Winter and rough weather

20170910_153823Soon we will look up and there will be no more left – the house martins and the swallows –  though it’s true that already there are fewer now than there were until quite recently. The migration has indeed begun:  the sand martins moved off a couple of weeks ago and so once again their sandy summer home, with its line of nesting holes, stands silent and forlorn. We pass beneath every day, aware of an eerie emptiness, filled now by the curlews’ cry. The air is sad; the vacancy almost palpable. Other hirundines remain – the ones with late broods – taking every opportunity a break in the weather offers to dodge the rain and winds in order to fly high and bring home the insects. The nests near Bamburgh Castle dunes still house several families, posing patiently as afternoon by afternoon Kemo Sabe records their presence in our midst. One afternoon soon, they too will have gone . . .

20170908_162414In one way, saying hello to the autumn is easier because our own family house martins did not return to their nest on the south wall this year, so the pain of absence is less keenly felt because less immediate. But when the martins and the swallows marshall on the wires each morning, or wheel about across the sky each evening – their lovely inescapable routines – we cannot but pause and ponder on what their loss will mean and what we must endure before we are blessed with their return to us next spring. Despite erratic, frequently wet days, our cheerful visitors have graced the skies whenever given the chance and, like hope, have so far yet to abandon us.

Our winds on the north east coast, though notable within our own country, are but breezes compared to the mighty hurricanes of terrible ferocity which currently shake the peoples and places of the Caribbean, Texas and Florida.  We pray for all those affected so far, and those sheltering in fear of what nature has in store; the loss of livelihoods, homes and, indeed, everything.  At this time of the year, which we always think of as the natural beginning of a new year, things change very markedly. Good will and gentleness seem to be in short supply as the blooms buckle and the leaves fall, the stoves lit, the hatches battened and the sun retreats. What were sprinklings of sparrows gather into ubiquities, as the season stirs them to gather in every-increasing numbers. Their evolutionary task accomplished for this year, they fare forward, safe in the knowledge that they have a home and a ready supply of food. Thousands of miles separate the hirundines from their destination and us from our neighbours watching and waiting for the Angel of Death to pass. But we hold them all close to our hearts: ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

 

 

Castles in the sand

20170815_060754A simple sight to record today:  nothing more. A bevy of beautiful castles greeted us on Bamburgh beach this sunny morning at six. Untouched by the tide, so high and so difficult to negotiate for the last few days, these lovely creations are a credit to a particularly British habit of holiday competitiveness. King Oswald’s fortress smiled above them, benignly.

20170815_063233It is one of those days when the best came early. Bright sunshine, an empty beach – only two ‘people’ and Jackie seen on our run – no dogs; fantastic fun. We even saw our first curlew –  though failed to capture it clearly on this photo – newly returned from the high ground inland, ready to reclaim the beach for the winter months. August is indeed weary. When we spotted him, he was silhouetted against the sea, at the edge of the rocks and he is still there – somewhere, like Oswald, whose feast day we recently celebrated.

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‘What lovely behaviour . . . ‘

20170718_101406Overhead, as the afternoon comes to an end amidst a warm glow, the sky is full of  shrieking gulls cheering their children on their maiden flights. Gathering confidence, the tyros swoop and hover, embracing and enjoying their freedom more, encouraged by their relatives’ masterly manoevres. Our seagull family has this summer produced three healthy offspring – Teresa, May and Boris – whom they attended with customary attention to detail and aggressive protectiveness. This week, without much in the way of the attendant drama to which we’ve grown accustomed over the years, all three have quickly quit the chimney cradle and local rooftops and headed into the summer sky.

Adult herring gulls take their parental duties with Biblical seriousness, putting many human families to shame. Now that the tourist season is in full swing, some words from No Country for Old Men come to mind: ‘Who ARE these people?’  The piles of astonishing litter replicate daily: little ones’ hats, shoes, sandals, spades, kites, flags, plastic toys, are cast on to the sand, and lie there for days – of little worth and given less thought. Children run hundreds of yards ahead of their elders – focused on their phones or chatty friends – along perilous ground and into unanticipated dangers. Should they break an ankle in a rabbit hole, or gash themselves on another’s broken glass, their parents wouldn’t know until it was too late. Screaming as they run in panic towards doggy-kind of whatever size and shape, cut adrift from parental guiding hand, too frequently they seem more an encumbrance than an integral joy. We trundlers, on our afternoon and early morning routes, held on our leads lest we offend, simply by being there, stand to attention and patiently let them pass, sometimes for ages. No one is really thinking at all, or thinking of anyone else, come to that! Hey ho!

