A very quiet summer in Entre-deux-Eaux, August 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no3.pdf (four A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text;
some will lead to larger selections of photographs
including this link to
Our unexpected kestrel visitors

Like many of our retired friends, we decided to lie low in August while many families and younger people celebrated the long-awaited easing of restrictions by throwing away their masks and crowding to beauty spots, music festivals, protests and beaches. We were encouraged when the UK dropped the compulsory quarantine regulation for visitors from France in early August, but decided to wait and see if things had changed by September when pensioners like us traditionally tend to travel. Towards the end of August, with UK friends being offered postponed cruises (usually to somewhere other than the original destination), we decided that even if we would not cruise, we would at least cross the channel and spend plenty of time seeing family and friends at long last and also sort out the neglected Letchworth house.

You will have gathered that in the meantime we have had a lot of enjoyment from watching the kestrels from eggs through hatching into fluffy chicks, fighting over food, gaining feathers, flexing their wings, and finally flying. It was hard not to endow them with human emotions and characteristics.

ten days before leaving

John fretted when he felt the parents were neglecting to return sufficiently often with food and Helen worried that her pre-breakfast gardening in the potager below their nest was disrupting their routines. It was possible to imagine the parents worrying that the grey and black (gardening clothes colours) creature might spot them returning to the nest, unaware that the grey and black thing already knew where their nest was.

juvenile kestrels two days before leaving

One of the chicks seemed to grab most of the food when a parent delivered it and also to bully the other two – a bossy big brother? On August 12 the last one flew off. We had expected them to return to their ledge after their first flights, but they seemed to find more spacious perches in the trees.

Juvenile kestrels

One day, when we drove to Saint Dié after the surrounding fields had been cut and baled, we were surprised to see kestrels, buzzards and other raptors sitting on about one in ten of the bales between Entre-deux-Eaux and the crossroads. But a few days later there were none to be seen. They had probably caught every mouse and vole (and quite a few larger grasshoppers) that had rashly put in an appearance! We still see the kestrels flying from some of the local trees.

It was just as well that we had a distraction from kestrel-abandonment-syndrome the day after they had all flown off. We had booked lunch again at the Imprimerie. None of the other restaurants that we like seem to have changed their menu since we last went. As we drove into the book village, various stalls were setting up along the sides of the street. It was a weekend book fair which was due to start at 14.00, so we thought we’d look round after lunch, despite the hot temperatures. The laid-back waiter always has some minor grumble when we chat (on our previous visit he’d had three – firstly he had just had his first compulsory-for-restaurant-staff vaccination, secondly he was extra busy as the waitress was off following a car accident, and thirdly they would have to check each client’s pass sanitaire from the start of August to see that they had been doubly vaccinated, and he did not appreciate having to act as police when busy with their own jobs). However, by our August visit, the waitress was back, and she checked our pass sanitaire without any hassle and the waiter was enjoying talking to a lot of first-time customers and explaining how the eight-course surprise menu of small dishes works alongside a menu-of-the-day.

second vegetable course: smoked slice of beef tomato with goats’ cheese ice cream

We were ushered to our usual table, and a succession of delicious dishes began to appear. Chef Morgan Fady always produces new dishes including, this time, a delicious amuse bouche of beetroot macaroons filled with foie gras and blackcurrant conserve. There was a refreshing salad of green and yellow dwarf beans with apricots, and some absolutely delicious beef with a parsley béarnaise sauce. The fish, like the beef was cooked over the wood fire, which added a special flavour. We added a new word, baudroie, to our vocabulary, which a rather overweight young man sitting with his parents at the table opposite ours instantly translated as monkfish; his fluency was a surprise in the small village – as we chatted he used other non-standard-textbook words like “bragging” – but he turned out to be a visiting Parisian. We were even brought unsolicited coffee at the end, just as we like it – the waiter must have been mortified that last time that they had no milk in the fridge.

