And if one brown seagull should accidentally fall . . .

IMG_1730One of Uncle Jonny’s nicknames (and he had any number, ranging across the gamut of his funny ways, talents and naughtinesses) was The Seagull.  One of his particularly loving young friends always referred to Uncle Jonny by this soubriquet, which was indirectly derived from a rather pretentious little book popular years before our dear old friend was born. Maybe for this reason, as well as for its own venerable qualities, the seagull  – more properly the gull, as a pedantic bird watcher insisted – has always had a place in our hearts, standing in as our living ones do for our late lamented brother with his own inimitable kind of fun and games.

It looks as though the saga of this year’s intense rearing is finally drawing to its end, with yesterday bringing the crisis in which the cherished siblings started their vertical jumping with simultaneous arm-flapping, imitating the action of a helicopter hovering, however briefly. As a result of this discombobulation, Peter ended up a little further from home than he had intended, landing on the slope of the roof, down which he slid backwards, arms outstretched, until he braced his flippery feet against the guttering, all the while facing towards the tiles, hanging on for grim death. The final IMG_1727indignity came when he dropped a storey, to land on top of the front bay window, where he has now been for over twenty four hours, by turns standing to attention and curled up sleeping.  This charming drama was watched with engaged excitement as it initially unfolded yesterday morning by the visitors breakfasting across the road, who shouted their encouragement to poor Peter as they downed their Full English Breakfasts.  It is almost impossible to see this dear creature as a ‘flying rat who should be shot’, which was a local’s denunciation of this child struggling for independence from its doting parents. They have continued attentively to feed and sit with Peter where he landed, no doubt hoping to tempt him back to their eyrie but he won’t be persuaded and he seems quite happy where he is until he gains the confidence for his first flight.  While patient Paul remains in situ on the chimney breast, Mary’s helicopter routine landed her on the roof ridge, just a hop away from the place of her birth, and there she has squawked her way through the day. As I write, I have only noise to report about, but fear not: both we and the kindly neighbours have tinned mackerel ready should extra rations be needed, or should one or other of the triplets fall further. Our arms are ready!

Place in the sun

IMG_1710A new addition to the stumpery is this reclining stone spaniel, probably as heavy as I and now placed not far from Uncle Jonny’s grave where they can keep an eye on each other. It is old and lovely and, from a distance, incredibly life-like. I am thrilled to have been commemorated in my lifetime and shall do my best to be thought worthy by continuing to deliver the daily canine goods to all I meet.

IMG_1705As I write, England is expecting a heatwave, though up here where it never swelters, we should only get to the mid- or high seventies Fahrenheit. This morning, on a very high tide with very little beach left to run along, we all skirted the gentle foam as the fingers of the sea reached to catch our ankles and Newman was allowed a morning swim against the prevailing wind and tide, which helped to tire him out, though in this picture he is gazing up at Peter, Paul and Mary (who are merrily peeping continuously and maturing everyday). Up in their own sunny little world.

IMG_1712My small band of loyal readers includes a person in Brazil, and we all wonder what  someone in such an enormous and fascinating country could find of interest in my pitiful ponderings. Lately of course Brazil has been much in our minds, and we have tried to find out more about it; with every change of venue during the World Cup (O good, it’s Costa Rica tonight, we would shout!), we would check the atlas and locate the stadiums of the day in their disparate locations, so far flung, so exotic – the humidity, the sun!  Despite the woeful awfulness of our own over-indulged footballing side, we enjoyed others’ efforts in the sun hugely and saw some real heroism on occasion, too.  Running for the ball into the sea had never seemed such fun (‘And today I was Klose’, I began to compose in my head).

My little world is currently lush and green, with plenty of grass to chew and bees to watch and listen to, against the aural backdrop of Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles at the end of La Boheme. The overwhelming emotions evoked by Puccini’s music throw into relief the fact that our dear Jeoffry is looking thinner these days and that, like the rest of us, he is not getting any younger. But at least he has the sun to sit in, as do we all.

And to our reader in Brazil: a special greeting and thank you for being there!

More fur and feather

IMG_1701 In the short few days between taking these shots of our famous triplets – the top one was taken last evening –  you can see how fast they are developing their adolescent plumage from the fluffy down which recently adorned them. Tended by their adoring parents, Peter, Paul and Mary are bigger than ever and ever hungry. Until recently, when one of them peeped for something to eat, the tiny but piercing noise would be accompanied by a gentle but perceptible lifting of the wings, an endearing trope indeed. In turn each is now extending those little wings, strengthening their resilience in preparation for the harrowing first flight, whenever they are ready to try.  How extraordinary that a seabird so commonplace, and indeed so loathed by even some of the people round here (happily not Works All Hours and All God’s Creatures Welcome, whose chimney stack features here), daily brings so much pleasure and joy to us as they go about their little lives.