20170728_112659.jpgIn the black elder in front of the house, a collared dove sits quietly and utterly relaxed upon what looks like a really comfortable bowl of a nest. Yesterday while gardening with Barnaby for company, Kemo Sabe glimpsed the tufted baby peeking over the edge, its parent away temporarily to find a bite to eat for them both. Attentive and always alert, yet peaceful in its gloriously comfortable little home, we are thrilled by its presence and honour it silently.

These things, these things were here and but the beholder/Wanting, as Gerard Manley Hopkins – whose birthday falls today – once said.

 

 

All nature has a feeling

20170716_101125[1]Everywhere we look are remarkable things. At the bottom of the front garden, in the black elder tree, right at Kemo Sabe’s eye-level, a perfectly pinkish-grey collared dove sits patiently on her nest, flattened against discovery. The hebe beneath the study window has burst into white spears in FB_IMG_1499806190300today’s full sun; the front sparrows – as we call them – use its protective labyrinth all year, to chat and shelter in. Solitary and honey bees search among its blooms, pondering where its scent is strongest. The tiny fir we moved to a sunnier spot beside the gooseberry; a specimen which once served as a Charlie Brown tree, one Christmas when we had little room for anything bigger – is sprouting nicely, now it has room to breathe and be itself at last, having emerged from the dark beneath the elder where only ferns and ground geraniums flourish. The rhubarb –  always a prodigious provider – is bold and brash, pulled regularly in order to keep the neighbours supplied with crumbles, puddings and pies. The blackcurrant bushes bend with fruit, bowl-fulls picked repeatedly but just as quickly replenished from Nature’s store. On the heath behind the FB_IMG_1499927845621castle, all kinds of wild flowers flourish: orchids and oxlips, cranesbill and such. Magical mushrooms burst into fluffy pompoms, perhaps teasingly concealing the danger which lurks within. We cannot name them, only admire. Across the mere, young herons gather as is their custom. They speak but little to each other, their silent stillness resonating with reflection on their solitary lives to come.  All around, the green life of change is visible. On days like today we can easily agree with Isaiah when he says:

the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Just one of those days

20170710_064337This morning, trundling along the beach (so far, so routine), it felt different. It was just one of those days: magic, despite evidence being to the contrary. Rather grey and utterly still; the sea quiet, and almost indistinguishable from the sky. A tide drawing ever nearer (by the end of the week, we’ll be watching our step), but plenty of sand still stretched ahead of us, and the waters themselves touched the shore tentatively, gently. Looking about, you might expect it to be chilly, were it not 14 degrees and so a good five more than yesterday, when the sun was bright and clear. Obviously, the clouds were on our side. The unexpected nature of perfection can surprise us; it is true that – often – we get what we need.

20170710_064625.jpgIt seems months, and probably is, since we left the dark morning runs and Kemo Sabe’s vital head-torch behind. It will be several months until they resume. Meanwhile we sustain an ever-growing number of holiday-makers for whom a morning such as today’s, and the deterioration in conditions which followed it, is usually a disappointment, deterring all but the weather-hardened from the beach, and crowding the coastal castles, their galleries, gardens, grounds and tea-rooms instead.

20170510_074634On such a morning, there’s a kind of hush, as though a great juggernaut has just past by, as visitors sigh and rest a while longer on their pillows, gathering their thoughts and changing their plans in the face of the weather forecast, while the locals quietly look about them, the veil lifted in the peace.  Above the kitchen window, some resident sparrows  – who’ve already raised one brood (pictured here) in their house-martin box – decide to mate again, committing themselves to each other for more weeks of tireless work, placing their faith in something bigger, and another day. Part of the joy of this area of England is the changeability of the weather, sometimes from hour to hour. Only this Saturday, it was sweltering and the place was full of folk. But this morning was magic and then the rain came, and the birds took to the mere, bringing the bird-watchers joy. ‘The Poet sees!/ He can behold’, as Longfellow writes:

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!
How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!
Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!
The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.
From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Engulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.
In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!
In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man’s spoken word.
Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.
These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.
He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,–
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.
Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

