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’.

 

 

Somewhere out there – soaring with the birds

20160920_070433-2Sometime earlier this year, at the height of the summer when our sky was filled with the life and light of the bustling birds, when hope was heavenly, when flowers curled around the stems, toads multiplied and martins chattered in the eaves, I listened to and wrote about Mahler’s music as I pondered their comings and goings. Now, at the end of a year, when we pass in the darkness before dawn  beneath the cliff with its empty sand martin nest-holes, when wind chases our heels as we run and whips our friends from our lives; now – in the depths of winter, and as storm after alphabetical storm tears across the sky, when nightmares haunt closed eyes and sleep eludes open ones; when everything is temptingly sour to the soul – it is time to listen and to be encouraged again.

Hearken to William Walton’s First Symphony, which is readily available online, if you do not have it at home. Listen to the questions posed, the answers given, the intensity without sentiment, and then imagine where are soaring the ones who’ve gone  – the singers of the songs, the little dogs who ran alongside us (two lost this week alone), the friends of yesteryear – and all that lies before us as we struggle on, as we must, to honour all those we have loved and lost this year. So very many, until it seems we can bear no more. But we must. For us there is only the trying, as someone famous once said.

You can find one excellent recording by the London Symphony orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, at this site:

Bird in the hand

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Today, with another magnificent sunrise, all are gone; well, apart from one or two very late migrators, that is. As the light gradually emerged, it was the sparrows and ducks we heard overhead  – not the sandmartins: their nesting wall was silent and abandoned, though basking in the autumnal sunshine as we passed beneath it this morning.

Film crews and stars have also packed up and 20160920_065657-2left us, after taking over all the car parks and bringing record crowds and traffic to the area over the weekend. On Sunday morning, the sky hummed with helicopters filming up and down the sands; only the security crew guarding the equipment and our little band were there, looking up into the dull, pre-dawn light at these extraordinary events, these sophisticated arrivals. But where there had been such frenzied activity and pavements-full of autograph-hunters, now there is only a forlorn line of lights, the last bits of kit awaiting collection, with nothing and no-one of note to illuminate any more. Yes, once again, things are very very quiet round here.

20160920_105243Yet, just up the coast, as we approached the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, there befell a small epiphany: a busy little bird suddenly swooped all amazingly through the open door of the barn-cafe where we we just about to sit with our elevenses and fell in confusion at Kemo Sabe’s feet. Like all truly miraculous moments it happened off-camera, like the reunion of Leontes and Perdita.  Kemo Sabe picked up the dazed little creature and held him to her, something she could never have imagined doing; steadying and encouraging him to overcome this setback and get him about his business, quietly astonished at the paraclete’s descent and the fact that it did indeed eventually revive, regain its equilibrium and fly away.

20160920_115954 On Lindisfarne itself, where seals were playing in the shallows near St Cuthbert’s hermitage, we were greeted by plentiful late swallows and martins feeding up in the ever-darkening sky (for the clouds were forming and the sun crouching as the weather front began to approach from the west). We were visiting as a kind of celebration of my recent fifth birthday, in honour of which Nico and I enjoyed a tiny bit of ice cream and, returning home, sausages with our dinner. But my magic day was made by a magic martin who said hello and goodbye in one fell swoop, an ineffable privilege which blessed us as we could never have hoped. So with Paulina we also say: ‘It is required you do awake you faith.’

 

 

 

 

 

Departure day

 

To the ones who stay

(After the martins have gone and Mahler continues to play)

Up on the wire they congregate

A few left ‘We’re already late’ . . .

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The Jackdaws are the ones who stay

They watch their nest holes every day

They gaze at empty chimney holes

Then grub about for lifeless voles

Reflecting on this Spring’s success

They sneer at all the seagull mess

Forced in between the chimney tops

The clearing up there never stops

They rest where once they croaked and crept

When gulls defended chicks that slept

Perplexed that Autumn brings release

That empty nests mean rooftop peace

They sun themselves and bend their wings

Their brains still full of magic things

They know their nest is safe and dry

Within our walls where wind won’t fly

That through the winter months we’ll stay

As vigilant and calm as they

That if they swoop they’re sure to sound

Out something tasty on the ground

They peer across the cable line

Their job accomplished one more time

Pleased with the sun whose late warmth flings

Substantial rays on parting wings

But not for them the southern way

For Jackdaws are the ones who stay.

