The solar eclipse of March 20th left us standing in a hybrid light. As if Space had closed in, to become more of itself – vast, absolute, the only act on stage; a conjuror steadily veiling the comfort of the apparent, better to reveal an alternative reality.

Moving with a twilight gait, the morning’s pulse beat towards pause. But this was no soft, twilight promise of leave-taking. For a moment, the illusion was stark, leaving us dislocated from what held us firm. A chilly pall plummeted, suspended on a weight of absence, and we were left enclosed in a box of mirrors; at the magician’s mercy – the spotlight that defined our world removed.

There was a dimming; a clammy, intimate drapery of air against my neck, seeping to the roots of my hair. Greyness stood silent and close – and yet, the rising morning still held high its bold, blue sky. Even with almost ninety per cent coverage here in South West England, the sun cast a steadfast light. When only a sliver of sun escaped the moon’s shadow, the gleam of its sword-edge – still assertive – sliced the day, and fitted it into an empty compartment of distant display.

We strained the solar eclipse through a colander for safe viewing of this cosmic event....

We strained the solar eclipse through a colander for safe viewing of this cosmic event….

In that moment, the immense power of the sun – juxtaposed with the dead, cold shadow of its absence – made standing on this planet a sudden, deep-down awareness of utter dependence.

The birds – our solid allies during this dark turn of the cards – drained from the sky, seeking footholds. A pair of jackdaws, clattering on the tiles like a heave of surprise, landed on our roof. Shuffling comfort-near, they closed in on their own curiosity. Bills tilted skyward, they watched the eclipse, their eyes filled with perplexity.

Jackdaws watching solar eclipse

Earlier that morning, I had watched the jackdaws rise with the sun from a tree etched in sleep against the sky. Then, in pairs, they had spread around our street – roof by roof, chimney by chimney. They had been busy, vocal – prospecting old nest sites. We too had been busy; human and bird routines in motion, our hours prepared ahead of us to be filled and mapped by a compass of activity. And, above us, on a scale beyond full comprehension, a shadow was on its way; the moon travelling, unstoppable, into this moment of strange, drifting rootedness.

For me, the jackdaws’ reaction said it all. Their whole demeanour was like an astonished blink at a trick pulled out of the hat. They gazed skyward, watched each other, I watched them.

Jackdaws still puzzling as the moon's shadow slips away, and the sky lightens...

Jackdaws still puzzling as the moon’s shadow slips away, and the sky lightens…

And, together, we witnessed the unfathomable unpacked from a seemingly finite space. The familiar transformed into something more itself – and disturbingly revealed as utterly alterable.

And then, the moment passed. The waxing sun nudged most of the birds from their consternation – and they were flung skyward again; a whirl of beginning the day, once more.

But, for a while, the jackdaws remained – puzzling the sky’s strange riddle across the silver of their eye.

More than meets the eye:

Jackdaws never cease to fascinate me. Here are a couple of links to articles outlining research into how Jackdaws use their striking silver eyes, and their gaze, to communicate – and to entwine their understanding and behaviour with ours….

What the Jackdaw Saw – study shows birds communicate with their eyes (University of Exeter website).

Human Eyes Speak Volumes to Birds (Science Blogs).

Ode to a Fieldfare

(Composed during the snow-thaw of last month…)

As I sit here, goldfinches glance across the skies outside the window, their ‘charms’ like the bounce of iambic pentameter written with wings. They turn towards our garden, and immediately, their syntax becomes jumbled by a shift and gather of chaffinches – with an adjunct of sparrows tumbling in like a hurried conclusion.

The sparrows twitch their claim to the topmost branches of our damson trees, whilst the goldfinches jolt another stanza back to the skies – or trickle, with a falling cadence, through the branches to our seed feeders.

The chaffinches land halfway up the trees – ponder their way, like careful prose, towards the food in small, turn-taking manoeuvres. The sparrows wait, suss things out, goad each other forward, land on the seed feeders and attack the fat-cakes, all the time saying what they think – blunt performance poets, braving out the day in their bold, sparrow way.

The previous week’s heavy snowfall continues to melt, leaving green edges and a white interior to the garden. A collared dove balances like an erratic metronome, following the perplexity of bird-rhythms now spilling into improvised jazz.

On Friday January 18th, as the garden hunkered down under the weight of the snow’s first arrival, I turned from the window (and a similar bird-scene) to shuffle some new books amongst the old faithfuls on our shelves, when my daughter – at home due to school closures – called out from the landing, “Are those redwings or fieldfares?”

Her words shook me out of my dismay at the increasingly decrepit state of an old university text book I was holding in my hands. Battered even in its youth by unceremonious travels in my overstuffed, seam-ripped student bag – now it was gradually giving up a little more of the ghost, shedding small piles of age-desiccated glue all over the bookshelf. When opened, its paperback cover gaped to reveal a crumbling spine…

I’m very fond of that book – The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, Romantic Poetry and Prose, edited by the aptly named Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling. Just to read its title brings back happy days spent studying odes to skylarks and nightingales…

If there isn’t an ode to redwings and fieldfares, there should be – they deserve that celebration. Mist-revealed spirits of winter – the chance of experiencing their sudden, soft manifestation again, galvanised me into action.