IMG_1689The simplest things are so often the most precious. Indeed, as I write this, Kemo Sabe has had to greet and feed the visiting Mantalinis who are currently chowing down on the front lawn, their glowing colours and splendidly mottled feathers a wonder of the world. Similarly, the rotund sparrows which bustle and beep in all the bushes, dashing across the garden from rose to honeysuckle, cheeping and chirping with joy apparently undiminished by a turn-down in the weather, such as we had yesterday. The opulence of nature is adorned with the glories of commonplace natural life: tadpoles in the pond, snails on the gate, and starlings, blackbirds and thrushes thrusting nutrition down the throats of the next generation as quickly as we can keep the supplies topped up. Together as we are, all year round, our native species and we the creatures of the house are all in it together and all the better for that.

Bats up belfries and chicks on chimneys

IMG00409-20140626-0650Peace and tranquility reigned very early yesterday morning on Bamburgh Beach, as we gazed out towards Inner Farne. We appreciate the privilege of putting our paws on the sand before anyone else; later in the day when the temperature reached an unlikely 84 Fahrenheit, the place was transformed and not for us.  We have never known the area so busy, despite the fact that there’s a month to go before the schools break up for the summer. Out on the islands, wildlife is bustling hither and yon: the now-famous Bridled Tern is still in residence, offering his charming profile for keen photographers who have come from all over the country to admire him. Guillemot babies, known as ‘jumplings’, as yet unable to fly, are busy throwing themselves into the sea by way of a first foray-forth. Puffins are everywhere, smiling broadly and flapping wildly as they fly over the boat trips.  This afternoon once the sky had darkened and wind arisen, in fairly choppy water over rocks near the shore, we saw a mother Eider duck bobbing up and down with two little ducklings. As buoyant as corks, they bravely negotiated the waves, keeping close to their attentive mother, though theirs was a worrying kind of independence.  The Mantalinis visit most days, but as yet we have seen no little ones; by contrast, generation upon generation of thrushes, robins, wood pigeons, sparrows and starlings several times a day muscle their way on to the feeders and bird tables, mothers and fathers sharing their precious little ones with us as they all snaffle up the seed.

IMG_1675Up on the roof, Peter, Paul and Mary are becoming more Falstaffian in girth by the day: amazing what nourishment is to be found in crab legs and cold chips! Relative darkness having prematurely fallen and a brisk wind darting drops of rain on the newly-watered garden, the triplets are currently a-bed, watched over by the parent on duty on that charming cowl no matter what time of night or day. Perhaps tomorrow will afford a jollier shot of our favourite family. Most of the roofs round here have their share of guano, courtesy of their respective resident gulls. Some try dissuading the birds with spikes but we are all thrilled that the gulls are unimpressed by such hostility. One of our chimneys, as every year, has jackdaws nesting within it (which can bring its own problems) but we enjoy the cackling of these little crows and knowing that their little ones will eventually join us in the garden we are thrilled to share with them. Yes, the window-cleaner cannot come too regularly at the moment, and the garden seats need washing nearly every day, but what a sad, clean world it would be without the swooping and whooping which characterises our lovely feathery brethren.

PSM_V07_D662_Common_english_batThere’s been much discussion in the British press this week about the damage being done by bats, who are protected, to the historic churches where they often live. Their droppings cover the floor and furniture, their urine scorches monuments and fabrics; the discovery of their very presence halts vital preservation work. Restorers and bat lovers are at war. It is ironic that these sweet little creatures, for whom we all have especially warm feelings as we watch them darting about as dusk falls every evening, should be so populous in buildings that humanity has, for the most part, abandoned, other than for academic interest. Surely, the Great Spirit welcomes them; perhaps they ponder, as do I, on the terrible destruction wrought in those very churches centuries ago and how much of beauty and significance was lost for ever because of the vanity of man, not because of the innocence of the tiny flying mouse.

Up on the roof

IMG_1672Behold! Amongst the blanched bits of vegetation up on next door’s roof you can see that our beloved herring gulls have once again had a successful breeding season, this year producing no less than three delightful chicks.  Things were definitely stacked against them this summer, as Works All Hours next door had at last found the time to stick up the bird spikes which had been gathering moss for years on the recycling bin by the garage, though the snails got the better of the cardboard box they sat in. I wrote last year about what doting parents our gulls are, spending months feeding and reassuring the youngsters long after they have fledged.

