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Posted on April 16, 2014 in Life, the Universe and Everything, Wildlife by Jay9 Comments »

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Today, in the garden, a Lily Beetle in all his (or her) shining loveliness.¬† I’ve actually stopped trying to grow lilies because of these little guys.¬† Their larvae are quite unpleasant and can strip a plant within days.¬† However, they don’t eat day lilies so I have tubs of those instead!

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This is a Banded Snail resting high up in a branch of euonymus.¬†¬† We get a lot of Roman Snails in our garden and I have no particular love for them, since they are voracious eaters of anything I plant.¬† These little fellows do less damage, and they’re much prettier!

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Hoverflies!¬† I’m very fond of hoverflies. They are so pretty – just look at this guy’s beautiful bronze thorax and huge eyes!¬† And they are mostly harmless, meaning very few of them will eat your plants. None of them will sting or bite you.¬† I like to attract hoverflies into the garden and I’m always pleased to see them emerge in the spring. This one, I’m reasonably sure, is epistrophe eligans.

One of the things I love most, and find most relaxing, is photographing the smallest forms of life: mostly insects, but I also enjoy taking pictures of snails, woodlice, mites, spiders, and anything else that lives and breathes and shares my space.¬† Even the humble ‘greenbottle’ fly, this is one of the Lucilia species, I’m not sure which.¬† These are extremely wary flies and don’t let you get too close.¬† I guess that’s what comes of living the kind of life that they do and getting swatted a lot.

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I realise that some of you might see this as rather bizarre, but … to be honest, to me it seems odd not to find these tiny creatures fascinating.¬† That’s what makes the world go around.¬† You may hate ‘bugs’ and love inner cities, or Pink Floyd, or something equally weird to me.

There are very few insects that I will kill.¬†¬† Among them are fleas, ticks and mosquitoes and the disease-causing mites and lice.¬† Also wasps – but only because OH is allergic to them and they are persistent little beggars once they decide to come indoors.¬† If they stay out once I’ve caught and released them, they get to live. If they come back inside, they don’t. It’s as simple as that.

And just to show that it’s not all creepy-crawlies with me, here’s a macro of a spotted laurel flower. Did you know they flowered?¬† No?¬† Well, that’s because the flowers are so small and insignificant.¬† Insignificant until you look at them closely, that is, then they are quite lovely.

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Posted on October 11, 2013 in Life, the Universe and Everything, Wildlife by Jay11 Comments »

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That’s the name of our rented villa.¬† In Italian that means ‘The Trap’.

We wondered why, until we got here.¬† Then we realised that if it were icy or snowy, or even if it rained much and made the gravel road into mud, that’s exactly what you’d be in: a trap.

The road down to the villa from what passes for the main road (‘Strada stretta, procedere con cautela’) is a winding, steep, part gravel, part tarmac, part concrete¬† and part packed earth single track with passing places, and liberally rutted with deep diagonal gullies and three to four inch high ridges, plus potholes and the odd patch of fallen rocks.¬† At times, there is only a couple of feet between you and a long drop, and nothing to stop you taking it.¬† The track down to the beach is not only even steeper and more winding, but only seems to lead to a few rocks and no other way out than by boat.¬† Which we don’t have.¬† I’m not even sure there’d be room for a helicopter to land on the property … although it might manage it on the roof, if it didn’t collapse under the weight.¬†¬† To be fair, there might well be a beach at low tide, but since this is the last part of the journey down …

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… and the path seems to completely disappear among a tangle of rocks, we stopped right here.

It is, however, completely peaceful and very beautiful, with a wide view of the ocean from the edge of the lawn and over the swimming pool, and absolutely no traffic noise at all, apart from the odd high, faint roar of a passing airliner on its way to Pisa or Rome, or … somewhere.¬† There is birdsong, and the somnolent hum of many insects.¬† At night, there is the chirping of crickets.

And the gentle grunts and snuffles of the wild boar, who, having managed to negotiate the electric fence which is meant to keep them out, are busy tearing up the lawn searching for fallen olives or figs and who knows what else. I begin to suspect there are truffles under them thar trees.

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Yes, that is our front door mat.

The villa … well, we splashed out for a ‘hand-picked luxury villa’ because we’re too old to rough it.¬† We looked at all the pictures and read the information and the glowing reviews and thought, yep, for the wonderful view and the security of knowing that everything would be pristine and well-cared for, the price tag would be worth it.¬† And basically yes, it is a great place, though far from pristine.¬† And there were a few surprises, not all of them pleasant.