“Are there some in the garden, then?” I called back.

By this time, my daughter had reached the dining room – and I had dashed to the window, grabbing the binoculars.

“There are millions of them!” she exclaimed, “All across the tops of the damson trees!”

We counted them, taking turns with the binoculars. Not quite millions. Nineteen.

“They’re fieldfares.” I declared

“Yep!” confirmed my daughter, taking another look through the bins, “Definitely fieldfares.”

There they were, spread across the tree-sky like a sudden flowering. A winter gift from Scandinavia.

The heavy, white cloud-sag seemed to plump up at the points they touched; each bird a downy planet orbiting into a sudden, glowing constellation strung out across the branches. Smudged with ash and a splash of sunset spillage, they puffed out their chests; all facing the same way to watch the north-east, like compass needles pointing home.

Fieldfares in trees 2013

Here, in the anchorage of our own home, the presence of these shifting migrants prised open the lid of the day; made the transformation of snow complete. Last time the snow brought the fieldfares from the wider land into our garden, it tipped only one or two individuals onto our lawn. That was magic enough – but this snow-globe flurry of birds, shaken out into our winter space, seemed to tip us instead into the centre of a whirling calm.

My husband phoned a while after they had swooped away, grey billows gathered into the white folds of sky. Early that morning, the snow-bound state of our car, and the buses stuck on hills, had sent him walking the several miles into the city. Some ‘lovely, kindly people’ he said had given him a lift in their 4 X 4, thoughtfully stopping to offer transport to as many trudging pavement backpackers and hopeful bus waiters as they could fit into their vehicle. His day’s experience of community spirit shone in his voice. Now, he’d finished at work, and was going to walk home.

“And how was your day?”

“We’ve had nineteen fieldfares in the garden!” I excitedly announced.

“Yeah…right!” he laughed.

“No, we have! Honestly!”

“I want photographic evidence!” he joked.

“Already done!”

“Oh – why aren’t I at home?”

“I expect some will still be flying around here by the time you get back.” I consoled him.

And sure enough, a couple of fieldfares did oblige. And I was able to get a better photo – still from a distance and with an unsophisticated zoom on my camera and through a window – but at least it gives a glimpse of that gorgeous colouring – the russet blush on the bird’s chest, the grey dusk hovering at its back, its snowball underside – and its thinking eye.

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris - January 2013

Fieldfare, Turdus polaris – January 2013

Since then, I have checked in The Poetry of Birds to see if it contains a poem about this magical snow-bird…

Picture of The Poetry of Birds book

The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee. Published by Viking

There isn’t a section devoted to the species (the book is arranged according to taxonomy) but in the fragment included from The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer tips his hat to ‘the frosty feldefare.’

Then I checked the ever reliable close-chronicler of birds and nature, John Clare

Picture of book, John Clare, Selected Poetry

John Clare, Selected Poetry, published by Penguin

– and sure enough, he mentions them (of course he does, I should have known – what in the natural shiftings of his Northamptonshire homeland did he ever miss?) but fieldfares are not the main focus of the poems in which they make an appearance.

In Emmonsails Heath in Winter, he writes:

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again

‘Bumbarrels’ is a lovely and earthy colloquial name for long-tailed tits – and here Clare deftly snags with words their busy, fidgety ways – and arrests us with that audio-visual image of ‘the whistling thorn’ and its close, orchestral collaboration with the fieldfares, for whose movements ‘rove’ is the perfect description. John Clare also mentions fieldfares in Schoolboys in Winter, when the boys on their ‘morning ramble’ pass by the hedgerows, ‘plucking haws on which their fieldfares feed.’ And also in The Shepherd’s Calendar – March:

And flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush
That come and go on winters chilling wing
And seem to share no sympathy wi spring

Migrating around the internet, I alighted on a poem by Ada Cambridge which, though perched at the ‘mawkish not hawkish’ end of the scale (to approximate a phrase from Tim Dee’s Foreword to The Poetry of Birds) – overbalancing, for me, on its melodramatic symbolism and sentiment – does contain some caught essences – and provides a great handle for the birds in its title, The Winged Mariners. It begins:

Through the wild night, the silence and the dark,
    Through league on league of the unchartered sky,
Lonelier than dove of fable from its ark,
     The fieldfares fly

For a while, I paused beside Fieldfares by F.W. Moorman – in which the poem’s voice addresses the ‘Fieldfares, bonny fieldfares’ from a sick bed, finding melancholy reflection in their presence; a bittersweet reminder of the universally ever-turning (and personally ever-diminishing) cycles of time:

Noisy, chackin’ fieldfares, weel I ken your cry,
When i’ flocks you’re sweepin’ ower the hills sae high:
       Oft on trees you gethers,
       Preenin’ out your feathers,
An’ I’m fain to see your coats as blue as t’summer sky.

