Merry Christmas to one and all.
As our train emerged from the Channel Tunnel yesterday, the first words I ever uttered on French soil were: "Can you smell garlic?"
Don't ask about the loos on the overnight train from France to Italy, though. The dirty, dirty bastards. I've finally worked out why the French are such a miserable lot: permanent constipation.
Anyhow, hello from Florence, Italy, where I have just eaten a pistachio ice-cream, and watched egrets and kingfishers next to the River Arno.
Where does a chap get a decent cup of tea round here? (We brought our own, you know.)
Guess what I saw at the Albert Dock in Liverpool yesterday. Go on, have a guess…
Nope, you're wrong: it was a bloody kingfisher. In Liverpool. Alongside the River Mersey.
I am so not making this up.
Makes you proud to be British.
Postscript: From an online chat with Carolyn later in the evening:
Richard: Can I ask you a (slightly personal) question?
(It's not all that personal, in case you're worried.)
Carolyn: Ok but I have to go very soon.
In your experience, is the headline on this news story true?
They're mallards mostly, from what I can tell at the sort of distances I'm talking about. Actually, I haven't mentioned distances yet, but I'm just about to: 50 to 100 yards, approximately. They tend to be flying very fast, very low and very determinedly in a straight line, quite often in an easterly direction. I suppose they could be the same ducks going round and round, but this seems unlikely, bearing in mind how very determinedly they are flying in a straight line. Not to say impossible.
Ducks are surprisingly fast fliers. In fact, I'm pretty sure my edition of The Guinness Book of Records from some time in the 1970s said that the fastest horizontal bird flight ever measured was that of a mallard. I forget the speed. Peregrine falcons can reach faster speeds, of course, but only in a vertical stoop.
A surprising thing I've noticed about ducks' flight while I've been observing the noticeably more of them than is usual for the time of year recently is how short their wing-beats are. They're very short indeed, bearing in mind the horizontal speeds they achieve. Ducks take tiny wing-beats, but travel at great speed.
There's a lesson for us all there, I think.
Philip seems to think he owns our garden, and gets decidedly pissed off if other birds start eating the bread that we have quite clearly left out just for him. When we neglect to leave out any bread for him, Philip comes to the window and stares in at us in an intimidating manner. If we ignore him, he starts pecking at the glass. Philip has got a bit of an attitude. I like that in a pheasant.
You might wonder why I put up with such nonsense from a wild bird. To be honest, similar thoughts have crossed my own mind. Then, yesterday afternoon, I saw something which made me realise that pampering Philip had not gone unrewarded. It was a sight that cheered me up for the rest of the day: one of the neighbourhood cats running terrified from our garden, with a very pissed off pheasant in hot pursuit!
See also: Pheasant surprise
I went for a walk on the moors on Saturday (photos here). It was extremely wet.
On my way down, I spotted between 40 and 50 fieldfares gathered in the gloaming on some powerlines. A couple of other walkers spotted me looking at the birds and came over to ask me what they were. I explained that they were fieldfares. They asked me what I knew about them.
As luck would have it, I had listened to a podcast about fieldfares earlier that week, so I knew quite a bit about them. So I told the walkers about how fieldfares come over from Scandinavia in the winter, how they have a distinctive call (which a few of the birds immediately obliged me by demonstrating), how they hang around with redwings, how they have a distinctive grey hood, blah, blah, blah… My new friends seemed very impressed with my vast knowledge of all things fieldfare.
"So why are they called fieldfares?" asked the woman (who I couldn't help noticing was rather cute). It was a fair enough question. Unfortunately, I hadn't a clue what the answer was. But I was on a roll, so I made one up:
"Ah!" I ahed. "It's because they are 'fare' (food) which is found in fields. Our ancestors used to eat them. Quite tasty, by all accounts. They're a type of thrush, just like blackbirds… 'Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie' and all that!"
OK, so I bullshat for Britain. But I had a new-found reputation to live up to.