Everything that has a beginning has an end…

 

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Grape harvest art

 

The end of the summer started off as a bit of a challenge. I spent nearly two weeks by myself at the project house in the second half of August. It was great at the beginning to have a whole house by myself and to spend time in different rooms according to mood but after a few days I did start missing human contact. Luckily I had the cats to keep me company: Mario became my sweetheart and Masha’s kittens (I hadn’t mentioned it, she had four in mid July!) provided plenty of entertainment.

It wasn’t all rosy  in animal company though. Since the beginning of August, Natasha and me started looking after a mother hen and her three chicks. It was great entertainment to watch them walk around and look for food but one day I heard mother hen’s upset calls: one of the chicks got taken by a cat! This happened in their little chicken enclosure so I thought that letting them roam in the garden, in company of Mario, Masha and the kittens, might save the other chicks from other cats’ attacks but I was wrong: whilst chilling in the east room a week later, I heard mother hen’s upset calls again and as I looked out of the window, a rather small cat was making its way out of the garden with the ginger chick in its mouth. As if this blow wasn’t enough, when I went down to check on the survivors, I discovered that one of Masha’s kittens had suddenly died! It was one of my worst Mondays ever (for the last six months I didn’t really know what day of the week it was but I remember this day as it was the day after my birthday)!

Masha started to look really unwell soon after. After discovering that she had parasites (I’ll spare you how I found out…) I gave her an anti-parasitic to see if that would sort her out. She looked worse by the day and I was getting ready for another burial…until saviours Sophie and Kata came round and decided to take her to the vet and the treatment sorted her out!

Yes, cats became a big part of my life. But luckily Balkan Ecology Project’s ‘Regenerative Landscape Design course’ brought some new people to Shipka and new human life to the house at the beginning of September. Kata came back to help with the cooking for the course and the last weeks of the project were enriched with lovely Susan and two skilled Dutch guys.

And no, it wasn’t all about cats in the last weeks of summer. It was time to reap the fruits of our labour (and the pollinators labour): we had a bounty of tomatoes, beans, elderberries, cornelian cherries, figs, apples and grapes, ready to be eaten and processed through various mediums into different shapes, combinations and consistencies: preserved chopped tomatoes, chutney, juice, cake, syrup and jam, all very tasty and all too many to be packed into an already heavy suitcase…sigh!

Harvesting, processing, group dinners, walks, cake and bread making, people-hugs and cat-cuddles, all these were part of the unforgettable last days at the Balkan Ecology Project.

When I now look back at the day before I came to Bulgaria, amongst the nerve-racking feeling of going for six months to a country I practically didn’t know anything about, less about the language, I knew deep-down that if I went somewhere with a “blank-canvas-mentality” this could only bring me an extraordinary experience. During these six months, I met lots of travellers visiting Bulgaria, some loved it, some loathed it. I went through different phases of ‘love-hate’ myself but it is like that with most things in life, isn’t it?!

Bulgaria is different to lots of other countries, which doesn’t make it any better or worse, just different and unique. I can say for sure, the more you get to know a place and its people, the more you discover the hidden secrets and all the jewels that make it so special.

This is the last chapter of season one of permaculture in Bulgaria but who knows, just like on TV, season two might already be in preparation…

 

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Mother hen and the chicks before the tragic incidents
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The tasty and colourful tomatoes we harvested
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Some of the autumn fruits: Cornelian cherry, Blackberry and Elderberry
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Cosy hammock time with my love Mario
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Masha’s kittens: Dobril, Vesela and Gingi
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An unforgettable starry night in Shipka!

 

 

 

A mini Greek odyssey

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Armenistis beach, Sithonia

After visiting Turkey, the wish to jump across another border from Bulgaria was more than present and with the summer heat having properly settled in, what better destination with plenty of beaches could there be than Greece??!!