As we expected, it was hot looking round the bookstalls after lunch, but more bookshops than usual were open, and being in the old stone-walled houses and barns, their interiors were lovely and cool. But, despite looking at a book of La Fontaine fables illustrated by Chagall and one on Gothic architecture in the Vosges, no books came home with us.

Helen had been reading a couple of books which brought back pleasant memories. One, Le Grand Meaulnes came from a small flea market. We’d come across the grave of its author Alain-Fournier quite by chance on the day we’d driven with friends to a hillside spot, in fact an American First World War memorial, which was a good place to experience the total eclipse of the sun; it felt weird, as the cows all lay down, the birds became silent and the skies darkened; afterwards, en route to Verdun we saw a sign pointing into the woods which mentioned Alain-Fournier, whose death or disappearance as a soldier in the First World War had remained a mystery until 1991 when an archaeological excavation uncovered a communal grave in which Alain-Fournier and eighteen of his men had been buried in September 1914. The quiet glade was a more poignant testimony to the Great War than the huge scale of Verdun. The other August read was a different angle on the Second World War, through the Ajax football team in Amsterdam under German occupation, the fate of its many Jewish supporters and the complicity of the Dutch. But that book also brought back happier memories of one of our last pre-Covid trips, which was to Amsterdam in May 2019, for the Rembrandt and Hockney/Van Gogh exhibitions (and a dramatic Ajax v Spurs match on TV).

We also returned to Senones last week, to lunch at the Bon Gîte. The restaurant and small hotel had changed hands around July 2019, with the great grand-daughter of the original founder taking over with her partner as chef. The food was traditional and rather uninteresting to our taste. Senones was once the capital of the old principality of Salm, and had an abbey with a famous library and the castle/palace of the Counts of Salm, both of which were sold to textile industries after the Revolution. Being close to the German border in Alsace, Senones was severely affected in both world wars by bombardments and mass deportations. When we first went there, a certain charm lingered round the old centre; but this time, as we strolled round after lunch, we were saddened by how depressed and derelict it was looking. On our way, we had admired the restoration of the abbey and grounds in the nearby small town of Moyenmoutier, which since the demolition of its ugly factory buildings was now revealed in its full extent and magnificence. So it was sad to still see in Senones the collapsed roof, scaffolding, boarded-up window openings and barred gateway of the west block of the old chateau, and the drab factory garment shop in part of the abbey. With most of the shops closed (possibly because of holidays), the old town looked as if it was decaying away.

The kestrel parents may have feared being harmed by the resident humans, but it was in fact one of the humans who got injured. A few days after they flew off, John went into the attic to adjust the camera that had been knocked as they flapped their wings. You may remember that he had had to block the window opening with something more substantial that the polystyrene that the birds had been pecking away. The something substantial was the heavy back of an old bookcase, and he dropped it on his foot. A lot of blood, dirt and antiseptic later, his foot swelled and darkened, and shoes were impossible with the large cut and bruising. To add insult to injury, he must later have twisted round as he applied Arnica gel to the bruising, and his back went.

On the medical front, we realised that summer was a good time to have a doctor’s appointment. Since the disastrous heatwave and deaths of 2003, adequate medical services have to be provided throughout summer. But in summer 2021 a lot of customers had rushed off elsewhere, and our doctor’s waiting room was empty when John had an appointment in late July, so he did not have the usual long wait. And when Helen had a routine appointment in the middle of August it was with a young locum who called her in on the dot of the appointed time and ushered her out after the allotted twenty minutes consultation. It was interesting that, when she nosily asked if he preferred working in small villages or larger towns, he immediately replied that he liked small villages as people only came when they really needed a doctor, rather than for trivial complaints. And they listened carefully and followed advice. He was off to Corcieux next. What does that say about townies?

