An ode to Grenoble

Grenoble is not a beautiful city. Partially destroyed during World War 2, it has few historical sights, and many ugly buildings. Sure, new constructions look very nice, but the beauty of Grenoble lies somewhere else.

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A Walk in the mountains – Dent de Crolles

The A Walk in the mountains series

Flashback. October 9, this is my last week-end in France before long. My dad and I have decided to climb the Dent de Crolles, an imposing mountain overlooking the Grésivaudan valley, not far from Grenoble. As a matter of fact, it’s right above the Plateau des Petites Roches, and its funicular

09.00, the car’s thermometer reads 3ºC. Quickly, we get out of the car. Click, the bag is closed, clac, the camera is set at my side, we are ready.

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Up Is Down

Hello, I’m writing this article in Munich Airport. I’m waiting for my plane to Helsinki, where I have found a software developer job. I’m looking forward to this third living experience in Finland, and I’m already dreaming of snow, owls and nordic lights. However, that’s not my main topic today, because I still have tales of heat and sun to share (by the way, the weather forecast in Helsinki, for the coming week, says cloudy, 3ºC… brrrr!).

Before we start, though, I suggest you put this song, taken from the Pirates of the Caribbean OST, on:

One afternoon, I went with my mom to Lumbin, in the Grésivaudan valley. Some shopping was on the table (gloves and waterproof clothes, you know), but we also decided to go to Saint-Hilaire du Touvet via the funicular. This cable car system was opened in 1924, mainly to serve the sanitariums built on the Plateau des Petites Roches to house tuberculosis patients. I don’t remember when I was there for the last time, but it was ages ago, it seemed.

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Birds at the feeder

Winter can be rough for birds. Days are cold, nights are long and colder, and food may be hard to find. Songbirds, which usually feed on insects during spring and summer, switch to seeds when the autumn comes and the resources become scarce. That makes it way easier for us, well fed humans, to give them a hand during this bad period.

At home, we have fed birds for years, enjoying this incredible festival of claws and feathers while having breakfast or lunch, well hidden in our warm house. From my experience, pure sunflower seeds is the most appreciated food, along with peanuts and all kinds of vegetal fat preparation. If I remember well, robins like oat, and blackbirds like apples. The only time we gave them some kind of seed mix, the birds ate the sunflower and left the rest aside.

I was always told to feed birds only during winter (mid-November to mid-March in France), and that’s also what the LPO (the French bird protection association) advocates. On the other hand, the British RSPB and the American Cornell Lab of Ornithology say you can feed them all year long. Check the links for many tips and tricks about feeding birds.

I haven’t lived at home for three and a half year, but my parents have never stopped feeding birds. I was very glad to see these hords of tits, goldfinches and nuthatches roam around, either sitting at the feeder or picking a seed and them flying away to eat it, hidden in the bushes.

Twice I sat two or three meters from the main feeder, next to the hedge, to shoot the birds. I regret I couldn’t spend more time at home, because I feel like they would have grown accustomed to my presence, had I been able to stay there longer.  I also regret that these two shooting sessions happened on two cloudy days, but well…
The Blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) were the boldest birds, always the first one and most numerous to come.

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Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

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A walk in the mountains: Le Touret

The A Walk in the mountains series

Another walk in the French mountains from this summer. Le Touret is a natural belvedere overlooking the village of Le Périer, in the Écrins National Park.

The map

This was a sunny, warm summer day. We parked the car at Le Périer, and began the ascent from the south, along the river Le Tourot. The path was rocky, and we were quickly surrounded by insects of all kinds, including a lot of butterflies.

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Clouds

For the days when I have no time to write a full-length article, I will try to publish a picture, or a few pictures on a single topic.  Let’s start with amazing clouds I spotted from my house, near Grenoble.

* * * * *

On the same day I went to Lac de Crop, the evening was quite cloudy. Some clouds looked like cotton, and they were so beautiful I thought they were worth a picture or two. I ended up with five of them.

I started developping this next picture.

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When I applied the same settings to the other photographs, some unexpected features appeared, and I found the result delightful. Unfortunately, it did not really correspond to what I saw this day, so I also tried to work on the original pictures from scratch. Here is the outcome.

With preset

With preset

From scratch

From scratch

With preset

With preset

From scratch

From scratch

Which ones do you prefer? Don’t hesitate to develop your arguments, I’d love to hear them 😉

For the occasion, I also created a Cloud gallery on Flickr.

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A walk in the mountains: Lac de Crop

The A Walk in the mountains series

Once more, my father brought me to a walk in the mountains. My only demand? Being back home on time to see the final mountain stage of the Tour de France, with the climb to l’Alpe d’Huez. We decided to visit Lac de Crop (“Crop Lake”), a small mountain lake lost in a rocky desert, surrounded by steep summits.