Bulgaria’s and Greece’s natural border is the Rodopi mountain range. This means, that if you want to go overland from one country to another, the quickest routes are actually around the edges. Intrepid travel companion Natasha (co-volunteer and awesome Kiwi) and me, started our epic journey to cross this border early one Saturday morning. Our modes of transport included taxi, train and bus and they miraculously delivered us in one piece late at night to Greece’s second biggest city: Thessaloniki. I have to explain that Bulgarian trains, although at least 30 years old, are still fairly reliable and one of my favourite and most enjoyable modes of transport in this country. Busses are very hit and miss, comfort and quality of driving varying greatly. On our bus journey from Sofia to Thessaloniki, having a “slightly-freaking-out-at-every-sharp-turn” Dutch lady at the back made it more difficult than it already was to relax and enjoy the journey.

But luckily for us, our lovely Airbnb hosts Angeliki and Thenia came and picked us up from the bus station when we arrived and made us soon forget the long hours of travel we had behind us, so much, that we went straight out for a quick walk in town to take in Thessaloniki’s Saturday night vibe. At nearly midnight, the temperature must have been still around the mid-twenties, great if you go partying all night, which wasn’t our case…

…so after some very hot hours of poor sleep, one of the first things we did next morning was to try Greece’s favourite summer drink: a frappé coffee. It’s frothy, it’s cold and it’s strong, so much that a non-caffeine-addict like me suffered the consequences. Luckily we had plenty of walking to do around the centre of Thessaloniki to wear off the caffeine effects and after a good Greek salad both Natasha and me got back to normal. Later on in the evening we settled a deal with Thenia to take us to Halkidiki the next day to explore some beaches. Thenia runs her own business called ‘beenthere’, facilitating information and access to places for the more “independent” travellers (check out her website http://www.beenthere.eu).

Equipped with a newly purchased 2-man tent from my favourite outdoor shop (no free publicity on my blog! ;p) plus lots of extra camping essentials that Thenia provided, we headed to Sithonia, the middle “finger” of the Halkidiki peninsula. Together with the Kassandra “finger”, they  are a favourite holiday destination for northern Greece as well as neighbouring countries. The most northern “finger” is an autonomous monastic state, Mount Athos, and only men can visit.

Sithonia has a few campsites and beautiful beaches but in July it’s pretty much packed, like everywhere else. We were very keen on wild camping but Thenia suggested to stay at the campsite of one of the most famous beaches first: Armenistis. The beach was beautiful but the campsite was like a mini-resort town, with supermarket, outdoor cinema, beach bar, restaurant and café with wifi, this last location being the favourite place to hangout for a big number of screen addicts…A very comfortable holiday place, great for families and lovers of little comforts, not really my cup of tea, also because the permanent caravans were aligned all along the beach, just a few metres off the water, making it no different to an over-exploited beach town.

We were really looking forward to the night of wild camping that Thenia had planned for us but unfortunately  it didn’t happen as she was called for an important job opportunity. This didn’t stop us from having another couple of great nights in Thessaloniki with Angeliki and to prepare for our next destination: the island of Samothraki.

Everything I had read about Samothraki sounded good: remoteness from other islands, lush forests, hot springs and waterfalls. And it didn’t deceive us. After a 4h bus journey from Thessaloniki to Alexandropouli and further 2.5h on a ferry we arrived on the island, and managed to get a lift straight to the campsite with a group of Greeks. We soon discovered that the internet wasn’t lying about this island attracting a more “alternative” crowd: plenty of dreadlocks, hippy stalls, Bob Marley playing everywhere and a love for naturism.

After our first night in one of Samothraki’s campsites (a more rustic experience of tents spread out amongst the forest, squat toilets and cold showers) our new travel companions, who had been to the island several times before, took us for a long trek that would get us climbing on rocks and dipping into several waterfall-fed natural pools. It was well worth all the climbing effort and we finished the evening with a quick dip in the sea before sunset and some amazing Greek food. Our energy lasted right past midnight, having a fire on the pebble beach next to the campsite, cooking bread on a stick and watching the moon rise 🙂

Next day we were obviously knackered, so Natasha and me had a particulary chilled out day, with beach time, siesta attempt (not the easiest with about 35°C in the shade and a concert of about 100 cicadas), and dinner in town followed by a visit to the thermal pools.