Medical services seem to be responding more slowly in the UK. Leila’s doctor has signed her off work again as her long Covid has meant that she was too exhausted and brain-fogged when returning to work full-time. After waiting a month for a phone assessment with the long Covid clinic, she was referred to SALT (Speech and language therapy for brain fog & loosing words), pulmonary rehab, rehab/falls (presumably for exercises) and something that sounded like fatigue mosaic. She has also seen a cardiologist for an ECG, with an echocardiogram to follow. Meanwhile she has sensibly been swimming and walking. But not an easy time.

Toby and family meanwhile were able to postpone their holiday in the south of France after the UK imposed amber plus quarantine restrictions, and booked a week in some very pleasant looking Airbnb accommodation on the outskirts of Pitlochry. Jacob gave us a video phone tour of the house, and Toby sent photos of canoeing and hill hiking. Unfortunately Toby had an unpleasant return to Letchworth, as he had to go up to our house where the power had been off for over a week and the fridge-freezer contents smelt awful – the main offender being some defrosted chicken. He turned on the trip switch and most things came on again. But he still had to return a few days later to dispose of the now-refrozen food on the evening before bin collection.

And now, with the amber-plus status of France reduced to amber, we can look forward to seeing all of the family again after such a long time, not to mention sorting out the house and garden. We have booked our crossing and Covid tests for next week.

Enjoyable as it will be to see all our friends, it will probably be worth giving us a week or so to impose some order on the long-neglected house!

Fireworks, floods and feathers: life in Entre-deux-Eaux, April – mid-July 2021

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)

There are links to photographs in the text and
some will lead to larger selections of photographs.
There are also these links to other recent photographs
Flora and fauna around the farmhouse May-June 2021
and
Frosty fritillaries

When we opened our front door at 10.10 pm on July 13 (and for those of you unfamiliar with it, our front door is not a grand plastic-panelled affair, but an old barn door of bare planks with gaps, tarted up with a knocker and lock), we could hear the thumping music from the village. We put on warm clothes and stout shoes and headed down the darkening road, through puddles where the stream and drains had overflowed. The 4 metre-wide lane looping up to the Duhaut and Vozelle farmhouses had been turned into a two-way Entre-deux-Eaux by-pass, with official yellow deviation signs, and to emphasize the yellow warnings of a road block 500 metres ahead, vehicles were parked across the road, barricading the village centre. “Not too good for emergency vehicle access”, John remarked.

It was the eve of Bastille Day, and the car park and road round the village shop-cum-bar had been taken over by crowded benches and trestles for feasting and games. By this time, the bouncy castle had been deflated to a flat skin across the road ready to be folded away, and people were shuffling towards the edge of the field. It seemed miraculous that the heavy rain had paused at just the right time for a village celebration culminating in fireworks. John set up his tripod by the field, and we watched shadows moving behind their torches, doing last minute checks on the fireworks.

an E2E firework

And then there was a five minute riot of colour and falling stars as multiple rockets were launched and burst and then abruptly ceased. The figures behind the torches moved up to inspect the launch site close-up and check that all the fireworks were spent, as we muttered, “we might need those emergency vehicles”. Many of us started to drift towards our homes or parked cars, exchanging greetings and answering queries about still being here despite or because of Brexit and Covid. However the music, so presumably celebrations, continued well after midnight, when we turned off our bedside lights.

This was the first village knees-up for a long time. Last year’s fireworks had been cancelled, the oldies had not met for cake-and-champagne for many months, there had been no New Year champagne and nibbles or communal oldies lunch. So despite the damp, cool evening, everyone was making the most of it. With school term ended, the children could stay up late and the summer holidays had a cracking start. The following evening we watched some of neighbouring St Leonard’s fireworks. But by then the rain had returned, so we were glad to be warm and dry indoors, watching at a distance through windows. And what colourful puffballs lit up the sky and cascaded stars.