The map

A huge thunderstorm had struck Grenoble the evening before, and the atmosphere had seriously cooled down compared to previous days. As a consequence, the weather promised to be a bit cloudy, but we still hoped to see the light of sun. The clouds were not far above us when we started the steep ascent, but some blue patches were visible there and then. Anyway, we enjoyed the coolness.

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The first part of the walk was in the forest, but we soon reached a pasture field. The last part was also in a forest, but the trees were much lower than downhill. The clouds were pushing us upwards, hidding the valley of Grésivaudan from sight. During the ascent, a few birds sung around us, including Common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) and Coal tit (Periparus ater), but they were shy and did not greet us.

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Suddenly, the path turned flat. We tried to see the lake, but it was hidden behind a foggy veil. The wind was blowing, carrying layers of clouds to and from the valley. Sometimes we could see the peaks above us, a moment after nothing was left but the shore of the lake, five meters from us.

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In this desolate scenery, a bird song caught my attention. In a massive scree, a Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was hunting. Changing my lens, I sat on a boulder. I spotted at least three or four redstarts, male and female, but they were a bit far for a good picture, especially since the clouds were having a lot of fun shrouding the whole area, including me and my target.

Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

After a moment, the birds disappeared, and without the excitement, I started to suffer from the cold. By any means, it was time to go back and witness a fantastic ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez… from my sofa. In the descent, the fog created a mysterious atmosphere around cairns and fallen trees.

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> Full gallery

A day in the mountains – Col de la Charmette & Charmant Som

When I was young, I lived for a long time in Quaix-en-Chartreuse, a small village in the mountain range of Chartreuse, just north of Grenoble. In autumn, my dad and I sometimes went very early to the mountains to spot Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and Mouflons (Ovis orientalis, disputed classification). From the pass called Col de la Charmette, we climbed in the forest until we reached an alpine pasture in a glen. There, we often saw Mouflons, whereas the Chamois were higher, on the ridge overlooking the cliffs that faced the east.

We decided to visit the area last week-end. We left the pass at 6.30. The ascent turned steep pretty quickly, but we managed to reach the pasture easily. There, many birds were singing and flying, but no trace of Mouflon or Chamois, neither there nor along the ridge. Still, I spotted an Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris) in its worn summer plumage.

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We followed our plan and took the direction of the Charmant Som, a moutain easily accessed from the other side but which we never reached from there. We crossed a herd of cows for the second time. Before arriving in a small wood, I spotted two Mouflons on the edge of a wood, quite far down the slope. We left the path to get closer to them, halting when they showed signs of nervousness. We realized that there was a whole herd coming out of the forest. I counted almost twenty of them, including a few younglings.

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The last meters of the ascent to the summit were a bit rough, as we needed to help ourselves with our hands, in a rocky area. To our left, Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) were playing in the wind.

Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

I don’t know if one can call a nine-in-the-morning-meal a lunch, but we had some cheese and bread before going down. We were hungry, we had woken up at 5! A few choughs came close, hoping for something to eat, giving me the chance to shoot them with no trouble. However, like at Grand Veymont, they got nothing from me.

Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus)

From there, the view was fantastic: Chartreuse to the south and east, Vercors to the west, the plain and hills in the direction of Lyon to the north, Grenoble to the south and all the other mountain ranges further away, including Mont-Blanc, which we could imagine behind the morning haze.

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The east. In the vale, we can see the monastery of “Grand Chartreuse” (Great Chartreuse).

The south-west. Pinéa in the foreground and Vercors at the back.

The south-west. Pinéa in the foreground and Vercors at the back.

We chose another path on way down to the parking, but it was a bit hazardous. The scree was a bit tricky, but the hardest part was the one in the forest. It was steep and full of rolling stones, and a bit of climbing down was necesary. Nevertheless, we reached our previous path at the foot of the pasture, and headed down in the forest, to our car, without seeing any Chamois. Earlier, we had crossed the path of a man who said that Mouflons, which are a species introduced in the area (coming from an area ranging from Balkans to Iran, they were introduced to Corsica and Sardinia 7000 years ago, and later to continental Europe), were thriving. According to him, this had an impact on cow herds and also Chamois, because of an increased competition for grass. He claimed that he was seeing less and less Chamois in the area.

