Saturday, September 24, 2016


A while ago, I had the chance to visit the Stork Conservation Centre of NaturOparc at Hunawihr, in the Alsace region. Prior to this trip, I had already come across these incredible birds in various locations, but as their typical roosting spots are generally well above eye-level, I had never been able to get up-close-and-personal, so to speak.

At the centre, adults, fledgings and young chicks are visible, as are a range of other natural inhabitants of water courses and marsh land - otters, coypus and the endangered golden hamster of Alsace, no less. The centre actively works on programmes of reproduction and reintroduction of the various species, and in so doing educates and entertains the general public.

My first sighting of wild storks was around an old palace in Marrakech, Morocco. This was a wonderful image – the terracotta-red of the ancient buildings, streaked white from droppings from the vast stick-and-frond nests perched precariously along walls and rooftops. And then, of course, the storks themselves, like creatures from another age, their huge wing span, the gangly yet strangely elegant legs and that curious clacking noise as they clatter their impressive bills as a means of communication.

Then, closer to home, I saw the storks that inhabit the north-east area of France. Although I had been aware that storks took up residence in the towns and villages, I hadn’t realized to what extent. I was so excited to notice the first specimen, looking down from one the chocolate-box-pretty buildings that are so typical of Alsace, that I didn’t notice that there were many others, peering down or just indifferent to us humans far below. It really was a Hitchcock kind of moment -  we were encircled by large birds from way above! 

When I last returned to this part of France, I was rather more prepared for the sight, yet not to the point of becoming blasé. The sheer size of these birds strikes you during their bold flight, legs and neck outstretched, or as they preen and pose, perched on their dramatic nests, silhouetted against the sky line. These storks are as much part of the fabric of landscape in Alsace, as they are key to the folklore of the region. It is said that the Alsatians revere the cigogne as much as the Egyptians did the ibis, however this has not necessarily always been the case over the last decades; hence the need for conservation centres to build up declining stork populations. 

Indeed, changing agricultural practices, the wide-spread use of herbicides and pesticides,electrocution from criss-crossing powerlines and the canalisation of the Rhine has meant that storks numbers diminished considerably from the Second World War. Efficient land management and industrialisation resulted in the loss of traditional habitats as marshy terrain was drained, grassy meadows converted to new crop use, or was overrun by taller vegetation incompatible with stork foraging patterns. Pollution rendered land toxic to these birds and also harboured other hazards. The final outcome served as a wake-up call, not just to the people of Alsace, but also to those of the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and Sweden who were at risk of losing their emblematic bird. 

Acting as symbol of fidelity, fertility and good fortune, this migratory creature is integral to cultural heritage around Europe and Africa. Commonly associated with life, rebirth and regeneration, the popular image of the stork is that of Nature's purveyor of bundled offspring. Birthmarks on the head of a newborn were referred to as the stork ‘bites’, the sign of a novice carrier bird!

Committed to the family, it was said that no self-respecting stork would nest on a house marked by marital breakdown. In the north-east of France, the image of the stork was tied to the very land itself, following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans, after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871.

Known by its Latin form in the majority of the Romance languages (eg cigogne in French), the English word 'stork' finds its origins in old German. Although renowned as a creature of habit and instinct, the stork has proved itself able to adapt to circumstances, reinventing itself with surprisingly modern means. For centuries, it has always lived in relatively close proximity to Man, largely protected from the latter’s hunting instinct by its reputation as a beast of good omen. 

Spired churches and chimneys have always been nesting grounds of predilection for storks, often improved by special structures, such as old cartwheels, to help the building withstand the added load of such weighty nests and to help the bird gain stability. Despite this benevolent human intervention, the stork has chosen to lead its own independent, slightly aloof existence in these shared spaces. 

However, over the last decades, the stork, rather like the cool, crafty urban fox, has become more dependant on Man’s activities for its own mode of existence, thus changing ingrained patterns of behaviour that had, until quite recently, formed the basis of its life. 