Like Boris, Macron had been anxious to relax restrictions in time for the electorate to rush lemming-like towards the south and fondly remembered holiday sunshine. However, on the day that the ever-optimistic Boris was expected to announce, despite others’ caution over increasing cases, that masks would not be compulsory, the more prudent Macron was forced by a similar increase and the low uptake of vaccines (including, worryingly, among health care professionals) to announce that vaccination would be compulsory from September for nursing and non-nursing staff, carers and aids, that certificates proving vaccination would be compulsory in bars, restaurants and on trains from August, and that free PCR tests (which the French were tending to use instead of vaccination) would no longer be free in autumn. The next day there was a mad rush to book vaccination appointments for everyone over 12, though 12-17 year olds have since been exempted from the vaccination pass entrance requirements as it became obvious it would cause problems for parents. Meanwhile we have been waiting for Boris to relax the quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Brits abroad returning to the UK. But the British government has just announced that, although France will remain on the orange list, quarantine and testing will still apply to the fully vaccinated, due to concerns over the low AstraZeneca vaccine efficacy against the beta/South African variant.

The Sainte Marguerite pensioners were feeling more optimistic, and e-mailed start dates for their activities, – not until September because of the sacred two-month holiday period (when they might need to look after grand children). The physical exercise group will all have to arrive fully kitted out (so no changing-room gossip) and with their own mats and to disperse immediately afterwards without lingering indoor chats, and the mental exercise group met to plan their autumn campaign. Helen went along to the planning meeting of the latter, where the first mental exercise was to work out how to get into the meeting room. A passing community policeman solved the problem by blowing on the swipe card, and then it worked! Once inside, half the group of six wore masks and the remaining three did not. Interesting. And why could they sit and chat, but not the gymnasts? An hour and a half was spent catching up on gossip, ten minutes on planning, and a quarter of an hour on word and number exercises similar to Countdown (known here as Des chiffres et des mots). Let’s hope the programme does not get cancelled by the predicted post-holiday Covid increase.

On a rare sunny day, we started to think about a short break in an area of France that we don’t know and bought the Michelin guide to Limousin and Berry with the area round Bourges in mind. However, with wet weather, apart from the lucky break on Bastille Eve, the idea of trailing round in the rain has not been so appealing. Near Bourges are the areas that Alain Fournier and George Sand wrote about, so Helen is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes, and is surprised how similar its pre-1914 village school sounds to the Entre-deux-Eaux school in the 1970s/80s, as recalled by the widow of the former school master. George Sand’s La Mare au Diable should be delivered shortly. Maybe the weather will improve and it will not be just armchair travel.

Looking back, the wet weather started a day or two after we had set up the watering system, got out the garden swing-seat and teak benches from their winter storage, and taken delivery of a large garden parasol. But at least we have not faced the severe flooding experienced earlier by flatter parts of the Grand Est, like Reims, or the present appalling floods across the border in Germany and Belgium. Our barn has only needed sweeping and drying out once. And after we cleared the drainage channel of mud, removed the bucket in the drain (to catch the mud) which was hindering rapid outflow, and put two rows of bricks in front of the gap at the bottom of the barn doors, we have had no further problems (fingers crossed). The difficulty has been finding a dry time for cutting the verdant grass and uprooting the luxuriant weeds.

A kestrel’s eye view of the fruit cage and potager

And talking of the garden, the rebuilt fruit cage is doing well, with its new netting and weed-reducing ground cover. It is remarkably sturdy. Helen got a tour of next-door’s new hen-house when she dropped round to get the details of their netting supplier. Theirs is an extensive, but less rugged, construction with indoor and outdoor areas to keep the hens safe by day as well as night from the marauding foxes, martens and buzzards which exterminated the previous hens. It sounds as if it has been restocked now. Our cage currently has a good crop of blueberries and raspberries. In other shady areas we have had more wild strawberries than ever before. Helen was crouching down picking them one day when a white van drew up, so, still clutching the bowl of tiny berries, she went to collect the Amazon parcel. “Are they for me?” the driver asked cheekily. But when offered some, he was most suspicious of these tiny unknown things, asking where they were from and whether he should wash them. In the vegetable beds, the peas, broad beans and lettuce have all flourished in the rain, the carrots thinnings are tasty, and the squash and courgettes are very leafy.

