Going, going, gone . . .

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All this week we’d taken it for granted that- – almost overnight – the swallows and martins had left us and had begun their long, perilous journey back to Africa.  We noted the empty skies above our favourite field where each afternoon I retrieve my beloved ball again and again and again; the absence of cheery clacking as the martins twirled and swooped near their nests until the toilet-block eaves. Seemingly, some dreary days had made up their minds to be off. None has been seen in that area, whether over the fields, the dunes or by the sewage plant. That emptiness again! All around, things are changing and the usual seasonal shifts are taking place. Young herons who were born in the little forest behind Bailey’s house still congregate in the early morning light, chatting and checking their individual progress in the survival stakes with which they must learn to contend. But soon they will relinquish the support of their brethren and tackle life alone. Even now each makes a tentative fishing forays along the shore, squawking hello in that delightful way as they pass in front or above our little band as we trundle along the shore.

The curlews have returned to the beach, bringing with them their ethereal cries, so redolent of this coast’s wide open spaces. Only yesterday they were the featured bird on BBC 4’s Tweet of the Day, to which we listened as Kemo Sabe prepared the breakfast bowls before our run.  Within the hour curlews accompanied us as we dodged the high tide along Bamburgh beach, where the going is so tough when the water’s up. Extraordinary, really; how blessed we are to hear daily those voices that will not be drowned and which for so many are a distant dream.

And then this morning, once Kemo Sabe turned the mower off to empty it, suddenly she realised she could hear the unmistakable chatter of house martins – some local ones –  those fighter planes of summer, at least three pairs, still enjoying the feast of flies provided; still, for the moment at least, content to leave departure a while longer. Like the warmth which comes and goes as summer reluctantly gives way to autumn, they are living reminders of time’s passing and, even as we watch their antics, we anticipate their silence. Almost simultaneously, high, high above and way off in the distance, a squadron of geese made themselves heard before coming into focus, returning to the pastures which will sustain them for the coming months.

If you would like to hear the curlew, you will find the recording here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09wvgfw

 

A robin redbreast of our own

bloIt’s been a funny year for birds. The appalling weather in March and April played havoc with the incoming migrant communities, particularly our returning colony of sand martins, whose holes among the sandy dunes have remained empty this season. House martins arrived very late, but seem to have done well in raising their families at Bamburgh links, though there are fewer occupied nests than in previous years. Yesterday I watched the swallows darting around and about in a big congregation, as is their wont when thoughts of returning south begin to dominate their thoughts. Tomorrow is the beginning of autumn in meteorological terms, and it can’t be that long until they leave us  – and our garden birds – once more to our own devices.

bPerhaps because the beginning of the breeding season was so disrupted, we have inclined even more acutely to our own homely creatures, taking delight in the sparrow families at front and back of the building, nesting in the martins’ boxes and under the eaves of next door’s roof, successfully rearing at least two broods apiece. We have attended to their family lives at every stage, and been privileged to be introduced to the little ones once they were big enough to fly down and partake of the food on offer, rain or shine. Parent and child; blackbird, blue tit and thrush; and the little robin whose mother brought along so carefully, to show him where he would always be welcome, as his life began. Now fending for himself, and beginning to produce his beautiful red breast, he is emerging from his rather unkempt babyhood into the independent yet companionable creature which makes the robin most loved of British birds.

blBorn in the lovely nest concealed by maple and holly behind our shed,several times a day he checks out the meal worm supply, which is regularly replenished, both in the little metal dish on the boiler cover and scattered widely across the grass. Intelligent individuality arms him with the courage to forage when others are more cautious. Alone of his kind, his real breastplate is a growing sense of self among a garden full of chattering sparrows and shrieking starlings; the confidence to stand his ground, when others flee, and thus to be rewarded with that extra portion which makes all the difference to a day’s provision. Bless you, little soul, and thank you for trusting your parents to our care. We are with you all the way.

 

In and out the garden

20180531_161831As we write this, the sparrows outside the spare bedroom window are shouting away, full of beans, their home in the martins’ nest alive with the sound of babies and their proud parents’ calls. At last, after the most protracted and disconcerting few months of uncertainty, things have settled down and all the creatures are getting on with life. Everything seems to have been compressed into the last few weeks but having said that, even now – ten days into June – our new oak has only recently come into leaf, the last of our trees to feel secure enough about sunlight and warmth to begin to burgeon forth. 20180512_072525After a good fifteen years of development, first in a planter at the other end of the country, latterly facing south in the garden soil not far from Uncle Johnny’s grave, the wonderful wisteria has relaxed and, in a minor way, let rip, several floral cascades complementing its lush foliage.

The two nearby firs have responded with bright green tips all over and, along from them, the Huw the Yew, planted just before the ‘Beast from the East’ hit everything for six, seems optimistic in its new growth. They say that yew trees flourish where good things thrive, so let us pray for this one’s continued health. No sooner was it in the ground when the snow fell and clung to its cold feet for days on end, apparently doing it no harm other than a bit of brown. These are trees that have seen everything, having endured as individuals often for many centuries, reputedly a thousand. It is humbling to plant a mature specimen and hope that it will honour us with its mysterious gaze for many many years. Perhaps most of all, because we ourselves will not be here to see it.

20180512_072636.jpgEven the humble bay, long one of us and also previously for many years in a planter, has never looked anything as glorious as it did when this spring finally arrived. Imperfectly cropped into a vague ball-shape over the years, its thick, dark green leaves generated lovely bunches of creamy, fragrant blossoms in which it was completely covered.  Ours is essentially a green garden, probably with more than forty shades as well. Looking across the range, you notice especially the sharp lime-yellow of the maple, nestling near the Lincoln-green of the hazel – both big trees now, after several years left to their own devices – and, in between them, the motley holly, which breathes better in the winter when the other two are asleep.

20180512_072441Near the oak, Johnny-Crab-Apple produced a promising crop of blossom in this his first season with us, presaging a little harvest for later in the year. The sweet chestnut has also grown well since being planted last autumn. Lots of new trees; lots of new greens: acts of faith, for the long-term pleasure of man and beast alike. The spiders, beetles, mice, frogs, toads and birds of all kinds speak the language of these (to them) leafy labyrinths and find under and about and within them the wherewithal to sustain their lives. In the black elder, our beloved collared dove has at last settled on her spindly nest of twigs to warm her new-laid eggs. She is patient and trusting, never moving when we stand beneath and talk to her. She knows what she does. And what we mean. The noisy sparrow children will soon fledge and, we hope, feeling secure about the plenty surrounding them, their parents will sit tight and start another family. The more, the merrier.

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

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.