And then I found enriching food along the way, courtesy of Fieldfare by Polish poet Julian Kornhauser, translated by Piotr Florczyk, which captures a mood of intrigued admiration heading into memory – and a freeze-frame beyond grasping – when ‘like a newcomer from the underworld’ a fieldfare arrives, and its identity is only discovered after it has flown away, not to return:

Its hollow name, a title to glory,
hung on a branch like a snowflake.’

Simon Armitage, in his Afterword to The Poetry of Birds, muses about why poets ‘have written about birds from the very beginning’:

‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level [birds] are also our souls. Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.’

In his Foreword, Tim Dee points to how, in our own time:

‘Close attention to the seen world and putting such looking into words remain as necessary as ever.’

He ponders the finest contemporary bird poetry written in English by the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Michael Longley and Peter Reading – and describes their work as:

‘Open-eyed meetings that are crammed with ornithological acuity and capture the direct experience of looking at birds today, giving us comparable quickening to that which leaps up around any encounter we have with the real things.’

If I were a poet, I would try to write an ode to fieldfares; to these birds of our nights and winter cloud. I would attempt to pay my own full dues to the poem-that-they-are. But, as it is, this post will have to be my offering…

– Not as a good as an ode; but, as far as my own words are able to stretch to evoke the spell the fieldfares cast over our winter garden, it will have to do…

Jackdaws, Breathing Earth… and Ballads of Belonging

Two herons were circling above our street. Long, languid, cramp-necked, they rose from the river valley and wheeled a pattern over the suburban roofs. The jackdaws on the chimneys showed little reaction in their blue-bead eyes. But they miss nothing – and they were watching, idly.

It is April. The jackdaws are nest building; trying out chimneys for size. They are both fitful and laid back. Secure in their familial groups, fussing over twigs, stalking the road for insects, they pick up anything vaguely useful as nesting material and carry it back, both purposeful and half-hearted, to their respective chimneys of choice. They have a ‘that-will-do’ attitude as they plonk down their finds, and then seem to change tack and become like obsessed artists, Jackson Pollock-like, bending over their seemingly random creations, arranging and re-arranging.

The chimneys opposite our house are favourites with our jackdaw-neighbours, sometimes for nesting, but mostly just as places to gather, survey the scene. It is touching to see the bonds each mating pair exhibit; how they remain together, life companions, all year round, mutually preening and sharing in meaningful jackdaw collusion.

These pairs are each part of the larger group which seems to revolve its days around these streets. From here, the members of the flock spread out in satellite manoeuvres, separating into small groups or pairs, but remaining constantly connected by lines of jackdaw communication and family bonding. Open a door or window, and a cacophony of jackdaw chat bounces in, via the corvid-telegraph.

Some evenings, I’ve looked out to see them calling each other to dusk-gatherings on the roofs. Obediently, they arrive in ones and twos, and land, poised and listening. Then, once each flock member is accounted for, a dominant jackdaw will say the word – and, as if on the beat of a single collective wing, they will swoop like a feathered shadow towards the woods to roost.

In The Rookery, a chapter from the deeply treasure-filled pages of Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, Deakin draws our attention to another chapter in another book – a favourite inspiration from his boyhood. He describes how, in his formative years, he would often pick up Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring and re-read, over and over, Lorenz’s account of ‘…how, beginning in 1927, he raised a whole colony of free-flying jackdaws at his home in Altenberg in Austria, with the object of studying their social and family behaviour.’ Over time, Lorenz identified and learnt to recognise a variety of words in the Jackdaw vocabulary. Deakin tells us:

‘Most interesting of all is Lorenz’s discovery of the subtle distinction between ‘Kia’ and ‘Kiaw.’ The first is the cry uttered in flight by the dominant jackdaws to urge the whole flock outward to new feeding grounds. The second is to urge them home. Thus, ‘Kiaw’ plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the flock when one meets another.

Most birds seem to keep their song quite separate from their language. The staccato alarm cry of a wren or blackbird is quite distinct from its sweet song. Jackdaws, however, incorporate their words into their songs to create, as Lorenz puts it, something more like a ballad, in which they can re-create past adventures or directly express emotions. Not only this, but the singer accompanies the different cries with the corresponding gestures, quivering or threatening like the lustiest performer passionately enacting a song. In a way, the jackdaw is mimicking itself….. but it may also, Lorenz thinks, be expressing emotion. When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was ‘Kiaw’, ‘Come back, oh, come back.’ It was a song of heartbreak.’

– From Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin, published by Hamish Hamilton:

What ballads, I wonder, did the ancestors of ‘our’ jackdaws sing, before these houses were built? What world did they then describe? And did they ever call for it to come back, when it was lost?