 

The Sparrows too are ones who stay

Their endless chatter fills the day

As busy now as in the spring

Ferocity in everything

A swelling crowd both front and back

Their chirruping an awesome craic

Full lives and bellies everyday

No one can take success away

These dress-down omnipresent mates

A Winterful of warmth awaits

Though commonplace and so more known

Than those who’ve felt the chill and flown

Ancestral as this home must feel

Its every corner cranny real

They eye the empty eaves again

Their policy against the rain

They note the muddy nests they’ll fill

With next year’s brood if Nature will

Gossiping endlessly their way

A stand they simply won’t betray.

 

Woodpigeons could not choose to go

This is the simplest life they know

Their lumpen thoughts and lumpen ways

Need cosy lives and routine days

Their wings could never take their weight

To fly so far or follow fate

The greyness of this sky reflects

The silver blue about their necks

This is their countryside and here

They take their chances year by year

With Wren and Starlings leaning hard

They fight and forage in the yard

Tits too emerge again to feed

They have here everything they need

As much our friendship as supplies

They have no wish to cross the skies

They settle for what God may bring

As creatures all together cling

In wind and weather ‘til the Spring.

 

Losses are what we cannot bear

To know that they are over there

Somewhere we cannot understand

A different sun a different land

Where like our children now set free

They live their lives in liberty

So let his music fill the space

Where we once watched them soar with grace

Beloved birds we wait to see

What graceful serendipity

Brings that May moment when we heard

The chuckling of our favourite bird

Again . . .

 

This morning one or two still fly

But this time in a wintry sky

Reminding us they too will go

And leave us sad down here below

Filling the bowls twice every day

For all the homely ones who stay.

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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?

Babies by the bin

Blue_Tit_-Cyanistes_caeruleus_-inside_nest_box-4aIn addition to the daily excitement provided by our family of house martins, busily getting on nicely under the front eaves of our house, we are now focused on the activity in and out of Christopher Wren’s old nest box, where the blue tits are busy with their babies. Since our wren last used it, this little box – put up on the fence by the oil tank long before we came here – has mostly stood unused, though every year tits have shown an interest, preparing bedding, cleaning the entrance hole and even, one year, laying their lovely little eggs but then abandoning the unfinished job of rearing them.

DSC01664This unprepossessing and rather old nest box, which is only about four and a half feet from the ground (we would never have sited it there ourselves!) and lies just to the right of the rubbish bins,  has really taken the tits’ fancy. The site is just outside the kitchen window behind the sink, so perfect for bird-watching; though we thought they’d given up on the idea of nesting there, when the tits seemed to disappear to an alternative spot after several weeks’ attentive action around and about it, recently the feeding frenzy began, alerting us to the joyful fact that this was now indeed the chosen home to their new family.

Before it became obvious from the incessant to-ings and fro-ings that child-rearing was underway inside, and when we were all convinced that the box’s curious location had probably been its undoing, Kemo Sabe ventured a peek inside, just to see what they’d been up to – if anything. And there, in a small nest at the back (a tiny nest of felted  feathers and fur from Barnaby), was a little group of chicks, newborn, all giant, opaque eyes, stock still, playing dead. Not so much as a gaping mouth.

All day long the faithful parents come and go, bearing nutritious caterpillars, midges and tiny moths, their flight path typically taking them up and over the buddleia and into the woods beyond where the pickings are rich.  The wild roses covering their nest-box provide both superb cover and a useful perch from which to re-enter their home, every movement done with artistry and efficiency. When the pair meet outside, they beat their wings behind them with intense energy, speaking silent thoughts and communicating wordlessly, perhaps urging each other to take a break and call in at the fat ball feeder for a little something. Darkness, up here in north Northumberland, comes very late in June, long after we’re a-bed. By nine, activity around the nest has long ceased. As we wash the last cups of the evening, we imagine the family hunkered down within their cosy home, well provided for, safe within their thorny hedge. We know that with any luck all our lives will remain intertwined for years to come, as their surviving babies join them and the community of other fowls at the feeders in much, much harder times; when our house martins have thrown themselves upon the mercy of the wind in ways which none of us could ever have the courage to do.

Mansion building for beginners

 

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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:

http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/house-martin-survey

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.