We could have easily stayed for a week in Samothraki but we decided to stick to the dates we said we’d be back at the project, aware of the long journey ahead of us to get back to Bulgaria. Our mini-Greek odyssey finished with an evening in Alexandropouli, a surprisingly pleasant beach city, with a delicious meal at an Armenian restaurant and a warm night-time stroll along the popular beach front.

Check out Natasha’s blog for a different (and more detailed) version of our trip! http://www.youngbarbieradventures.wordpress.com

 

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Vourvourou beach with Mt Athos in the distance
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Another view of Sithonia
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Natural pool and waterfall in Samothraki
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One of the inhabitants of the natural pools of Samothraki
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Climbing to another pool (photo by Konstantinos Georgiadis)
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The descent after the big climb
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Cooking bread on a stick by the fire
moonrise in Samothraki
Moonrise in Samothraki

Summertime

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Summer is here. Or at least the Shipka version of it. If you read my previous post about the wild weather then you will understand.

It arrived almost from one day to the next, a few weeks ago. After the very wet spring and temperatures hardly reaching 20’s, the temperature jumped to nearly 30… for a few days, now it’s up and down 20’s to 30’s. The wind is still ever present on many days and some days feel tropical, with very hot, humid mornings and cumulus nimbus -would the plural be cumuli nimbi???- building up throughout the day, ending in noisy and thundery downpours.

The frequent downpours facilitate part of the summer garden maintenance but lots of plants are showing signs of resentment after the wet and cool spring – and who wouldn’t, we weren’t really cheering during those wet weeks in May! Most plants are behind in growth, specially the aubergines and peppers, some didn’t germinate at all, like some types of beans. The tomatoes are behind as well and quite a few of them are looking rather unwell, the leaves are narrow and deformed and in some even the flowers are stunted. The internet hasn’t been able to provide a disease that matches this description so if someone has come across something like this please get in touch. We’ve diagnosed this as “stress” for now.

But not all plants are doing badly. We’ve harvested loads of rainbow chard and had a taster of beetroots and baby carrots. The courgettes are growing nicely and we just started harvesting some beans, yellow long ones and some fancy pink mottled ones. And we’ve been spoiled with fruit: savouring handfuls of cherries on our walk to/from work, picking our way through the raspberry and blackcurrant bushes in the garden, gorging on mulberries, and now enjoying the variety of plums/damsons and tiny but so tasty summer apples.

I’ve also tried to keep up with drying some herbs and flowers, from Elder and Yarrow to Common Mallow and Mullein. Just missed the Lime flowers though as the locals made the most of the lower branches while we were “stuck” with a week-long course on “Edible Ecosystems”, which was great by the way (check out http://www.balkep.org for the next upcoming course on Regenerative Landscapes in September).

Apart from the summer garden maintenance work (which apart from watering involves checking on pests, tying tomatoes and weeding) and harvesting lovely food, there is always time for lazying around and “experimenting” with new recipes, specially if they involve using some of the produce :).

And of course making the most of the weekends. Natasha, Marika and me went to Buzludzha, an abandoned communist ufo-shaped building at the top of a mountain, where I met more foreigners than in previous weeks around the country put together (it’s amazing how many are happy to ignore the signs of “forbidden entry”  and “danger”- fair enough, they are in Bulgarian – but I guess for some the mosaics and the experience are well worth the risk!). With some of the guys from the course we went to the ETAR (Architectural-Ethnographic Complex in Gabrovo) something like an outdoor museum, showing a traditional Bulgarian village and some  traditional practices, such as dying wool with herbs and using the power of the river to mill corn. I also managed to do some mountain walks with the girls, one not too strenuous one along a river in Maglizh and another more hilly river walk in the Central Balkans.

A longer trip is just being planned but more on that in the next blog post!