According to old maps – and to the stories told to us by our elder neighbours – sixty, seventy years ago, this land, where our house now stands, was a margin of orchards, fields and market gardens – a ribbon of green stretching to meet the woods and river valley. In the pre- and post- World War Two years, new housing crept across the fields, spreading further and further outward from the city, leaving vigorous green gaps, and plunging watery valleys – and a new songline for the jackdaws to adapt to and follow. These houses, the tarmac, television aerials, the gutters and chimneys all grew to become incidentals of the jackdaws’ world, morphed by the birds’ use into look-out posts, nesting sites, drinking water catchments, navigable features of a landscape. Younger jackdaw generations grew up always having known these streets – perhaps singing a particular ballad that belongs just here, and to this time in its jackdaw history.

But maybe, that ballad too will soon be out of date – an ode to past times. Throughout these streets, fewer and fewer houses are keeping their front gardens. More and more people have paved theirs over as hard standing for cars. When we first moved to this house, our elderly neighbour had a garden that was typical of many around here – bursting with the fruits of his labour and time – and brimming with stories of his life, this place, this landscape. Over the garden wall, Jack would tell us those stories, in his quiet way, his words softly drawn out from his memories, and spun on the ballad-lilt of his West Country accent. All along the front wall, ever-increasing crowds of daffodils reminded him of the long-past day he had spent planting those bulbs with his toddler daughter. Each spring, that shared moment would renew over and over before the eyes of both dad and daughter – evidence of belonging; past, present and future. Beautiful rose bushes punctuated other events – birthdays and anniversaries; and fuchsias blazed colour along the margin between our two front paths, to guide our footsteps home. But several years ago, Jack passed away – and his garden, his roses, his daughter’s daffodils are now all gone.

But here, this side of the wall – though we don’t gift our front garden the time and effort Jack spent on his – we’re holding to a little mantra that keeping it, letting it breathe, gives something to the landscape and brings many rewards – not least a better view than the back-end of a car bumper from our kitchen window…

But best of all, is the wildlife it attracts. The jackdaws, along with many other birds, love our little “lawn”. It’s a ragged, hybrid mix of grass and “weeds” with messy edges and long sprouting tufts of grass against the wall, full of insects, whirring with grasshoppers in the summer – even a frog or two sometimes.

A few years ago, we were faced with the necessity of big disability adaptations to our house for our son. During all those long months of building work, the front lawn inevitably became torn to shreds by skips, piles of bricks and breezeblock, and afterwards we had to re-seed to restore the grass. It’s taken a couple of years for that to find its equilibrium – but, it won’t be long before, with encouragement and planting, it will have regained something of its old character. In the years just before our building work, springtime outbreaks of primroses and cowslips graced that ragged patch of green – and many a time, I would glance out of the window to see a passer-by given a visible lift as they caught sight of them. Their yellow exuberance hardly ever failed to raise a smile.

Smiles, interest and entertainment are often provided during my washing up hours, courtesy of the jackdaws, as they sidle around that small green space with their tip-and-stalk gait. They are both comical and deadly serious, both gentle and keenly ready for life’s difficult business.

The most arresting thing about them is their eyes – piercing blue and full of intelligence. They have a don’t-mess-with-me glint, whilst enclosing a whole world of tribal bird knowledge…

… all carried off with a demeanour that shrugs off the day’s moments with humour, whilst still pinning each one with close attention.

If we humans could pin the turning of the earth’s moments with that kind of close attention, maybe we would leave more room to lay them bare and breathing – to give the soil space amongst all the block-paving and tarmac – ready to open up to the circling of herons overhead, the glint of a watching bird’s eye, the blackbird wrestling with a worm, the daffodils planted by a child’s hand, guided by her dad to meet the earth, over half a century ago.

Perhaps we could tune in better to the very rhythm of living itself, and let our words and stories align with an old and – if we’ll let it – ever-renewing ballad.

Footprints and Giants at Westonbirt Arboretum

Come with us on a walk…

It’s 4th January – an opening chapter day in 2011 – and my husband and I are off to Westonbirt Arboretum. The Cotswold Hills today are a surprise. When we left home, the day was grey – not too cold, unremarkable. But, up here on the hills, the car is ascending to a hushed and crystallised world, the fields, hedge tops and walls hunched under a dusting of snow.

As we get out of the car at Westonbirt, we are met with a chill that catches our breath. I reach for my scarf and gloves, huddling inside my fleece and coat. Only then do I really take in the scene around me. What strikes me first is the quiet; the hunkered down feel to the day. The earth has its back turned to the chill, and the birds move, subdued and intent, nagging at it to give up some food.

Opposite the shop and Great Oak Hall, blackbirds and thrushes rush and hop, rush and hop, stabbing at the grass and flinging aside fallen leaves in search of invertebrates. Amongst them, we spot a flock of redwings, winter migrants from Scandinavia. Some are on the ground, others are gathered in the trees – and a pied wagtail is bobbing its way across the white-tangle turf.