Deer by the orchard

The fauna has also flourished, with monster snails, fat slugs and slow-worms in the compost heap. Visiting deer (orchard) and a great-spotted woodpecker (balcony bird feeder) are more welcome sights. However, the vole population must be much reduced thanks to the presence of kestrels and their young in our attic window niche high above the vegetable patch. The kestrel saga, which many of you have been following through John’s daily photos and videos, began when Helen remarked idly on the quantity of polystyrene fragments floating down from above the farmhouse front door (this one a proper, panelled but peeling blue-painted wooden door). John went up to the attic and opened the low door through to the storage end, and discovered a round hole in the sheet of polystyrene blocking the small window opening (against messy owls, stone martens and from when the outside walls were sprayed in crépi).

Kestrel eggs

And four brown speckled eggs lay on the deep window recess. He researched and observed and decided it was a kestrel nest (well, hardly a nest as there was no straw or twigs, but just the bare ledge and bits of pecked polystyrene). He installed a camera linked to his computer (details below on the website), which he modified and tweaked, and is obtaining fascinating pictures.

It seemed a long wait before any sign of cracking or hatching and John fretted that they were getting too cold when the mother flew off for quite long periods. However on the twenty-fifth day of recording, July 9, his patience (and anxiety) was rewarded with the appearance of two baby chicks, one of whom was quite perky for a newborn, while the other seemed increasingly limp. Since July 2 we had not seen the male, who had previously visited occasionally and briefly, so hunger drove the female to leave the newborn chicks in the late afternoon in search of voles or lizards. When she returned we could see her prodding and shaking the inert body of her second hatched. Eventually she gave up and very practically began to consume it and feed bits (probably regurgitated) to her vociferous first born. The next day, July 10, the remaining two chicks hatched.

A surprise. The cock appears for the first time since 2 July

On the eve of Bastille, there was an excited yell from the attic as John had seen the male delivering a dead vole on the live video feed on his computer screen. Where had the cock been for the previous eleven days? Did they have a store-cupboard nearby that he had been stocking? There was an acrimonious incident with loud recriminations when he was about to take away his dead vole offering, as the female was still feeding another corpse to her fluffy white offspring.

kestrel chicks 17 July

John has toyed with the idea of inserting a wooden ridge across the front of the sill to prevent the balls of fluff from rolling or hopping off before they can fly, but decided it was cause too much alarm. You can see all the pictures and videos at https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/ During this time our TV screen has been showing an interesting mix of the live kestrel video feed (Chromecast), Wimbledon matches. European cup football and catch-up crime series (Line of Duty and Fargo).

Helen also watched quite a few matches from the French Open Tennis. Most games were played in front of very small audiences, but in the last week, more people were allowed to watch. However there was still an 11pm curfew. So there had to be a 10.30pm break to allow spectators to leave without disturbing players. But they got very involved in the exciting semi-final match between Nadal and Djokovic, and it seemed most unlikely that they would leave willingly. At the last minute, the French PM who was watching on TV phoned through permission for the spectators to stay on without incurring curfew penalties. Riots avoided! But how annoying for those with longer journeys who had left a bit earlier.

In case you are wondering if we still have books piled on the floor, following the problems with the underfloor heating that we mentioned in the last newsletter, the shelves are back in position and the books returned to them. It turned out the expansion chamber the plumber had replaced wasn’t working. It is a cylinder with rubber across the middle. The top fills with water and pushes the rubber down into the other half as it expands. The plumber had assumed the new cylinder was OK and thought there must be a leak in the underfloor pipe rather than a problem with his handiwork. The leak only required about 150ml of water to top up the system each day. John eventually noticed a drop from a valve at the back of the boiler. The drip, from the increased pressure, was slow enough that the water had evaporated so not been noticed. The plumber finally agreed the cylinder rubber must have had a hole, so all the cylinder had filled and there was no pressure relief (the same problem as the old chamber), so he replaced the replacement expansion chamber.