With its powerful wings, tipped with black-fingered feathers, its distinctive flapping and soaring movement when in flight, the stork is perfectly equipped to carry out the migratory marathon from Europe to Africa, for which it is renowned. Leaving the northern territories as the temperatures drop, the stork sets off on a southward journey to wintering locations in the warmer climates, following inherited routes, migration corridors and stopover sites. It uses air thermals to soar and glide, thus economizing wing movement and hence body fat reserves for energy. In fact, the stork avoids crossing over the Mediterranean itself, since the required currents do not form over water... Since the 1980s, however, this migratory movement has been modified, and the stork now appears able to avoid such forms of long-haul travel.

During the programmes to breed storks in captivity in order to boost populations, migratation was suppressed. However, the gradual alteration or complete suppression of migratory movement witnessed over recent years has more diverse causes. The loss or impoverishment of traditional habitat and food sources due to agriculture and/or urbanisation has led the stork to seek other areas in which to forage.

By nature a carnivorous bird, the stork consumes a range of small creatures living around wet areas ;  fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and mammals. Whilst areas offering such prey are diminishing, vast expanding landfill sites are proposing a wider menu to our feathered friends. Indeed, the stork appears to have a developed a taste for junk food that stems from our own and mirrors our appetite in an uncanny manner.

Just as many sun-deprived Brits opt for the sunny climes of Spain and Portugal to overwinter, growing numbers of storks are following suit, and are therefore ditching Africa in favour of closer destinations. These indeed offer a reliable fast-food supply and could even become permanent places of residence to the savvier stork. It should be supposed that there will be a price to pay for this low-cost lifestyle choice ; health issues will surely arise, perhaps even an avian form of obesity. Whilst mortality rates from the arduous trek to the African continent will be less dramatic, over-population and the trickle-down impact on many levels of the eco-system is likely to bring other consequences. The imminent closure of landfills, as requested by EU directives, will suddenly mean that binge-eating storks will be left with nowhere to go. In addition, they will have limited means to fly off to new horizons as their flight ability may well have been weakened by their unhealthy living model. As a gregarious creature, living in colonies, large numbers of storks will have to be relocated, away from these garbage communities.

When seeing the cigognes of Hunawihr, I was blissfully unaware of this particular set of man-made problems that has stuck itself onto this animal species. You can only be thankful that such conservation programmes exist today. So, the visitor gets to see the birds going about their business, as they always have, yet from a better vantage point. In this way, you can observe the adults feeding their young by the typical regurgitation process (think ‘fishy Exorcist’), roosting birds preening themselves and grooming fellow nest-dwellers (‘allopreening’), birds communicating by bill clattering and head nodding. 

The family unit is fairly close. The breeding adults are monagamous, but do not not necessarily stay paired for life; whilst together they share the parenting tasks. Both adults make the nest, incubate the typical clutch of four eggs for around a month, feed the young hatchings until they reach fledging stage and leave the nest, approximately two months after emerging from their eggs. The male will return to the same nest for several years, rather like that other great migrant bird, the swallow. Here at the centre, visitors have the privilege of seeing the young birds, and noting their progress in terms of size and plumage development. Adult birds have the white body and ruff feathers, black wing coverts and those striking red legs and bills, whose colour largely derives from their diet, like the flamingo.

And the very young birds are truly very cute – all fluffy, with those unbelievably big feet!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Feeling Grounded...Not....

We're half-way through the month, and there's no way I'll get to write my self-set monthly target amount of blogs at this rate. This acts as a weird, virtual Plimsoll Line; if I haven't done three per month, I'm going under a sea of work or floating off in a current of other concerns. Right now, I'm just about treading water. Trying to learn to drive a car seems to surface as a prime source of stress, time consumption and let's not go into the finances. I was wondering if English instructors were similar in approach to their French counterparts. Simply tapping the beginning of my question into Google, the good old search engine offered suggestions to end it " mean ". So that kind of answered the question before I'd even formulated it! Oh well. Trying not to be deterred, not to mention totally discouraged, I have been watching some of the many L-plate videos uploaded on YouTube and these have been very helpful, and above all, positive. Pity I can't get a few auto-moniteurs to look and learn....

Convinced that I had caught a glimpse of a hop plant between campuses the other day, I trudged off to find it - scanning the tramline hedges - but under the blazing, burning sun, I just couldn't find it. However, I did see the above wood pigeon feather caught in the dried tentacles of this plant - ensnared as if in the grips of some weird spider crab. Well, I suppose it was grounded, which is more than can be said for me at the moment! Twelve more hours before the next driving lesson....