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In the garden
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Harvesting beans
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Yummy raspberries!
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We’re harvesting loads of Rainbow Chard!
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Common Mallow flowers
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Famous Buzludzha
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One of the mosaics inside Buzludzha
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ETAR in Gabrovo
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River walk in Maglizh
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Central Balkans

A visit to one of the neighbours

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Inside Hagia Sofia

I admit it. Before I decided to come to Bulgaria I didn’t know that it shared a border with Turkey. And once I discovered that that border wasn’t actually that far and that a bus from nearby Kazanlak would take me directly to Istanbul for €23 I thought, let’s go and visit!

The bus is overnight and the border crossing is a bit painful. Half asleep I had to get out of the bus to exit the Bulgarian border control point to then walk over to the Turkish border control point (with an optional stop on the way at a duty free mall – I didn’t know where I was going first, the bus assistant told everyone something in Turkish so I thought I better follow everyone when I realised they were all after some alcohol and cigarettes!). Still half asleep, a mega-bright screen was welcoming me to Turkey (Hoşgeldiniz), but that was only the screen. The border control agent didn’t seem to like me, or rather my passport, and questioned me about all my previous travel stamps and about my intentions in Turkey. To the relief of all the other passengers – and mine – after what seemed like ages, I did get my entry stamp and we could all return to the bus and catch up with our sleep. Not for long though, around 6.30am I hear the bus assistant shout ‘otogar’ – we had arrived at the bus station.

Istanbul is huge! But also pretty incredible. I found a place to stay in the old town, also known as Sultanahmet, where most of the touristy attractions are. So I did visit some of the touristy stuff but what I enjoyed most was actually chatting to my host and his team. I found a great couchsurfer host who let me stay in one of his rental apartments for free. With recent bomb attacks in Turkey and the associated bad press, not many tourists are visiting Turkey and all the people who work in the tourism industry are suffering the consequences. But I’ve never encountered more welcoming, helpful and generous people than in Turkey. Starting with my couchsurfer host, he gave me information about things to do, invited me to a meal and introduced me to his team (he also runs a restaurant and an art shop) and to practically the rest of the neighbourhood. It was also very easy to chat to the people in the shops, no one was being too pushy in terms of wanting me to purchase things and always happy to share some Turkish tea! The people made the difference to my stay.

After Istanbul I ventured to the South Aegean cost, to a national park called Güzelçamlı. Not many people had heard about this but I found some info on the internet and decided to give it a go. It was great! I was able to hire a bike in Güzelçamlı and to explore the beaches in a very relaxed way. All in all it would have been a perfect day if a wild pig hadn’t decided to snatch my bag for my lunch while I was all captivated admiring the pebbles on the beach edge. The whole thing could have gone horribly wrong if a man nearby hadn’t alerted me and helped me chase the pig. After a chase through the pine forest in my bikini, which could well have been a youtube hit had someone decided to film this, I eventually managed to retrieve my bag. The damage wasn’t too bad,  a “well worn and used” look for my bag, a crack in the display screen of my still functional camera and still enough food that wasn’t covered in pig saliva for me to have lunch. Plus what was more important, got my money and passport back!

After Güzelçamlı I went to visit Pamukkale, with its famous travertines (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travertine) and hot springs. The day was a bit overcast and even though I went there early, there were already bus loads of tourists that had arrived, crawling like ants on the white limestone rock. I still managed to get away from the crowds at times and enjoy the scattered remains of Hierapolis and the beautiful scenery. I even treated myself to the 36C ancient pool baths, it was well worth every kuruş!

My mini-tour of Turkey ended back in Istanbul, where I stayed for one night at a gay couple’s flat in the heart of the new city, Beyoğlu. This part of the city is much more hip and modern that Sultanahmet and you can find all the western stores around, from H&M to Starbucks. My sight-seeing got limited to Taksim square and nearby, the Beşiktaş neıghbourhood (might ring a bell for football lovers) as well as venturing well out of town to the botanic garden, a special one indeed as it is located on a highway intersection!