In fact there are more books on the shelves now as John and his sister between them ordered all the books on Helen’s Amazon list for her birthday. But buying anything from the UK since Brexit can be a problem as there are often import duties and additional customs clearance charges. (Amazon UK ensures all those charges are paid on ordering if the goods are those Amazon fulfils, but not necessarily those from the Marketplace.) There can also be problems with parcels disappearing after they reach France. Two of the book parcels went missing as well as some Vanish soap, which is not available in France. Being Amazon, refunds weren’t a problem and replacements arrived safely. Interestingly, John ordered a newly-published UK book from Amazon FR and, although the tracking showed it was sent from the UK, it was cheaper than a copy from Amazon UK delivered to a UK address would have been, despite the usual UK book discounts and the price maintenance on books in France. He also discovered that he could buy more Yorkshire tea from Amazon FR and 100% pomegranate juice from Amazon DE.

The pomegranate juice was an essential ingredient for John to cook Chicken Ottolenghi, a particular favourite, for Helen’s birthday dinner. It is one of the things we usually buy on visits to the UK. Only later did we discover just a couple of bottles in amongst all the 30% bottles in the Turkish shop in Saint Dié opposite the garden centre (where we had been looking for non-leaky Wellington boots for John).

old sapin qui pisse Raon-L’Etape post card

Before John started to prepare the chicken dish, the sun came out and we had a very pleasant walk along a shady forest track on part of the Kemberg massif we had not walked before. We followed an intriguing sign to Le sapin qui pisse. This turned out to be a fountain, which at an earlier date must have emerged for a pine tree that has since disappeared. They seem to have been popular forest features, and research revealed there is a better one near Raon l’Etape, which might make another interesting walk. After that, the chicken with its pomegranate juice flavouring was delicious, as was the coffee birthday cake indulgence.

Imprimerie – cuttlefish with carrot and citrus puree

We had continued with our Saturday evening set-menu dinners deliveries from l’Imprimerie, although most of the courses were less interesting, though larger, than those of his surprise menus at the restaurant. So we were pleased when restaurants were allowed to re-open in June and celebrated with lunch at l’Imprimerie on their first day, and enjoyed the more adventurous surprises, like the mushroom chawanmushi. They were hoping that in the evening they would get everyone served, replete and out before the 11 o’clock curfew, a pressure to which they were unaccustomed. The evening curfew ended on June 20, which was probably a relief for all restaurants. As well as worrying about the evening constraints, the waiter was having difficulty telling us about the wine, as he could not read the label on the back of the bottle; he confided that he now has glasses for reading but they steam up when he’s wearing his detested mask (an only too familiar problem!) so he’s not wearing them (glasses, not masks) at work. We, however, wallowed in the feeling of normal life, despite the masks.

Restaurants were only allowed to reopen at 50% capacity, with compulsory masks when not seated and no more than 6 at a table, so we were surprised that all the tables were in use at l’Imprimerie. However they are very well spaced, and it would previously have been possible to fit more tables in than they have. (They can only seat about 24 at the moment). A party of seven had obediently been accommodated on two well-distanced tables (though this meant there was noisy shouting between tables).

Chez Guth – glace de sapin

However, the 50% capacity rule was observed at Chez Guth, where we went the following week, taking a long detour as the usual road was closed (more yellow diversion signs). On arrival at the hillside chalet restaurant, we received a very warm welcome. They pride themselves on their foraged and seasonal ingredients, so were disconcerted (not to mention initially disbelieving) when John commented that it was still their old October menu on their website. So Madame checked and rang their website contact to complain bitterly as we chatted to chef at the end.

Frankenbourg – potato and broccoli balls

And the following week we ate at Toby’s favourite, the Frankenbourg, and toasted absent family and friends with whom we have enjoyed meals there over many years. The wine waiter/sommelier, who seemed a mere slip of a lad when we first went well over 20 years ago, has, like other male staff, got a little portly during lockdown, but the three wines he selected to accompany the meal were excellent (and he knows all about the wines, so has no problems trying to read labels!). Helen particularly liked the raspberry and pistachio dessert.

