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.

 

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.

 

 

Welcome hither as is the spring to the earth

20160425_073658It is with something like delirious joy that we can report the return of the sand martins to our dunes.  Forerunners – we hope – to the house martins we’re just longing to welcome back to our part of the world, the first sand martins suddenly turned up last Thursday, resuming their domestic duties in their perfectly preserved and previously abandoned little nest holes which pock-mark the dunes above our sandy morning trail. Increasing in number every day since then, the sand martins’ aerial dances are becoming more hysterical and expressive as families are reunited and old friendships renewed: how relieved they must be to have completed such a marathon safely, having made it back to the land of Oswald and Aidan once again, all the way from the other end of Africa. Unfortunately, the wind turned northerly today, so sand martins still on the wing – and there must be thousands of them – will find it tough to push north, if our little kingdom is their desired destination.

At the end of our run along the beach, the sky blackened with impending rain and, by mid-morning there was a tiny blizzard, which we thought was cherry blossom blown upon the wind. How fond we are! Despite the gales, the sun has supervened and it’s been a cheery day. Christopher Wren checked out his nest box and was dismayed to find the blue tits well ensconced therein; he helped himself to a consolation prize of dried meal worms  and then disappeared into the hedge, probably to check out another favourite site. Above us, on our chimney stack, the jackdaws are content and busy, much more relaxed since last year’s gulls have found another nest site and stopped staring down into the jackdaws’ nest. You can see how intimidating these intelligent creatures find the herring gulls, staring with their beady eyes and daring them to move towards the entrance.

It is remarkable how much pleasure the birds give to us all. We watch the bulky wood pigeons, so patient and so ungainly, yet so capable of stillness, and chase them into flight when we get the chance. We wish that the starlings, so numerous, so noisy, wouldn’t eat all the fat balls, put out for the sparrows, our loyal little friends. We long, one day, to see a raven for real – the magic corvid who found St Oswald’s severed arm. Every day we notice more and more of the wonderful in the entirely ordinary. Every morning, winter and summer, the sands below the massive fortress of Bamburgh are our palette, on which the imagination works its colours and, on the anniversary of his birth and death, the words of the most famous of all famous poets come, once again, to mind:
The blessed gods,
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here!

Visitor from afar

IMG_3305 The other day we were all looking up at the now-empty nests in the church porch of St Aidan’s in Bamburgh. Until a month or so ago they were hives of activity for the extended family of swallows who have summered with us for the last twenty years. In South Africa, a friend has mentioned that ‘our’ Bamburgh  swallows are now with her. Thus it is that the miracle of the imagination creates wondrous relationships, spanning thousands of miles, with the ease of the miraculous.

Though the weather is currently really warm and sunny, we never really know how the days will turn out and this weekend when we put the clocks back, the blanket of the dark will settle on us for many months to come.  Here among the Dickens Dogs our thoughts go to the land far, far away where – we hope – our own family of house martins will by now be well and truly safely ensconced in their winter home. The silent nest outside Kemo Sabe’s study window awaits a joyful return early next summer; for now, it sadly reflects mere memories of egg-shell and feather while the little family enjoy plentiful insect-life snapped up on the wing, as they dart and dash about over countryside very different from this.  I wonder, do they ever think of the home they toiled so over, as we think of them? Such fancies come and go, as the leaves begin to settle and time moves slowly on.

IMG_3304Yet, in the interim, art and nature have combined in a sculptor’s hands to bring forth a special prize. We have a new friend here, an over-wintering house martin of clay and wire, a magical creation summoned from America’s South to warm us while we wait. Her bill is sharp and shiny and her eyes are lively enough to mock us with art. As someone famous once went on to say, ‘There is an air comes from her: what fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?’ For this lifelike and entirely charming creature we thank the artist who so loves birds and undertook to bring the joy of the house martin back into our lives. If you have a special bird you would like to bring into your life, take a look at this lovely website:

http://www.doudoustudio.com/

We pray our family of house martins may make a safe return to us in the fullness of time. All that is required is that we do awake our faith.