The place feels almost deserted by humans this morning; only a scattering of people are about. Just the way we like it. All this space to ourselves! Our feet are already feeling like ice as we stop to bird watch, but the enchantment of the scene; the trees, the huddled ground under the sugar icing dusting of snow – the sheer quiet – is a lure that makes us forget the icy claw of the air. We enter the Old Arboretum and lose ourselves in a dome of green, flurried white. It is like stepping into one of those snow globes after someone has given it a shake, and all the glistening flakes are scattered thinly – the shapes of the scene quiet and resting after the mad whirl of white is over.

Picture of snow dusted tree bark

Picture of wood sculpture in the snow, Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of a snow dusted scene at Westonbirt Arboretum

We are amongst the first humans to step on the ‘sugar icing’ – and we relish that sense of opening a freshly wrapped present as we start to explore. Many animals and birds have been busy here during the night and early hours of the morning. We find rabbit and deer tracks – and then suddenly, there are these perfect badger prints:

Picture of badger paw prints in the snow

Badger (Meles meles) Paw Prints in the Snow

Picture of single badger paw print

Later on, we walk round to one of the main setts, and find the snow around it marked by countless (very muddy!) badger paw prints of various sizes. Along one of their trails from the sett, there is a long, long churned up mark where the badgers have been busy dragging bedding from a leaf-filled ditch opposite. I imagine the brocks with those piles of dead leaves and vegetation tucked under their chins, waddling backwards as they aim their ample backsides at the mounds and entrances of their sett.

This winter must have been very hard on the badgers. The ground has been like iron for so long – impossible for them to dig or to find sustenance in that frozen confection of their staple diet of worms and other invertebrates.

Over the past year, we’ve been certain that we have badgers visiting our suburban garden. We’ve seen the signs – the patches of earth dug up, a latrine full of badger poo, a vague Brock paw mark in the snow one morning…

Also, our next-door-neighbours told us a while back that briefly, one night in the summer, a badger got stuck under their gate whilst trying to squeeze into their back garden. Brock made so much noise, our neighbours got out of bed to investigate, opening their door in time to see the badger break free, and head straight towards their duck house to feast on Jemima & Co’s feed.

Our neighbours opposite have long had badgerly visits to their garden from the woods behind – and now, excitingly, our local brocks seem to have added our side of the road to their regular foraging routes. We’re not lawn proud, so we welcome the scrapes and mini craters appearing now and then amongst the tussocks and under our hedge. It’s a dream come true to play host to the badgers. Now, it is our ambition to glimpse them one bleary-eyed night, if we can manage the long, window-side vigil in the small hours.

Back in Westonbirt, the chilly magic of the day continues with the tiny chink and chime of flocks of tits and goldcrests in the trees – and down on the ground.

We watch, enchanted, as a goldcrest, tiniest of birds, feeds at the foot of a giant sequoia, just feet away – and others flit through the trees in a constant, vital search for food amongst the pine needles. A couple of coal tits are busy amongst the fallen leaves, concentrating their efforts on the richer pickings of ground left snowless beneath the shelter of spreading conifer branches.

As an experiment (my husband’s a scientist – bear with him…) we stand right up close to the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), stepping up onto the brown mound of springy needles gathered at its feet and leaning against its towering trunk. While my husband applies his curiosity and logic to the effect of the warm air trapped in the big old tree’s branches, I indulge in a bit of tree hugging. Giant sequoia bark is so spongy and warm, and leaning against it, it is easy to imagine the refuge and comfort the birds could find roosting in its embrace. Standing there, the rise in temperature within the sequoia’s own micro-climate seeps up into my frozen feet, and the placid hum of the life of that old Hagrid-tree seems to fold around us.

There’s a lovely ‘feel’ to giant sequoias – those awe-inspiring trees named in honour of Chief Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee writing system. They emanate grandeur, but also a sense of welcome and friendly ease. They are the sort of tree you want to lean your back against, letting your mind wander through the forest – head tilted back, looking up, up, up that soaring trunk, feeling very small and connected to earth and sky. It’s a pipedream of mine to visit the sequoia groves in the Giant Sequoia National Monument one day… This Hagrid tree is just a baby in comparison to those ancient leviathans, fully fledged in their native soil of California.

Back in Gloucestershire however, we must leave behind our sequoia central heating system, and rejoin the snowy path. We meet a robin, sitting quietly puffed up in a sheltered conifer. Quietly, my husband manages to get this photo of it – but the focus is blurry; the robin moves on before he can snap a better one:

Picture of a robin

Breaking away from the path onto the grassy rides of the Old Arboretum, we come across a large flock of coal tits – more of them than I’ve ever seen gathered together – foraging on the ground amongst the leaf litter. In true coal tit style, once they have found food, they hop-fly with it to a suitable perch to get on with the business of eating. As we stand there, it is like watching a series of tiny jack-in-the-boxes – or paper-light puppets on strings – as they yo-yo in brief alternating dances, their flight paths criss-crossing down-up, up-down. Occasionally, one or two break away and cross the ride, landing in the bush right beside us – and then flit back to rejoin the others, creating patterns on the cold-heavy, winter-white air.