First of all, we couldn’t get hold of the caretaker to let him know we were coming, as we were required to do, an hour before arrival.¬† In the end, having tried the back-up caretaker as well, we phoned Tuscany Now who were extremely courteous and helpful and got the job done so that when we did arrive the caretaker was there and waiting.

But the instructions on how to arrive were interesting.¬† ‘Take the road to the left, and then take the left fork at the reeds’?¬† It’s bloody bamboo, for heaven’s sake, and about twenty foot tall!

And I think, for the sake of non-Italians, it would have been kind to say ‘take the rough track’ and not ‘take the road’, because it looks like the entrance to a farm which is going to a) lead to a gate behind which are several irate dogs and maybe a shotgun, or b) simply peter out in a field.¬† It’s roughly (haha) one kilometre long, and steeply angled down towards the sea in many places, and let me tell you, by the time you get to the villa you are convinced you are going the wrong way and will have to somehow try to turn around and go back.

This is a frame taken from a bit of rough video I shot on the way down one evening.  It might give you some idea of the feeling this road gives someone used to tarmac, street lights and road signs:

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The wavy line you can see across the road in front of us is a solid ridge of uneven concrete, sprinkled with large stones.¬† The pink on the right is some kind of vegetation beyond which there is a drop.¬† This car has excellent headlights, by the way.¬† I’m planning to put a video up on You Tube and if I manage it, I’ll add the link here so you can follow a typical journey down.

So, anyway.  We arrived.

We arrived to find a smiling and helpful caretaker who showed us around the place and gave us towels and so on, and who explained that there was no phone, but there was a very good internet signal, and who invited us to call him any time if we needed anything.¬† He couldn’t, however, get the hot water working without several calls to the owner, and since it had been a dull, overcast couple of days, the solar panels weren’t cutting it.¬† He didn’t give up, though, and made sure we had hot water and heating if necessary before he left us for the night. Oh, and he explained about the electric fence so we didn’t walk into it, which was thoughtful.

A couple of nights later, it rained heavily.¬† Thunder and lightning – really blue lightning, the like of which I don’t remember seeing – and the caretaker, following instructions from the owner, turned off the power.¬† The gouged lawn shown above is what we woke up to, because since there was nothing to keep them out, the wild boar came in to dine.

Unfortunately, we also woke up to a sizeable puddle in the dining area, where the roof had been leaking all night, and continued to leak through the next day.

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Luckily I hadn’t left my computer on that corner of the table, because the table was wet, too.

Did I mention the wildlife?  We have plenty of insects and other arthropods, which as you know, I do love.  Luckily.  Millipedes grow large here, as do centipedes, which live in the house feeding on spiders, mosquitoes etc. There are huge black beetles Рgorgeous things! Рand dozens of wasps of various types, flies, bugs and snails, little jumping spiders and crickets, and praying mantises which feed on the crickets.

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This little guy – about two inches long without his ‘whiskers’ – was on the wall above the toilet cistern and gave OH a bit of a surprise one day.

I’ve posted a number of pictures on Facebook over the last few days, but I must admit that the praying mantis was a favourite find, even if he was eating his lunch at the time and pointedly turned his back on me after a couple of shots.

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There is no phone.¬† Did I mention that?¬† Not that I mind being incommunicado, not at all, but in view of the isolated nature of the place, and the aforementioned lack of accessibility by road, helicopter or boat, I felt it might have been useful, not to mention reassuring!¬† There is, however, an old hand-cranked ship’s radio telephone, though I have no idea if it actually works!

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There is a cooker, a kettle, a toaster and a fridge/freezer.  There is crockery and cutlery, and wineglasses (but no wine stopper).  There are full bathroom facilities including bidets.  There is a TV and DVD player and a hairdryer and a mosquito net for the bed.  There are candles and a lighter for the power cuts (yes, we had a couple during the week).  There are insect screens Рin excellent order Рat all the windows and most of the doors, and there are solidly bolting wooden shutters outside.  There is a washing machine here, which works just fine despite living outdoors.

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There no dryer here, because electricity is expensive.¬† There is no air conditioning for the same reason.¬† The water comes from a well, which means it’s safe for washing and cooking but not drinking, so you need to bring your own bottled water, and I wish they’d told us that, since we arrived in the evening, but there’s a supermarket just outside of Porto Santo Stefano which is open late.¬† It’s about fifteen minutes away, and it’s important to know that it’s not open on Sundays.

