Not Game of Thrones, but Val di Tires in the Dolomites, under the soaring peaks of the Catinaccio.
These ‘Pale Mountains’ have stood, permanent and resolute, since the Triassic era, forever fixed and yet constantly changing. At eight in the morning, as we struggle with our frozen snowshoes in the fresh snow and biting air, the land and sky radiate an underwater blue.
Later daylight blanches the rock, its ashen face frowning down into the valley.
However, it is late afternoon when the real show begins. As the sun descends, a stripe of brightness appears across the monochrome tips, soon gaining warmth and colour.
Stone turns butter and rose, then shocks with a blast of mandarin, acid against the somber sky.
Then, as quickly as it arrived, it is gone. That Pacific blue floods the scene once more. The cold rises, and darkness shrouds the monster from view.
“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.
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.
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.
“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 citiesof 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While reading about borage I noted that you could do fun things like this with the flowers…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.