Solomon in all his glory

IMG_20170507_150455Yesterday, as we put on our winter woollies for another outing, we heard that the west of England was bathed in sumptuous sunshine. Well, we weren’t up here! Winter, or at least a kind of winter, had returned, with strong northerly winds and persistently grey skies.  Days and days of relentlessly depressing cold beset us and our dogged avian friends – all smiles and nestlings one minute; brooding in the east wind the next. What, we wondered, do they make of it, the magnificent little blue tits (‘I was born in that box!’), dutifully prising individual strands from clumps of Barnaby’s discarded pelt? Undeterred by the vicissitudes of the weather, they hunker down and warm each other in the shelters our demesne affords them, in sure and certain hope that all things will eventually change and that they’ll soon find comfort again, even if only in a rare bit of watery sun. On the beach the sand martins that arrived a few weeks ago had already developed additional nest holes in the dunes, suggesting that their numbers will be even  greater this year. Every morning we try to count them; an idle but compulsive activity to which we look forward, wondering what difference the awful weather would make to their plans to replenish themselves after a three-week flight. We saw nothing of them at all when the wind was at its worst, terribly cold and fierce. Such resilient creatures must have shrugged at such little local difficulties after the dangerous journey they’d made successfully from the south. Huddled safely within their shelters, they must have laughed at our concern, for their spirit – and their faith – are stronger than ours.

And they were right to lean hard, and hold on; for, by this morning, the wind had dropped and, by lunchtime, was coming from the south-east. As if by magic, the first local house martins appeared in the sky above our lane, chuckling with pleasure at the insect life awakening all around them. The nest from which ‘our’ family of martins moved on last June has been commandeered by sparrows, the chirping of whose babes within can be clearly heard from the study window. Yes, we hold the ones who stay very close to us indeed. Other sparrow families have moved in to the man-made martin nests installed last autumn, and a loquacious starling brood is living on a ledge under the guttering above a bay window; rattling calls alert us to the delivery of a new worm, every so often, as the parent tucks itself under and in to the nursery.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4 celebrated International Dawn Chorus day with a unique broadcast in which radio stations across Europe joined forces to track the rising sun across the continent from Moscow to Dublin, relaying the aural landscape of birdsong as the creatures woke and staked their claim on the day. This ambitious project resulted in a moving and humbling symphony of sound, to which the wild birds of Europe freely contributed out of sheer joy.  You will find access to the broadcast and episodes from it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08pdfyw

 

 

 

A week of sun and sausages

120px-Sand_Martin_(Riparia_riparia)_(14)The sand martins have begun to return to the nesting holes! Joy unconfined! Proof, if proof were needed, that life is gathering speed in our midst and that we – the watchers and the waiters – are worth the candle.  The wind-blown nesting places which have lain forlorn – and indeed unseen – as we passed beneath them on the 20160425_073658darkest mornings, are now alive with the chattering of the creatures which, with miraculous accuracy, have located them as home for yet another breeding season.  As of today there are at least four pairs, but, when the wind turns southerly again, numbers will shoot up and soon the dawn will be full of their gossiping voices.

20170331_125642Around and about our home itself, our friendly neighbourhood bird life is busy, too. Any returning house martins will be terribly disappointed to find that the boxes erected especially to attract them to our eaves have one and all been commandeered by our fat little sparrows, most numerous of ‘the ones who stayed’. Even the two natural clay martin nests are now providing bed and board to chatty couples, late risers though they be; unlike the sand martins they never celebrate the early morning sun or greet us on our return home after the run. But the dawn chorus of blackbird, robin and the rest is intensifying day by day and the dawn obliterates the moon ever earlier. Our jackdaws have kept an eye on their chimney throughout the winter, and now look set to get cracking with a brood. The feeders are kept full, so starlings newly returned to them can have a mouthful, too and, to the box in which they successfully raised their clutch last spring, have returned our blue tits, busy all day, every day, and so conveniently near the nuts and fat balls.

20170401_141432But if the birds know what they are about, that is more than can be said for the sausages. It says it all about the serendipity which characterises our little posse that a family get-together last Saturday at the Scottish Dachshund Club Championship Show, ended with both Nicholas and his sister, Tiggy, having qualified for next year’s Crufts. Having achieved second place in their respective classes, the terrible twosome will now be heading Birmingham-wards next March, ‘for the experience’, as they say. This picture captures all the chaos of the aftermath, 20170401_120107both from the confused disposition of the certificates (which, in a way, says it all) to the restlessness of pup Frederick, their tiny nephew, whose intervention displaced the intended line up. We are grateful to the friendly judge who found Tiggy and Nico worthy: it was a lovely surprise. Who knows, once he reaches six months young Fred will probably honour the ring with his presence and may even qualify as well!