Time out for a new culture Czech

AS we drove east from Munich after a comfortable flight from Cork with our national airline and its ever courteous staff, we crossed a range of heavily-wooded hills relieved by golden meadows: the gold being dandelions packed as tightly as pixels in a photograph.

I have never seen 10-acre fields of dandelions before. Were they a commercial crop? There was nobody to ask. On our approach to Munich we had seen huge fields of lemon-yellow oilseed rape below us, the farmlands of lowland Bavaria laid out in perfect geometry.

Beyond the mountains, in the Czech Republic, the landscape was less organised. Marsh marigolds bloomed in gay profusion along every water course and – a healthy sign – the windscreen of the rented car was soon splattered with the bodies of all manner of flies.

Common swifts in plenty crossed the skies above the beautiful old town of Budejovice in Bohemia, where my son lives, soaring, fluttering and gliding, black, cruciform shapes against the evening sky.

Travel is a great educator. In the local park, I saw something I have never seen before, a fieldfare thrush in resplendent breeding plumage feeding a two-inch long worm into the open gape of one of its offspring who set about gobbling it down with a gusto, despite its convolutions and wrigglings as it slowly disappeared.

Fieldfares do not nest in Ireland but visit us in the winter, when they are very wild and one often sees only the distinctive black tail of the departing bird. Leaving frozen Scandinavia and Russia in winter, they seek sustenance in our temperate isles – but last winter they, like thousands of redwing, died of starvation when a landscape blanketed in snow greeted them here.

The following day, in a wildlife reserve 15 minutes from the town centre, my wife and I, and my latest grandchild, heard our first cuckoo of the year. It was a sunny day and I had been careful to wear a hat so as to avoid a repeat of my Cape Clear Island burnout of the bank holiday weekend.

Then, a combination of absent-mindedness and a cooling wind resulted in my failing to wear sun block or sun hat, thus to end up sun-stroked and quite dizzy for two days following.

Thus, it was as well that our flight was cancelled by the volcanic ash on the Tuesday and I had time to recover.

!We’ve left a relation at home to earth up the new spuds and thin the lettuces.

Some 2,000 black-headed gulls nest on small lake islands at the nature reserve. Why do we call them sea gulls? Here in central Europe, they could hardly be further from the sea.

At the reserve, there were jabbering jays, booming bitterns, croaking frogs and cooing toads. The bitterns didn’t boom during the afternoon, but would have voiced their distinctive calls at nightfall.

As a schoolboy I learned the poem An Bunnán Buí, as did many an Irish child, a lament for a bittern that died of thirst, the ‘bittern’ in reality being the poet himself explaining the dangers of being deprived of drink. I had never seen a bittern before and was fortunate to spot it roosting on an island tree, amongst egrets and gulls, rather than skulking in the reed beds as is its habit.

Jumping fish put the heart across us as we walked the quiet paths between lakes, suddenly leaping clear out of the water alongside us. Some looked to be two pounds weight or more.

While the croaking frogs set up a raucous chorus, a pond-full of burbling toads made sounds like a flock of demented pigeons. Their cooing sound was so loud and resonant that I thought there was a dove cote attached to the house behind. Then, however, scanning the water between the bulrushes with binoculars I saw some grey lumps that sporadically, displayed a flash of bright yellow at one end. I concluded that they were amphibians and the red flash was the throat sac as it inflated to issue a comment, message or invitation for its companions to hear. Travel is a great educator.

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