There are low-wattage lights which you can turn on at the top of the three flights of steps and must remember to turn off again at the bottom, but apart from that there is no lighting outside and on a moonless night it is pitch black.¬† Pitch.¬† Black.¬† Absolutely dark.¬† It’s kind of nice, in a way, but I’m not used to it.

So, the bottom line:  would I recommend this place to friends?

You may be surprised to hear that I would.¬† Even with the leaking roof and the faulty cistern and the cracks in the tiling.¬† Even with the lack of any kind of curtain up at the bathroom window with the steps to the villa right outside.¬† Even with the electric socket fallen off the wall in the dining area and the lack of a kitchen bin or laundry basket, or anywhere safe to store non-fridge food items (despite the instruction to ‘put food away or the ants will come in’).¬† No cupboard, no bread bin, no tupperware or even plastic food bags.¬† *Sigh*¬† But we managed, of course we did!

The bottom line is that it is incredibly beautiful, and just SO peaceful.  A place to unwind, do nothing, and let yourself relax completely Рa balm to the soul.

And look – on rainy days, there is a whole bookshelf full of entertainment!

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Quite a lot of these books are in Italian, German or French but there is a good selection in English, both fiction and non-fiction. The only things missing, to my mind were a couple of identification guides to Italian flora and fauna.  Those would have been useful.

So come along and have fun – but don’t do what we did and hire a nice comfortable saloon car to get you here.¬† Get something with four-wheel drive.

That poor Mercedes will never be the same again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wow. I’ve just discovered that August has been designated Happiness Happens Month by the Secret Society of Happy People.¬† This may be a bit weird, but I just thought I’d mention it.

You probably all know that having dogs brings me a lot of happiness, and for this edition of ‘How to be happy’, I’m going to tell you about one aspect of that.¬† It started with a dog walk.

Now, some of you may not be aware that Sid, the tripod, is getting older and suffering cramping along his back as a result of the way he walks to accommodate his lack of a fourth leg, and that Jeffie is now officially an older gentleman at eleven years old.

Neither of them tolerate hot weather very well, so our walks recently have been short and we felt a bit sorry for them.  You see, these short walks are mostly on pavement, and are limited to the village.

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What we used to do three or four days a week was take them across the fields to meet a back road and then walk through the village and past the church and on home, which took about 45 minutes.¬† Neither can really cope with that at the moment, and … well, I dunno about the dogs, but we kind of miss it, so yesterday we popped then in the car and drove round to the road end of the field walk and did a short triangle which cuts across a piece of ‘set-aside’ land.

The dogs loved it … and wow, this piece of land has become a real haven for wildlife!

You remember the post I did about the disappearing bees?¬† I was just so happy yesterday to see and hear literally hundreds of them buzzing about in the wild flowers that grow there.¬† I still did not see many honey bees; there were one, maybe two, of those.¬† But solitary bees and wild bumble bees and little black bees I don’t know the name of – they were there in spades!¬† Some were more than a little drunk on nectar:

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Don’t you love the way his rearmost legs are just dangling?

There were also syrphidae, or hoverflies, some of which mimic bees and wasps quite well.  Their sizes and colours vary quite dramatically, from small black, or black and white flies to really large wasp-mimics like this helophilus trittivatus, beautiful little guy that he is:

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I love to see new insects – it probably reminds me of my childhood, and of field trips to the country with my entomologist Dad.¬† He’d be so happy and excited over some unusual beetle he’d found … though of course, for him, it was a much rarer thing not to know the name for something.

And there were butterflies … Large Whites aplenty, and a handful of grassland species like the Meadow Brown and the Gatekeeper.¬† These two look remarkably similar at first sight, except that the Gatekeeper has two white spots on each forewing and the Meadow Brown has only one.

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This Meadow Brown looked a bit worse for wear, so perhaps was an older specimen.  The Gatekeeper looked better and brighter.

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Peacocks were flying in large numbers*. I think they must love thistles and ragwort.¬† These are one of our largest and most spectacular butterflies, and so dramatic: they can look totally black when fluttering quickly past, but when they alight somewhere to sun themselves, the upper surface of the wing is exposed – and that’s where all the colour is.

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I saw several Silver Y moths.¬† I didn’t know they flew during the day, but there they were, unmistakeable because of the bright silver ‘y’ shape on their wings.¬† It’s partly obscured in the photo, but it’s there.

They were shy, and moved in short, quick bursts, keeping low under the foliage.

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There were beetles, too.  Ladybirds, of course, and this orange-red Soldier Beetle strutting his stuff on the Oxford Ragwort.