All in all, a great experience, full of lovely food and people. So sad to hear that another bomb attack probably just ruined the summer for thousands of people in Turkey. Wishing peace and settled lives for these people and their country.

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Blue Mosque
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Whirling dervish
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Coastline in Güzelçamlı NP, with the Greek island of Samos in the background
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The wild pig, before the bag-snatching incident
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Entrance to Pamukkale (with artificial pool)
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Pamukkale
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Hierapolis
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The cutest inhabitant of Turkey 🙂
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Thermal pool in Hierapolis
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Entrance to the botanic garden in Istanbul
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In the botanic garden

Wild weather & weekend whereabouts

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Sozopol

I always thought the weather in England was the most “entertaining” I could have ever experienced in my life, with literally four seasons in one day, but these last weeks in Shipka have definitely been very eventful weather-wise.

After arriving to what seemed like summer at the beginning of April (and getting so carried away by this that I decided to buy a hammock for the garden that I think I have used twice) we’ve had many cool and especially rainy days as well as incredible thunderstorms. But the most remarkable weather phenomenon here in Shipka must be the wind. I had been warned by Kata, who had experienced it last year already, but I didn’t think it could be so dramatic. My very first experience of this wind translated into headache, palpitations and a sudden low mood. Straight away I had to think of all the “famous” winds I had heard about previously, like the “Föhn” or the “Tramontana”, which are known to affect people’s moods and well being. So here was the Shipka wind, blowing down not just the trees but also me! Just a couple of days ago, I could see the birds battling in the sky and trying to hang onto the trees and the clouds where moving so fast over the mountains that it looked like they were on fire, the sun setting right behind them.

The weather hasn’t stopped us from doing work in the garden, except maybe when we had that very wet week with heavy rain practically every day… We’ve been planting out tomatoes, kale, chard, kohlrabi, aubergines, chilli peppers and basil as well as sowing courgette, squash, bean and corn seeds. And playing engineers whilst helping to finish building a pond!

And my weekends have certainly been very entertaining,  with a weekend away in Plovdiv and another long weekend away in a charming little town by the Black Sea, Sozopol. Also finally, I walked up with Charlotte one of the mountains right behind our house (although getting a bit lost meant we ended up going down the mountain before reaching the famous Shipka memorial – but also saving us from a big downpour)!

The main event though at the end of April was Orthodox Easter. Yes, I’ve had the privilege to experience two Easter weekends this year! Traditions are very similar, decorating chicken eggs, making sweet breads, eating lots of nice food and having an extra long weekend to rest. But we were lucky  to get some fresh “free range” lamb which Charlotte offered to cook in a hole in the ground with hot rocks, a technique she learned whilst travelling in Fiji. As you can imagine, the lamb was to die for but all the other dishes that we prepared to go with it weren’t any less good, all shared with great company and some home-made wine and Rakia, Bulgaria’s renowned brandy. And for this day we actually had some warm spring sunshine!

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Mario trying to shelter from the hail storm
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Before the rain came…
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Sunset over the Balkans
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Thunderstorm in Sozopol
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A trip down the Ropotamo river, near Sozopol, with plenty of dragonflies and Kingfishers around. Just the monkeys and crocodiles where missing!
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The arty centre of Plovdiv (Copyright Marika 😉 )
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View of one of Plovdiv’s hills with old amphitheatre from another of its hills
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Getting rid of rainwater to re-place the pond liner
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The finished pond!
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Getting the lamb in the ground!
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Lamb cooking!
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Ta-daaa! The cooked lamb (well, half a lamb)

 

 

The sounds of Shipka

This week I have been focussing on bird-sounds. I have been listening to them on previous days but it seems like every day of this week there was something new to hear.

My focus started last Saturday night. We were coming back from a gig in a nearby small city, Stara Zagora. The outing was quite an event in itself, can’t remember the last time I was stuck in a small smoky underground “club”, listening to a band, watching the young (and not so young!) jump around to the songs of Oratnitza (very enjoyable and !). It was 1am when we got back to our house and we could hear the most beautiful song coming from a nearby tree. Yes, it was a Nightingale! A great song to get lulled to sleep.