> Full gallery

FOCUS: Common house martin

The Focus series

French word of the day: hirondelle = swallow

The Common house martin (Delichon urbicum) is one of the two most common swallow species in Europe, with the Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). Originally, it nested in cliffs and caves, but it now largely occupies human structures, including house eaves in city centers. I visited a colony in Domène, near Grenoble. Occasionally, nesting platforms can be built so that swallows settle in some place, but this colony was 100% natural 🙂

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The typical size for such a colony is around 10 nests, but this one was larger, maybe 60 nests. The cup-shaped nest is made of mud taken from lakes and rivers, and built at the junction of the wall and the roof, so that it’s attached to both planes. House martins only nest outside buildings, unlike the Barn swallow.

I have read that House sparrows (Passer domesticus) try to steal nests while they are still under construction. I saw some sparrows roaming near the colony in Domène, but the nests were already occupied so I don’t know if they really expected something. Once the construction is complete, the entrance to the nest is too small for the sparrows to enter.

I observed adults flying high overhead, catching flying insects likes flies and aphids. They came to the nests, hanging to it while feedings the chicks appearing through the entrance. Sometimes they go inside, and we can see their head from the outside.

Chick, left and adult, right

Chick, left and adult, right

There was also this youngling that had already left the nest, but was still fed by the adult, except it was hanging on the outside of the cup, in full sight. Sometimes I noticed feeders with white at the back of the head; I suspect it was younglings from the first-brood helping to feed the second-brood, as House martins usually breed two broods a year.

Chick, right and adult, left

Chick, right and adult, left

The colony was vibrant with life: younglings and adult were squeaking, feeders were bumping into each other when going to the nests, while swifts were hunting insects nearby, gliding between houses at high speed.

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More pictures in my Wildlife gallery. Many pieces of information come from Wikipedia.

A walk in the mountains – Col vert

The A Walk in the mountains series

French word of the day: canicule = heat wave

These days, Europe is suffering from a heat wave. In France, temperatures have reached at least 40°C. What is really hard to bear, and also is a characteristic of heat waves, is the night temperature, which doesn’t decrease very much. As Wikipedia says, heat accumulates more in daytime than it evacuates during nighttime. There is no universal definition for heat waves, as it depends on the climate of a certain area. For instance, in Toulouse, in the south-west of France, we say that there’s a heat wave if the temperatures reach 36°C during the day while not going under 21°C during the night. I guess it’s more or less the same in Grenoble.

At home, we really take care of opening windows during the night and closing everything as soon as the outside temperature overcomes the temperature inside the house. To escape the heat, I also try to go out early in the morning. This Saturday, I woke up at 3.30 to go walking in the mountains. I met a friend in Vif, and together we headed to Col vert (“the green pass”, literally). The area is supposed to be a really good spot for mountain species while being quite easy to access. In the car, along the road, we saw two roe deers (Capreolus capreolus) and a Beech marten (Martes foina).

The walk (I tried to made it clear so that you understand it with the text; feel free to ask if you have any doubt)

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We started to walk at 5.30 with the rising day. Even if we were quite high in altitude, the air was abnormally warm, and it was an unpleasant hike. Still, there were some birds around, among them thrushes and blackbirds on the path and Eurasian blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) singing in the trees. We visited a tree formerly occupied by a Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), but the holes in the trunk were empty. Afterwards, we left the forest for open meadows covered by Apiaceae plants, these flowers sheltering countless insects, including bees. Above us, we spotted a male Common rock thrush (Monticola saxilis), displaying from a rock, but it was far away. In the sky, a Common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was circling, and we also saw a Rock bunting (Emberiza cia) singing. What a beautiful bird!

An Apiaceae flower

An Apiaceae flower

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We stopped in a field, overlooking Saint-Paul de Varces and the urban area of Grenoble. We were waiting for the Ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus), a close relative to the blackbird which is very common in the area. However, we could not see any, and the area was not very active anyway. Were the birds stunned by the heat? The Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis) was however omnipresent.

Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis)

Tree pipit (Anthus trivialis)

When we were getting dispirited, an Alpine marmot’s (Marmota marmota) cry woke us up. We turned round and discovered a gorgeous Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) patrolling above the ridge. The kestrel attacked it a bit later, probably trying to move it away from its younglings, but the eagle, unshakeable, simply followed its course. We saw it go to the south, then north again, but I failed my picture attempt, for I was not in “animal photography” mode. What a shame, but what a sight!

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We decided not to go to the pass, but to go to a spot renowned for the presence of the wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria). We climbed in boulders to close on the cliff, sat and looked up. After some time it showed up but did not stay long. The sun was already high in the sky, the stifling heat of the last days back, so we went down the mountain to find shelter at home. On our way, we visited the Tichodrome, a fauna shelter healing a lot of injured birds, including many birds of prey. By the way, tichodrome is the French name of the wallcreeper…

> Full gallery of the day