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.

 

Come one, come all

IMG_3304Although the World Conservation Union in its wisdom has good reason for  putting them on the Least Concern species list, in this household at least concern for the well being of last year’s little family of house martins has known no bounds. We have kept both our fears and our hopes well under control and entirely unspoken, lest the least whisper nourish either and all be lost. Yet we have longed for their return, knowing full well that there is every reason why they might be prevented from so doing.  Last October we pondered on their dramatic departure, and the burial of the last clutch of young, thrown from the nest by the parent who recognised she must sacrifice them, or sacrifice herself to the shortening days and worsening weather if she delayed her departure in order to raise them. As if we saw a premonition of the difficult winter we faced without them – to what fate they were abandoning us – the Sunday that she left the nest silent at last was a bereavement: the loss seemed almost intolerable; their fragile flight unimaginable, across terrain we will never see, thousands of miles from here over hostile territory, where dangers natural and man-made would assail them. Six months have since passed; six months in which we hoped they had enjoyed life on the wing, consuming thousands of insects, shone in the warmth of a southern sun, while we here endured a melancholic mourning. Theirs has been a dark, depressing absence. When we saw the sand martins in the dunes last week, our spirits rejoiced and a tiny hope arose like a dot of light on the horizon; would our house martins survive and, if so, would they choose to return to us as May got going and the days warmed up? We did not dwell on the response. She's back 7.23 5.9.15

But, this morning, as we entered the study  there they were, chattering away unmistakably in the nest just outside the window, newly arrived overnight and as loquacious as any holiday-maker who has reached his destination. As I ponder now they are busily warbling away as they tuck themselves in, having spent today on the wing above our rooftops, gathering strength by feeding and, in between, returning to clean out the nest. Now, as the sea mist intensifies, they have settled, and we can, too. It is a mysterious peace they bring.

Truly it can be said: that these little creatures, so perfect and so peerless, have negotiated life’s vicissitudes and safely found their way to us again is a wonder more blessed and staggering than all the black holes and dark stars and whatever else in our extraordinary universe, so enthralling to so many. Little chirruping thing: ‘thy life’s a miracle’. You honour us with your presence.

 

Come unto these yellow sands

20160506_070626Yesterday was, for us up here in the extreme north east of England, the first really lovely day of early summer. After a few weeks in which winter’s temperatures returned with a vengeance and, whatever else was happening with that light in the sky, it remained cold and windy, yesterday we all felt we had at last crossed the boundary between one climate and another. Today the sun’s warmth fulfilled its promise, rising cheerfully and posing charmingly above the islands and the sea. What wind there had been had dropped overnight, maybe to a 2 or 3 on the Beaufort Scale (there was no shipping forecast on the radio this morning, so Kemo Sabe says we can’t be sure); the beach was deserted, the tide a way off, the rocks revealed and the sands as comforting as the beams which warmed them.

On such a morning, as we all gaze in wonder out towards Holy Island and Cuthbert’s hermitage on Inner Farne, blessed beneath such an expressive sky and such promising light, sparkling with possibility, it’s not hard to see why this place has a magnetic quality and transformative power, too. One’s imagination fills with words from that poignant creature, Ariel, about how the sea brings home its riches, some of greater worth than others, to such a shore as this. The famous words are sung here as they were at Stratford for the RSC in 1978 by the much-missed actor Ian Charleson, with music composed by Guy Woolfenden, who died only recently and whom we will always remember for bringing the songs of our favourite famous poet and dramatist to life in memorable and unique ways.