Despite the bitter chill, we don’t want to tear ourselves away from this mesmerising coal tit dance of survival…but time is wearing on. All around us, the day is warming (very slightly!) towards mid-day. Our ears are now filled with the sound of the ever-increasing drip, drip, drip of melting snow. Everywhere we look droplets of water hang, bulging with bright light, and fall musically from the branches. We look at our watches. We have to be back in time for the kids’ return from school fairly soon – and now our lunch-time is approaching.

After a very welcome hot meal in Westonbirt’s Maples Café, accompanied by the usual pied wagtail working the opportunities for leftover food-finds on the decking outside – and also by a view of a buzzard, wing-hunched low over the valley, being mobbed by crows – we slide down the steep hill of the Arboretum’s downs, and then up again into Silk Wood.

The day’s theme for this side of the arboretum seems to be blackbirds and nuthatches. The nuthatches are gathered in various conifers, and the tree tops bluster with the urgency of their piercing calls. We are able to watch several as they edge head first down the trunks, prise food from the crevices and break open nuts with resounding taps against the bark. They are such exquisite little birds. I love their muted mix of soft-sky blue grey and salmon-chestnut blush. They are one of the many beauty-treats of any walk in these woods.

The blackbirds are all vitally busy with turning over and tossing leaves in search for food – but we notice that most seem to be in male and female pairs – like the ones in our garden. At one point, we hear a male give its alarm call – but with a slight difference. Instead of the usual burst of alarm followed by a wing flapping quick-exit, this develops into a constant chink, chink, chinking – and we look up to see him perched on a branch, posing with tail cocked in territorial bravado…just a branch away from a rather bashfully admiring female.

Between the urgent need to feed, some early spring behaviour is the buzz of the day for many of the birds filling the woods here.

That zingy feeling on the air, created by birdsong – and by a quickening in the wood, already humming with the promise of awakening – turns my thoughts to days ahead…when, like wishes unfolding from this bronze sculpture:

Picture of Westonbirt Wishes Bronze by sculptor, John Newling

Picture of plaque for Westonbirt Wishes Bronze by John Newling

… the Arboretum will soon, again, look like this:

Picture of Westonbirt Arboretum carpeted with wood anemones

Picture of wood anemones at Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of bluebells at Westonbirt ArboretumPicture of Early Purple Orchids and Cowslips at Westonbirt Arboretum

Picture of peacock butterfly on blossom, Westonbirt Arboretum


The Government wishes to sell our Public Forest Estate, of which Westonbirt, the National Arboretum is a part. You can keep informed on all the issues and developments – and get involved with the campaigns against the Government’s plans to transfer all of England’s publicly owned woodlands out of state ownership at Save Our Woods and Save Our Forests.

Yesterday (2nd February) MPs met to debate and vote on the Labour motion against the forest sell off… Everything about the sell off proposals and the so-called ‘consultation’ (a document which already assumes that the public forests will be privatised, and consists of questions on how it should be done) makes my heart sink like a stone… but also fires it up to do something in response. I wrote to my MP to express all my concerns and my dismay. Today, I see he voted with the Government.  The motion was defeated by 310 to 260.

But, it’s good to see that there were three Tory rebels, four Lib Dem rebels and some abstentions… MPs have been deluged with emails and letters on this issue. The public outcry made this debate happen.

At the time of writing, the petition against the forest sales has gathered over 430,000 signatures. If you haven’t already done so, you can add your voice to the petition by signing it at the 38 Degrees Website.

Garden Wildlife Update

After time away on holiday, I’ve been back home a while now; returning to lots of catching up on family stuff – and to days still very much full of birds…

Each day, fledgling blue tits have hung around the seed feeders, finding their bearings in all the newness of the world, whilst tribes of adolescent starlings take a more head-on approach, dashing about in shows of anxious bravado. A pair of blackbirds has been busy with the job of nesting – the male singing and posing and posturing, fanning his tail to assert his territory between dash-grabs at worms, whilst the female intently gathers food.

Swifts, from time to time, circle in and out of the garden’s radar – and beneath them, our tiny patch of wildflower “meadow” is blooming, attracting all sorts of insects which in turn draw in the birds.

Picture of garden mini-"meadow" (Oxeye daisies)

Last weekend, my own radar picked up the sound of very faint chirping from our roof – and within a day or so, it was obvious that a second brood of sparrow nestlings has hatched there. All week, the male and female have dashed in and out from under the roof tiles, bringing food to their increasingly vocal youngsters. And, yesterday, another house sparrow pair brought fledglings into the garden to hop about the patio, search for insects in the shrubs and to learn about the easy pickings from the seed feeders. 

