advances unaffected by any changes in temperature or atmospheric conditions it seems, is the chili-monster. What am I going to do with yet another kilo of chilli peppers?

IMG_3335IMG_3333

At school the students all returned (eventually) tanned and, for the most part, smiling and happy. The weather remains hot and very humid and this has contributed to a marked increase in the population of another inhabitant of the school – the common black cricket. Last Monday I began the day by chasing out sixteen of these beauties from my classroom.

Common black cricket or field cricket
Common black cricket Gryllus assimilis

Followed by another ten or so an hour later. While I believe that learning should be for everyone, these chaps are quite disruptive, breaking out into ear-splitting song at any inopportune moment during my lesson. Threats of staying in at break or visits to the principal have no effect on them. Plus, my students (who all seem to live in hermetically sealed apartments far away from any contact with earth, plants or wildlife) only have to see one of these Gryllus assimilis scuttling away behind the skirting board to set up such a cacophony of shrieks and screams you’d think I’d introduced a slavering grizzly bear into the room. So I adopt my most sensible, Victorian governess tone of voice while explaining that these creatures are completely harmless and they perform a useful job of eating other annoying flies and insects.

I’m sure, when the weather cools, they will disappear. And at least I had some sort of response – albeit high-pitched and musical – when I asked the class, ‘Which Shakespearean character could hear “the owl scream and the crickets cry?”‘

(Gryllus replied correctly by the way – turns out he’s a good student after all. So, what was his answer?)