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’.

 

 

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!

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.’

 

 

 

 

 

Season of fruitfulness and unexpected plenty

20160907_122146The weather this last few days has been absolutely glorious and today the country is expecting somewhere or other to break the records for September heat: the hottest it has ever been this late in the year. Up here we have the paradox of Summer clasping hands with Autumn. Everywhere you look, there is plenty, bright sun and yet the feeling – despite everything – of emptying out. The arable fields have yielded their crops and along the newly-dug furrows our seagull friends do homage to the newly turned-over earth which has nurtured the cast-aside cereal they can fight over and enjoy. The roads are choked with agricultural vehicles bearing grain to the store beyond Bamburgh where it is weighed and dried. Just outside the kitchen window our vigorous fig tree keeps putting out more and more branches, bearing the tiny fruits which will never be ripe enough to eat; we are grateful for the tree’s optimism and fecundity, results which show that no effort is 20160907_122340ever in vain. Our apple in the front garden – far from ideally situated as it is overshadowed by several other lovely trees – is laden with rosy fruit; despite their size, they’ll be tasty and crisp, like last year’s crop. There are still plenty of colours out there, too. Though the wild roses have now finished flowering for good, their rosy-golden hips remain, both as food for the birds and as ornament to the world. The laden branches bend thoughtfully over the florets on the buddleia bushes, mostly brown now, and regularly dead-headed, but still a draw for the butterflies of all kids which have drunk from them hungrily over recent days. Nearby, other roses remain, cream and darkest pink; they will persevere for some weeks yet but their buds are increasingly unwilling to open, even when brought indoors. Several local families of swallows and housemartins are making the most of this Indian Summer, cascading across the sky and chattering wildly to each other as they gain confidence – and weight – when the majority, including our sandmartins, started their long journey in the mist and mournfulness at the end of last week. Thus, we are saying goodbye and good day simultaneously: things are different, but they are also very much the same. As Carl Sandburg wrote:

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.
The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

 

 

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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One season following another

20160609_173255Although the heathland meadow behind Bamburgh Castle is bejewelled with wild flowers of all kinds and though it is only the end of July, you can feel that summer is already preparing to move on – particularly when the weather’s dull or drizzly and rather sorry for itself – and the ebullience of the busy season is beginning to yield to the thoughtfulness of autumn, and that’s before August even begins. T S Eliot is right, about time past and time present; his words echo thus in our minds.

20160719_064455Last week’s sweltering heat, so very unusual up here, dissipated after a few days and fresh and fragrant air returned to residents unused to airless humidity. As normal temperatures resumed, signs of times changing were apparent all around.  While we set off at six for our morning run now that the school holidays are here, and the influx of holidaymakers makes even a coast as open and vast as ours feel crowded, you can’t help feeling as you run across the sand that everyone is living on summer’s borrowed time. Near Monk’s House on the beach, we even noticed an errant curlew skating overhead on its way back inland for a few more weeks, having, no doubt, had a cheeky look at the seashore he’d been missing since he took to the uplands a few months ago. Pause for thought. Though there are still plenty of puffins for the tourists to photograph out on the islands, the ones who choose to leave early for the North Atlantic will soon be gone and, gradually, the nesting colonies of guillemots, terns, kittiwakes and gannets will begin to decline. Though holidaying humans still have several weeks left to litter the shore with plastic gewgaws and unassimilated bags of dog pooh, the young sandmartins and housemartins are fledged and growing ever stronger, and it won’t be long before they abandon their aerial practices and begin their long trek south. In no time at all, things will be quieter all around.

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Things are packing up in the garden where, despite the ripening apples, foliage of all kinds is looking worse for wear. This year’s gulls have fledged and shifted, accompanied by a chaos of calling from the entire flock; the chimney breast, and the nesting material there, is now for the jackdaws’ taking; peace has returned for them at last, now the gull fledglings are busy tackling their various tests of flying the coast and foraging for food for themselves: a rude awakening, once the security of their adoring parents is withdrawn. So, while we enjoy long, long days, with regular flashes of the northern lights after bedtime, the light is gradually diminishing, day by day. And though we cannot see it, we can feel it, all around: though summer is here, it is already moving on.

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.