Mahler and the martins

220px-Emil_Orlik_Gustav_Mahler_1902On Sunday morning, to the glorious soundtrack of Mahler’s Symphony No 5, we found our imaginations soaring with the aerial antics of our house martins. The morning was very warm and sunny, a wonderful change from the dank and murky days we’d endured previously. The plankton of the insect world was rising from the fields and with them – as the second movement swirled into life – our martin family, whose darting and dashing and dry chattering around and about the rear of the house nabbed our attention, so we watched in growing amazement at both their presence and what they were doing.

Having emerged from their nest at the south of our house, the family was flying free over the garden and over the patio, rising and falling, transfixing us – we poor earthbound things  – with their agility and purposefulness. Their noisy calls from on high drew our attention to their clinging in twos under the eaves. It was as though they were practising for an air show, pushing off into a round of flight before returning to the precarious foothold above the windows, where the lintel provided a generous half inch of solid ground to which to cleave. What was all this about?

DSC01682Kemo Sabe was the first to notice that where the little creatures had been holding fast, brown blobs were apparent, muddy blobs which certainly hadn’t been there before. Nest building, or practice for it anyway, was underway. Was this to be a new nest, an additional one for the younger generation or for new arrivals to the colony? The adagietto gave us time to think.

Only the day before, having breakfasted as usual, our little blue tit family had upped and quit their fur-lined nest-box under the wild rose. The parents began undertaking much longer flights to serve them, nipping over the fence, high above the neighbouring gardens and up the lane to an oak full of the caterpillars they love which we can clearly see from upstairs. It felt then, as Mahler’s music unfolded loud and clear, as though the inevitable sadness of losing our daily visual commentary on the vicissitudes of the blue tits had been assuaged by the invention of the house martins, whatever they were up to – and still are – as the days roll by and the blobs in one area coalesce into the base for a nest.

Whatever the answer may be, we cannot hold, or truly understand, any of these creatures, any more than we can explain in words why this sublime orchestral exploration of life’s light and shadows is so electrifying and why, as we watched their spirits unfolding in the sky, its twists and turns enhanced and expressed the birds’ activity to perfection that Sunday morning. We thank you Radio 3  for this auspicious choice. Most of all, we thank you as warmly as we can, Herr Mahler: has there ever been a composer so life-affirming, so all-embracing, so moving?

Mansion building for beginners


Nesting in West Woodburn, Northumberland (Wikicommons)

Just outside the study window, the house martins are resting in their little mud home, intermittently jabbering to each other about this and that as they reflect on the day now drawing to its close. It has been a funny old day, too, cold, dark and wintry to begin with, to be sure, and remaining cold, even though the sun eventually awoke and opened its arms, warming the birds’ wings as they worked their way acrobatically across the sky. You could forgive them for staying close to home; who knows how much more needs doing before the little ones can come into the nest.

Beside me, Kemo Sabe notes the time of this burst of activity, as we sit together silently and monitor the little birds’ lives for half an hour or so, carefully logging our unpretentious findings on the webpage. The House Martin Nest Survey is one of the many surveys organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. If you love birds of whatever kind and live in the United Kingdom, the exceptional BTO is for you, particularly because it inspires ordinary bird-lovers to harness their interest in the service of science. Check out the details of the house martin survey to see what we mean:

We’ve also learnt a lot about these marvellous creatures  from Dutch ornithologist Theunis Piersma’s Guests of Summer: A House Martin Love Story, which the BTO has recently published. It’s heartening to read that someone else is as mad about them as us! In this little book reside all the received wisdom about them, as well as the mysteries remaining. As for our own little field study, we can say with confidence that there are fewer house martins round our way this May than there were last year; the nest under the eaves of our neighbour across the road has not been populated yet, and it’s getting very late now for new arrivals. Across the country as a whole, the tiny plankton-like insects the martins spend their days on the wing catching –  so very high up above us  – have diminished in numbers, destroyed by decades of pesticide use and destruction of trees in the landscape, not to mention the covering over of domestic gardens with concrete and crushed stone. In the course of Kemo Sabe’s lifetime, the nesting population of house martins has declined by over two-thirds in the UK.  We are just thankful that our corner of the country is population-poor and wildlife-rich; that our fields are full of sheep and cattle, and that visitors can still find special birds here, sharing their world with us but only, of course, as long as we support them.