Picture of House Sparrows

I find it hard to convey just how brilliant seeing those fledglings has been for me… This spring and summer feels like a real sparrow-turning-point; not only are they back to take up their long missed place in our immediate birdscape, but they seem to be thriving here again – at long, long last! I feel I ought to put out some kind of celebratory banner! Fingers crossed that this may be an early sign of a reverse around here in the mystery decline of house sparrows. Maybe (fingers even more tightly crossed!) it could be good sign for their general future all around the country too? …Like the otters, are they making a comeback in Britain? I’m hoping, with the ever-onward spirit of nature conservation, that this will prove to be so… 

Meanwhile, with the sun blazing from a blue sky, a great tit has been sunbathing on the shed roof, wings spread wide to the light. A couple of days ago, the male blackbird brought a fledgling into the garden with him – and earlier this week the grey squirrel galumphed across our shed roof to land on our fence, his radar honed in on the bird feeders, planning raids.

Picture of a grey squirrel

I must try to get out in the garden at night for some bat watching soon – they usually pass over us just after dusk on the way from their roosts to the woods and river…

All I need now is radar to detect where on earth I’ve put the bat detector!

‘The Day is Full of Birds’

From Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kate Bush’s Prelude (Sky of Honey, CD2 of her beautiful Aerial album)…

Take a moment to lose yourself in the hypnotic birdsong of an early summer’s day, whilst Kate’s music plays duet with that drowsy, sunshine purr of the woodpigeon, so evocative of lazy days spent in the garden.

The day is full of birds
Sounds like they’re saying words’

Those words spoken by Kate’s son Bertie, along with the whole dreamy calm of Prelude seem to hold, in a capsule of sound, the beautiful day in our garden last Saturday, when blue sky flung itself wide over the whole world, an ice cream van jangled out of hibernation into our street, laughter chased paddling pool splashes across freshly mown lawns…

And I sat reading, surrounded by an amazing ‘birdscape‘…

…The scream of swifts as they swooped and circled, slicing dazzles of sunlight on the underside of their wings. The “Tchi, Tchi, Tchi,” of house sparrows nesting under our roof. The bubbles of notes, bounced and busy-bodied across the sky by charms of goldfinches. The gorgeous, lilting flute of the blackbird – and the ruffle-silent wings of jackdaws as they passed to and fro between the chimney pots, speaking the occasional word to each other like a family in quiet companionship, made drowsy by the sun.

We spent the whole afternoon in the garden – and in between all the conversation, the dash to the ice cream van and the usual to and fro in response to kids, washing machine, things-that-must-be-done (I felt a bit like those restless jackdaws) – I managed, in snatches, to read a couple of short stories from The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith – one of the books I borrowed from the library last week:

Picture of The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith

Written and compiled to raise money for charity, the book’s editorial brief was ‘make somebody up’ – with each story’s title taking the name of its character. The first story I read was Judith Castle by David Mitchell (my introduction to his writing). Judith Castle is a maddening fantasist and control freak – with an over-compensating, desperation-driven ego; larger than life (hopefully!) in the full extent of her tragic-comic awfulness.

In terms of character, all was more or less set out on the story’s plate – and I could pretty much see where it was heading from the beginning – but that was all part of the entertaining cut and thrust of it – and it was a very enjoyable read, which I was eager to return to. In a way, reading it kangaroo fashion in jumpy snatches, kind of suited the story and the prickly, pursuing, impatient, perception-challenged voice of Judith. It was nice too, to have another story partly set on the Lyme Regis Cobb – to join John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (mentioned in Mitchell’s story), Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (all bring back memories of the day we spent in Lyme, noses pressed  to fossil shop windows – and the afternoon in neighbouring Charmouth, watching sparrows relay chips from the hand of a delighted elderly gentleman to their (probably rapidly expanding!) chicks under the eaves of the sea front museum).

The second story I read in The Book of Other People, I completely loved. It was J. Johnson, A Writing Life by Nick Hornby, with lovely, warm illustrations by Posy Simmonds – and was told in a series of dust-flap writer’s biogs (you know the sort of thing:- Fred Flump spent his youth as a dust cart operator, deep sea diver and sea lion tamer before taking up his pen to write grisly tales and supernatural thrillers for readers who are far less easy to tame. He lives with his partner, pet sea lion, three ghosts and four goldfish on an island with a dodgy lighthouse and no ferry…)

It’s an ingenious form in which to tell a story – and I loved following Jamie Johnson from his early days as a hip, fresh faced English graduate with high literary leanings to… well… that would be spoiling it…

Meanwhile, back in our garden – time was wearing on, and the afternoon was still full of birds. The swifts had stayed with us all day; a heron had pondered its way across the sky; a bedraggled blue tit (no doubt fresh from a dip in next door’s pond) visited the fat cakes:

Picture of blue tit on bird feeder

Woodpigeons, crowding tetchily on the bird feeder, rattled it with bumbling alarm as they almost fell from perches far too small for them – and a goldfinch parent, harassed by the perpetual call and wing quiver of its insistent fledgling, dodged back and forth with offerings of sunflower seeds. Creeping nearer, I managed to get this very poor photo of them (a bit of a  ‘spot the goldfinch and chick’ exercise, I’m afraid!) 