Nevertheless, there was a very bright moment to this past week - that truly amazing harvest moon on Saturday night. Breathtaking...

No, this wasn't it...

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Way to the Woods and Other Horizons...

Over the past months, my chief motivation to plough through all the dull rules and regulations concerning the Code de la Route (Highway Code) has been the thought of all the places I would like to visit, but can't at the present time.

I am absolutely not interested in having a car for day-to-day, bread-and-butter trips, to-and-fro work and/or shops. Public transport suits me fine.

However, it would be great to trek off and take the high road once in a while, or just get within stomping distance of all those paths that are just inaccessible right now.

Someone asked me recently where I would spend time for an ideal holiday. I felt a bit embarrassed to say that I would just love to visit certain parts of England.

I can understand that we set our sights on far-flung destinations, but why is it that in so doing we seem to overlook what's on our own doorstep? Or what was once on the doorstep, in my case.

All those places that are simply not fully registered until distance in time and space brings about the realisation that things of beauty and wonder can be found far closer to home!

For all the years spent in Cornwall, I hardly know anything other than the set-in-stone choices for the compulsory family walks and later on, sites that could be reached on bike.

So these regrets are my spur and my ever-growing list of places-to-see is my enticement to obtain that elusive driving licence. The Undercliff area of Dorset, the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors, the Fens, any wilderness in Wales, Devon and Cornwall... It goes on and on and I haven't even started on France!

The photos here are of woodland in the mountainous Vosges region of Eastern France, bordering the Black Forest of Germany.

These woods are beautifully mossy, murky and mysterious and you encounter them as you follow the meandering paths along the crêtes.

These lead you along such a varied landscape.

Rocky outcrops mark the way, tracing across plains of  rich pasture, speckled with wild alpine flowers and grazed by cows, overlooking the distant, shady outlines of the mountain massif and the silhouettes of fir trees.

The weather seems to be just as varied; bright sunshine, cloudy overcast horizons and a considerable amount of snow in winter, of course. It was all beautiful, needless to say, and the towns are just ridiculously idyllic. But more about that in another post...

Other mysterious, magical woodlands and strange geological formations that I am intent on visiting are ones that I actually learnt of via the radio. The description of this incredible part of the Forest of Dean (back to England again!) was so vivid that I just had to google 'The Scowles' to see what it looked like. That this amazing landscape of gnarled yew trees, overgrown craters and caverns (Scowles) with stalactitic haematites, should have inspired Tolkien's Middle-earth forests in The Lord of the Rings did not surprise me in the least. It has likewise since attracted the producers of TV series and big-screen fims - Dr Who and Star Wars, no less! In fact, the whole area has been of interest since the late Stone Age, offering iron ore, ochre, charcoal and deposits of coal. And all that beauty that I hope to be able to capture on camera one of these days.

So, having finally taken and passed the theoretical part of the driving test, I now have to tackle the practical aspect. Hmm! Then I hit the road...

Friday, August 26, 2016

Grey Skies before the Sunshine...

Early morning fishing

Just back from Cornwall, where the weather was very variable, as is generally the case in coastal areas. I vowed to go out for mornings walks, whatever the conditions, from Penzance. This resolution proved a little difficult to carry out fully, as those conditions were quite challenging!

Mount's Bay
Reaching Mousehole was fairly easy, along those familar routes, with St Michael's Mount on the horizon, either streaked with sheets of rain, or highlighted by beams of light or else shrouded in or obscured by mist,

Newlyn harbour
I love passing the fleets of fishing boats at Newlyn, which look majestic in any conditions, and in fact look even more striking with a backcloth of extreme weather.

Cormorant at Newlyn
It took three attempts to finally get to Marazion! Determined drizzle and gusts of wiind somehow seem to be just as efficient at drenching you as heavy rain...

On the path from Penzance
One of the best aspects of the walk is the exchange of greetings (Mornin') with the people you encounter all along, not to mention the pleasure of seeing dogs running freely and rabbits darting off across the marshlands on the outskirts of Marazion.

And of course, the pleasure of walking on the pebbles, with their particular flinty crunch and slide, eyes ever on the look-out for the special one to retrieve and gloat over...