We enjoyed the drives almost as much as the meals, after having been restricted for so long in how far we could drive without a permitted reason. Before the deconfinement, the only longer drive had been to Epinal at the end of April to complete our post-Brexit residence permit applications at the Departmental Prefecture, which we decided was permitted as “administrative summons”. As we had produced all the required documentation for our previous permits, this trip merely involved queueing outside the Prefecture until being escorted to the relevant desks by a masked man with a list of appointments. There it was only a matter of handing over 2 recent photos and having fingerprints taken. It was a shame that no bars or coffee shops were open afterwards, but at least the Prefecture loos were available, before we drove back to wait a month or so for our permits to be posted. And we now have our new cards.

Some of you may remember they finally put a fibre internet connection into the village in 2018. But we are still over 700m from that junction box and still connected by copper wire. It allowed our internet connection speed to go from 2Mbps download to 18Mbps but upload still remained less than 1Mbps. In May John did some checking and discovered other internet providers were offering higher speeds so decided to switch. We now have a modern Livebox modem to replace the eight-year old modem and a 38/10Mbps connection, at a lower monthly cost. And, hopefully, in a couple of years we’ll have fibre to the house.

As we thus idle away the hours in Entre-deux-Eaux, the UK family news has been mixed. The Covid that Leila caught back in March has been acknowledged, after much physical fatigue and brain fog, to be long Covid, and in August she will have a telephone assessment by a nurse from the long Covid clinic. Occupational Health have suggested reducing her working hours further, possibly until Christmas, but at present there do not seem to be arrangements in place for the City Council to continue to pay full salaries to long Covid sufferers working fewer hours, which is a worry. But she has been trying to see friends and stay in touch with everyone despite the fatigue.

Toby, Rachel and Farrah recovered better from their bouts of Covid, and Toby is working on a new contract with Pret, which sounds very demanding. They had booked an August holiday in the south of France, so will be disappointed with the announced quarantine for travellers from France and may have to cancel.

However Leila was able to spend a weekend with them last month, collecting Jacob from Stella en route (and returning him on Sunday). She slept at our house. John’s sister, Ann, husband Derek, sons Steven and David along with Steven’s wife and their two young sons were all able to drive up to Letchworth that Saturday, and despite the cool weather enjoyed a great day together, with lots of hide and seek, gossip, games and feasting. We were sad to miss this family gathering, as it is such a long time since we saw everyone. But, as we read news of family and friends who have been so ill during this period, we really can’t grumble.

So we really hope it will not be too long before we are all able to meet up again. A bientôt!

Our unexpected kestrel visitors – first update

This is an update to the earlier post here describing the discovery Our unexpected kestrel visitors

The first two eggs hatched on 9 July. Unfortunately one of the first two chicks died.

The third and fourth eggs hatched on 10 July.

There are now two live video feeds and daily videos and photographs on this unexpected kestrel visitors web site

I have added two cameras, a TP-Link Tapo C100 in a box on the window sill and a motorised pan-and-tilt Tapo C200 above the nest. The original Logitech C270 is also above the nest pointing out of the window.

The kestrel seemed very suspicious of the constant red LEDs on the cameras so they have been turned off. I am not using the IR night mode either. The noise of the motors pan-and-tilt control of the Tapo C200 also seriously disturbed the kestrel.

I am feeding the Tapo camera feeds to Agent DVR software to control the timelapse photographs and videos and OBS Studio to control the live video Tapo feeds to YouTube. The YouTube which are then embedded in the website. The software is all running on my Win10 PC. I originally used a Raspberry Pi 4 for Agent DVR (after a lot of problems installing the software) but there were problems with the required graphics processing capabilities causing dropped frames.