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Here’s the thing about Oxford Ragwort.¬† It’s a tall fancy-leaved thing with beautiful bright yellow, daisy-like flowers, and it’s horribly poisonous to livestock.¬† Unfortunately for the livestock, it’s not actually unpalatable to many of them, so they eat it and get liver damage.¬† Horses eat it, too, so there’s often a loud call for the local council to eradicate it, and indeed it is classed as a ‘pernicious weed’.

So a number of years ago, they sprayed much of the wasteland and ‘set aside’** with herbicide and killed everything in it.¬† Sadly, this included the spectacularly colourful caterpillars of the equally spectacular Cinnabar Moth, who were feeding on ragwort at the time, and after that, I think I saw one single Cinnabar Moth during the next five years, because ragwort (we have two varieties Oxford Ragwort, and Common Ragwort) is their only sustainable food plant.¬† And I was delighted to see that not only has the ragwort come back, but so has the moth, and therefore, those wonderful, stripey-pyjama clad caterpillars.

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Aren’t they crazy?¬† They’re enough to make anyone smile!¬† They’re not at all camouflaged, but then, they don’t need to be because like their food plant, they are toxic and small mammals and birds do not eat them.¬† You can read more about them here.

Lastly, just see what I found in a supermarket the other day -

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I love vegetable crisps.  I love plain, unsalted potato crisps, too, but vegetable crisps are in a different, more up-market league as far as my tastebuds are concerned.  Usually the bags are of mixed vegetables: sweet potato, parsnip, carrot and beetroot is a popular mix.  However, this bag was composed entirely of my favourite Рbeetroot!  It was a real treat, I can tell you!

have you noticed how my HTBH posts are getting longer?¬† You see, that’s what happens when you start deliberately noticing small things that make you happy – you begin to notice more and more of them as time goes by!

If you’d like to experience this for yourself, grab this badge and join in.¬† Post something that made you happy this week, add the badge and link back here. You’ll be glad you did!

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*There were probably at least a dozen.¬† Alright, this isn’t exactly ‘great numbers’ but we’ve hardly seen any butterflies apart from the odd Cabbage White in recent years so it seemed like it!

** ‘Set aside‘ land is land which the farmer is paid a substantial amount of money NOT to plant anything in.¬† It began as a remedy for the European food mountain situation.¬† Heaven knows why it still happens … but it is great for wildlife, so perhaps that’s a factor.

 

 

 

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I missed HTBH last week, because I was so busy with this and that, but I missed doing it – I really did!¬† So I’m happy to be back with another edition this week.

Lots of good things have happened since I last wrote.¬† One thing that made me quite ridiculously happy is the orange and black caterpillar up there.¬† Funny looking little thing, isn’t he, with his little fluffy ‘ears’ and his forked tail?¬† It took a lot of searching, and a post on a wildlife forum to confirm it, but I can now tell you that he is a very, very young Puss Moth caterpillar.

I was glad to find out, because he was found on one of our cars and I wanted to make sure to put him on the correct food plant so he wouldn’t die.¬†¬† The Puss Moth is quite beautiful, so I’m including a link for the non-mottephobes among you.

For the next little dose of happy-dancing delight, I give you …

Radicchio

One beautiful, tight head of radicchio, all ready to cut! Now, it’s nigh-on impossible to buy a whole head of radicchio around here, unless we happen to drive over the other side of town to the Italian supermarket on a Thursday, and when we get there, we find that they have neither failed to buy any or sold out of what they did buy. So I’m really pleased to have some in my own garden to use in our friend Umberto’s famous risotto recipe.

There are other veggies coming along nicely, too. Here are the beans:

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There should be a nice handful ready for my next hot dinner. Umberto also does a lovely dish of trofie with potatoes and green beans. Maybe I should cook that next?

I also have some nice little green tomatoes, and also some flowers on the zucchini. Excellent!

There are a few flowers in my garden too. I have ‘Beautiful James’ and ‘Susan’ roses out at the moment, and also these gorgeous little ‘Crystal Palace’ lobelia.

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These tiny flowers, clustered together, are an absolutely beautiful colour somewhere between blue and purple. I’m not sure this photo does them justice, but they make me smile every time I look at them.

So there you are: How to be happy!

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Oh, I could go on, and include the twins and the dogs and so on, but I know half of you would give up reading if I made the post too long!

Do grab the badge and join in, and tell us what made you happy this week.

It’s the little things, you know!