Seaholly en route to Longrock
And beyond the blocks of granite, The Mount. I really did want to capture it in the mist and rain, but the camera couldn't rise to the climatic challenge and nor could I.

The Mount
On leaving Cornwall, the temperature crept up and the heat on the London pavements made Penzance seem distant in every sense. Since then, back in France, 34° has become a constant, completing the cultural shock of returning to city life in another country. However, even as I write, I have this year's special pebble with me, its smooth shape fitting perfectly into the palm, speckled like some kind of granite seagull's egg. In this crazy, concrete sprawl of searing heat and soaring temperatures, this sleek piece of Cornwall is keeping me grounded. Its strange streak of black running throughout the stone underlines all its history and is a perfect foil to all the mad modernity of urban life, zooming past outside.

The 'one'.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Town Hall at Saint Quentin - Hôtel de Ville Saint Quentin

I recently heard of the beautiful Art Déco buildings in the town of Saint Quentin in the region Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy, so was curious to see these.

 As it turned out, on the grey, overcast day that I visited, I didn't come across anything remarkable.

However, that may be because there are a number of very striking buildings and façades here in Reims so that has made me more difficult to impress.

Also, I might not have found the area where the best Art Déco examples actually were.

The weather did nothing to encourage any kind of wandering; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the trip was certainly not wasted as I did see the magnificent Hôtel de Ville.

This town hall dates back to the 16th century, although prior to that, the site was occupied by another building of civic function, as aldermen gathered to discuss various affairs.

The current edifice was completed in 1509, and its flamboyant Gothic style dominates the work, whilst reflecting the transition towards the Renaissance.

 The whole is quite harmonious, with the façade divided by six octagonal pillars on the ground floor, creating seven arcades of unequal width. Above this, there is the 'noble' floor, with its nine window openings and finally the three gables that look over the town square.

While the overall effect is sober and elegant, on drawing nearer to the façade the visitor is amazed by the wealth of detail, and its very nature.

Perhaps the most surprising of all, is the mere fact that the hôtel has managed to survive the turbulent 500 years of its existence.

The bell tower that we see above the central gable today, is but one of a succession since the mid-17th century. It houses an impressive thirty-seven bells which mark a triumph over the destructive years of the First World War when the citizens left the occupied town and the bells fell silent.

Incredibly, most of the façade today is much as it was in its heyday - quite some feat. The fate of Saint Quentin during the Great War years was like that of other towns.

Many of the buildings surrounding the hôtel were flattened, hence the emergence of the Art Déco architecture to mark the rebirth of the city. The townhall itself suffered minimal damage.

This was not the first time that the saint-quentinais had undergone great hardship. The symbolic imagery of the dog and the monkey that decorates the hôtel testifies to the fidelity, tenacity and ingenuity of the town inhabitants.

In 1557, the advancing troups of the Spanish king, Philip II, fought to overpower Saint Quentin in their march towards Paris to triumph over Henry II. The people of Saint Quentin resisted valiantly and the ensuing siege meant that the Spanish lost valuable momentum in the battle strategy.

Saint Quentin made huge sacrifices, but in so doing, it saved France from greater losses still. Inside the arcade of the hôtel de ville, a marble plaque bearing a Latin inscription immortalizes the bravery of Saint Quentin.

The devastation at Saint Quentin left its mark on Philip II himself and he decided to construct an expiatory monument; the Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial,near Madrid...

I just loved looking at all the details of the façade - to the point that I literally had pains in my neck from all the contortions.

Since the sculpture is not specifically religious, the works have not suffered the same fate as the many that had adorned places of worship, with decapitated and truncated bodies that mark the Revolutionary years from 1789 onwards.

Here, the bawdy tone of some of the sculpted works seems to celebrate the foibles of Man and Beast and bears a general fascination for life, that even encompasses its lewdness and lasciviousness.

Musicians lean over to welcome you along the arcades, whilst more sober characters carry out their serious civic functions and administrative tasks to maintain order amongst the somewhat mischievious town-dwellers.

Various creatures inhabit the creeping, crawling foliage around the façade and either look down at you in mocking defiance or seem to ignore you and any restrictions you might wish to lay down.

The vitality of the façade just seems to bridge the centuries that separate us today and all those who must have acted as models for the sculptors, acting out all those weakenesses that make us so human...