Our unexpected kestrel visitors

The photographs and videos web site
https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/

Helen noticed little bits of polystyrene floating down one day when she was outside watering plants at the front of the house. I just thought a bird had found a bit of insulation.

In the meantime I’d seen a kestrel flying around, having not remembered seeing any here in the past.

Attic window viewed from the end of the potager

Then I remembered the polystyrene sheet I’d put behind the attic window to stop the crepi from being sprayed in when we had the outside walls redone. I went up to the attic, removed the wood which was holding the polystyrene sheet to the wall and saw a hole in the sheet and, through it, four eggs. A day or so later and Helen said she’d seen a bird with a white underside and fawn colouring flying out early one morning when she was gardening in the potager and then I saw the same a bit later when mowing. I’d not previously identified the eggs but on further internet checking I could now confirm that they probably were kestel eggs. I’d originally put a tripod near the compost heap in the hope of photographing the bird later in the day when it was cooler. I’d already told my sister I probably needed a tennis umpire’s chair to get high enough to see in to all of it properly.

Then, with no Euro football yesterday afternoon and too hot to do anything else outside, I wondered about setting up a camera to see if there was more than just the eggs. I didn’t think it was going to be possible to use my Neos webcam. But I wondered whether I could do something with my my old Samsung NC10 netbook? That originally had WinXP and we used it mainly for e-mails and web searching when travelling. But the hard disk died and when I replaced the disk I no longer had a copy of WinXP so installed Linux Mint. Again, that meant the NC10 was OK for use when travelling. But setting up a camera system was going to be a challenge as I’d no knowledge of what was available. I had a spare Logitech C270 webcam which I hoped I could use despite there not being any Linux drivers. So I spent an hour or more experimenting with download Linux camera programs just to see what might be possible. I’d originally thought of just trying to put up single image or possibly a video feed but then they would also need archive copies otherwise any activity might be missed. Then I though it might be better just to capture multiple images and either put them on a web site or combine them into a video. One of the camera programs I looked at had the ability to write files with different names which could be timestamps. I opted for one image per minute. So then it was a matter of automating the process. Not something I’d done before in Linux and it was a bit of a struggle as the process stopped running when the screensaver started. I didn’t manage to find the correct power setting and eventually just turned off the screensaver!

I ran a power cable to the far end of the attic so I could put the NC10 near to the window. I also decided to put the webcam in a box but didn’t have anything to hand except for one litre ice cream tubs. So  I made a hole in one side, just big enough for the camera lens and fixed the C270 in the box, and then made another hole for the lead out. I’d not looked through to see if there was more than eggs on the other side for a couple of days (and hoped they’d not been found by the stone marten which had played havoc with a neighbour’s chickens). The polystyrene was partially fixed by the crepi but I managed to put the box through a slight gap on the far side from the eggs, hoping I’d positioned it reasonably. I’d not checked before doing all the set-up, but the Wi-Fi signal was good enough to be able to connect the NC10 to our network and to be able to copy and process the image files on my computer.

Kestrel hen

Kestrel hen

About 30 mins later a bird appeared. So it confirmed we have kestrel guests, even though there is only one at a time visiting.

The programs all ran until midnight. Then, I’m not sure why, but there was a file-naming problem and the files were no longer in the expected directory. I eventually found them (and later renamed them and put them in the correct directory). I also simplified the filenames to the minimum, so hopefully that problem is solved? Converting the one-per-minute images into an AVI video wasn’t too much of a problem but I had to experiment with various settings to get reasonable file sizes.

I’ve now put some still images and the first video on a web site
https://www.blackmores-online.info/Kestrel/

kestrel chicks 17 July

Frosty fritillaries

We still have frosts most mornings and expect that to continue until the days of ice saints have passed in May. I was out this morning before the sun had completely melted the ice.

These fritillaries are from a few bulbs we planted many years ago. Most didn’t survive (possibly burrowing rodents eating the bulbs). But these are well established, making and spreading across the rough patch of field.

Click on the image below or here to go to the full web site