The first chick this couple introduced to us was Nigel, whose first flap into the air landed him in our back garden, which gained him a (temporary) limp. He proved so dependent on his long-suffering parents that he hung around the nest-site for months, demanding food well into the autumn and returning regularly long after that. We inferred that he must have had to re-sit the examinations our Northumbrian seagulls must pass in order to qualify for independence (titles such as Shoreline, Scavenging for Chips, Flying as Far North as Berwick, etc.) a number of times.  We loved Nigel: he was Special Needs, requiring not only weeks and weeks of parental input but such interventions as having the National Trust man remove him from our garden to the flat roof beneath his parents’ nest so that Works All Hours’s kindly, animal-doting wife could feed him tinned mackerel and, we all hoped, stop him jumping into any more trouble. After Nigel, two sets of twins came along: Charlie and Lola and then last year, George and Peppa.

IMG_1662When the successful parents returned to the chimney to start this year’s parenting marathon they were dismayed to find their spot bristling with deterrents.  We were all worried, and sad to be denied the daily fun of watching the creatures grow under their wonderful parents’ care. But we soon found one of the spikey strips jettisoned on our drive, cast down contemptuously by proud creatures determined to make the site work, no matter what. Moreover, grass soon began to grow, as if nature were colluding to make things more comfortable now it had something to latch on to. We became aware that eggs had not only been laid but hatched when the mottled chicks’ peeping chatter pierced the summer afternoon last week. That there are three little souls is so thrilling. We have never doubted that this breeding pair means business; so healthy and organised are they that an extra babe is taken in their stride. So the Dickens Dogs introduce you to Peter, Paul and Mary. I shall keep you informed of how things go up there, on the roof.

The first death


Who’ll be chief mourner?

‘I,’  said the dove,
‘I mourn for my love . . .’

Today the news is justifiably full once again of the catastrophic weather conditions which are currently afflicting this country. Someone or other mentioned in the papers that in fact things are not so bad really, and that what folk have been going through isn’t a major disaster, because as yet no lives had been lost in the waters or wind. Well, here on a sunny rather bracing Thursday –  windy yes, but nothing special for up here; where it’s rained really not that much over the last six weeks and the seas haven’t been that remarkable – you can see a little life that has been lost, our friend the herring gull. His natural beauty, the miracle of his lustrous feathers, even on a sandy plain, moves me to thought and brings me to his side. It makes me ponder the countless birds brought down in these biblical floods; the starving thousands of garden birds, cut off from their food supplies. I can only barely imagine the terrifying confusion of the creatures of the underworld – mice, rats, moles, badgers, voles of all kinds – drowned where they lie before they can even think of trying to run from the homes they thought their havens. What will become of us, the onlookers cry? What does the future hold? Is this the autumn storm, the winter thaw, a spring deluge? The world’s turned upside down. In my warm and snuggly bed, I know that more is coming, that more little souls will die.  Who knows what lies in store, for any of us?


IMG_1044This is a special day! Although you all have been living through several such days over the last decade, where the odd-numbered day, month and year go up in a neat progression, there won’t be another one along for a while: this precise mathematical pattern won’t be possible again until the first of March 2105. Will there be any Dickens Dogs around then, I wonder? It is also special because the sun is everywhere and the sky is beautifully blue; it couldn’t be further from how Thomas Hood sees this month in his famous and funny little poem. Up on next door’s chimney breast, where our beloved big herring gulls breed every year, George (one of the twins born to them this season) has returned like a good son, to see his parents. He and his sister regularly land up there and whinny for a bite to eat, meeting up with one or other of the adults who gives them a talking to and then sends them back into the world to get on with it. Over the years of getting to know these generally rather despised gulls, we have come to respect them. IMG_1050They have been building nests on next door’s roof for years, and we’ve watched their every move: first, as they prepared to lay in the newly constructed and rather uncomfortable-looking nest, then as they  cared tirelessly for their hatchlings week after week – for far longer than other birds, or so it seems – guarding them as they change from fluffy large bundles into mysteriously feathered creatures; finally guiding them through the tortuous process of learning to fly, for which the babies are most unenthusiastic. Although this year’s twins are quite grown up now and have probably done all their seabird exams, they still love to return. The bond between the generations is delightful and terribly endearing. Swans we are used to seeing in their nuclear family on the mere not far from the dunes; but gulls? Aren’t they ugly, gluttonous, greedy horrors, ready to peck the sandwiches and chips from your hand? We like their little kneecaps, their beady eyes, their striking plumage, their courage over the water and, most of all, their capacity to show enduring affection for their parents and the security of the home where they first saw the sun: up there, looking down on us, looking out at the islands and the wild ocean they must eventually learn to make their own. Thank you for coming back!