Then on Sunday we went for a day trip to a nearby lake, Koprinka. From our group of four, two were very keen for a dip so we went round the reservoir to a more “hidden” area as strictly speaking no one is allowed to go for a swim there (but obviously we met quite a few people who were in the water!). It was a hot, sunny day and the air was still. As I sat by the water (not warm enough for me to go for a swim!) I heard this cuckoo call from across the lake and after a while another one reply from the forest behind us. This went on for a while and I tried to record this magic atmosphere with my phone. Unfortunately, my phone is not such a great sound recording device plus I would need to subscribe to wordpress to upload videos anyway so you will have to be contented with the panoramic image above and imagine the cuckoo sounds going across the lake!

When we were about to leave, we heard Hoopoes in the forest and I managed to see one! Very exciting after such a long time since I had seen one in Spain!

The work week was enriched with many spring bird songs. We shovelled manure and mulched the plant beds with hay whilst listening to Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blackbirds, Corn buntings, Skylarks, Mistle and Song Thrushes, Great tits, Blackcaps, …and  I’m quite sure I also heard some passing Bee-eaters !  (just had a peek at Peter Alfrey’s blog, according to him there are also the following song birds in the area: Cirl buntings, Woodlarks, Tree Pipits and Yellowhammers).

The star addition to this repertoire was the Golden oriole, another long-time-no-see bird! I’ve included below a few videos of my favourite ones. You can hear more great bird-songs on http://www.xeno-canto.org.

 

 

 

 

From 2 to 5 and about 96

After a very relaxed week sharing a big house with a garden with just one very chilled out person, things were going to change with three new house-mates (three extra pairs of hands to help with work in the garden though!). As expected, the main initial tension was around the rather small kitchen space and cooking food, but so far we seemed to have found a half-share, half-do-your-own-thing which seems to be working. We’re all very different but we have the love of gardening, good food and nature in common which has already given us plenty of good conversations and laughs. We even had a good team input with our only male’s recent axe injury (ah, all those health and safety talks at work about using tools were there for a reason!), three people to administer first aid efficiently solved the issue of closing up a rather large cleft which I thought would need stitches (after one day, the wound just looked like a scratch!).

The extra three pairs of hands haven’t actually made the work in the garden any less, in fact, it definitely seems we are doing more work but it is for sure making it more interesting. Some of the things achieved this week at the project garden: sieved some decomposed cow manure and placed it in new beds after forking over and weeding, sowed beetroot seeds, performed a soil survey, planted support plants for young trees (bulbous plants and a Nitrogen fixing tree).

Our home garden has received lots of attention this week as well and it has now changed from a vast area of untidy “weeds” to a neat arrangement of different sized and shaped beds. It has now become a home for young cabbage, tomato, radish and lettuce plants, a wide variety of herbs, and hopefully the right space for spinach, carrot, beetroot and celery seeds to grow into juicy plants and roots.

For me, this week’s “work” highlight was taking part in a bio-blitz in an old disused field, to find out whether it could be turned into some more growing space or rather into a “nature reserve”. Our not too strictly scientific approach gave us many pleasant surprises, from different sized lizards to the most unusual looking spiders, 96 different species of living things in total (there are certainly plenty of reasons towards keeping the space as a nature reserve)! It was definitely great to have the chance to work together with Peter Alfrey and his nephew Dylan, the biggest 13-year-old wildlife expert I have ever met before! Check out Peter’s blog for some cool pictures of some of the creatures found on our surveys. Below some photos of wildlife I encountered both in the survey and just looking around the project garden.

http://peteralfreybirdingnotebook.blogspot.bg/

http://prayingmantisworld.blogspot.bg/

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newly emerged dragonfly in project garden pond
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project garden pond
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weevil found during bioblitz
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another bioblitz specimen
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this one was one of my favourites! can you spot it??!!
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Speckled Wood