Picture of a goldfinch and fledgling

The house sparrows had kept us company all day, and it’s so wonderful to have them back.

For too many years, their decline left a sorely felt gap in our street’s birdscape. They disappeared from our garden completely – and so, for me, it’s always cause for daily celebration to know that they are back in our lives.

Later that evening – back in the garden to take in the washing and water the plants – I watch the male of the roof-nesting pair, as he positions himself outside the entrance to his nest, puffs himself up, and declares whatever it is he’s declaring to the world/ other sparrows/ the moon:

Picture of an house sparrow on roof 

The sky is now a hazier wash of blue, and the lowering sun seems to have drawn him out – along with another male sparrow now perched at the very top of our hedge – to perform some ritual to the dusk. I’ve suspected for a while now that there’s another sparrow nest (or two) in the hedge, and the male there now declares his message with earnest bravado.

Picture of a house sparrow

Picture of a house sparrow

Above him, set in that still deep, liquid blue is a pale pearl of a moon…

Picture of the moon in blue sky

…to which the buttercups turn, slowly closing their petals

picture of buttercups

And the sky, though not of honey – casts a honeyed light that glows from the leaves:

picture of summer evening light on leaves

…and sets the ‘candles’ of a neighbouring horse chestnut tree alight with evening fire…

Picture of horse chestnut tree

‘When day declining sheds a milder gleam…
These NATURE’S works, the curious mind employ,
Inspire a soothing melancholy joy’

( – From The Naturalist’s Summer-evening Walk by Gilbert White)

Breakfast with a ‘Long Pod’!


Picture of a Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus - a breakfast-time visitor!

The other day, whilst eating my breakfast and winding down from getting the kids off to school, a sudden flurry of movement outside in the garden grabbed my attention. Minutes earlier, I’d been watching two long-tailed tits as they clung to the bird feeders in our damson trees – but was soon dropping my spoon into my muesli, as I realised they’d appeared again; this time in a bush much nearer to the house. A lot nearer than they usually venture. I could hardly believe it when they then flew down to the patio, and fidgeted and fluttered along the fence, immediately outside the window.

They were pecking at the crevices underneath and between the railings – I think possibly gathering spiders’ webs, which they use in their nest building. It’s now the time when the winter flocks of long-tailed tits have broken up into breeding pairs – and I’m wondering if this pair may be nesting very nearby. They’re certainly spending quite a bit of time in and around our garden lately, and one (I presume the male) seems to be getting very territorial on our patch. A couple of times this week, we’ve seen him pause in his feeding to tussle with his own reflection in the shed window – possibly mistaking his mirror image for a “rival.”

Now – as I sat wide-eyed, watching them – this fascination with his own reflection may have taken over again, because he suddenly flew away from the cobwebby fence and even closer to the house – so close, he actually perched on the window frame! From there, he looked into the room for a moment, before fluttering earnestly at the glass. Thankfully, for his own safety, he gave that up as a bad job very quickly!

I always keep the camera to hand whilst wildlife watching from the house, and so managed to capture the above photo when he darted on to a garden chair – again extremely close to the window. Long-tailed tits move like super-fast little gizmos, never staying still – flick, flit, flick – so it was a matter of point, focus, click – and hope for the best! I missed a lot of split second opportunities to get better shots (it would have been great to get his super-long tail in full view) – but just couldn’t get the camera to focus in time, before this tiny, exquisite bird shifted again.

After the birds left, I was left with a huge smile on my face. It really was one of those set-you-up-for-the-day wildlife moments. As Simon Barnes writes, in his warm, wonderful book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – in such moments there is ‘the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.’ The Long-tailed tit is one of my favourite birds, and always brings its own special day-brightening magic with it. For me, meeting with a flock of these delicately colourful birds, is one of the speciality treats of winter-time. When out on a chilly walk, or in the garden, I love to catch the hustle-bustle of their calls, and to look up and see them jinking from tree to tree, see-sawing their long tails like little trapeze artists, as they swing-flit through the branches.

Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, lists the many vernacular names for this beautiful little bird; a list that rings with a wonderful, old-time rustic mixture of gleeful spade-calling and joyful wordplay – like something tumbling from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. Names such as ‘bum barrel,’ ‘bush oven,’ ‘feather poke,’ ‘hedge jug,’  ‘jack in a bottle,’ ‘poke bag,’ ‘pudding bag,’ and ‘long pod.’ Plus, Birds Britannica adds, there is the lesser known Cornish name, ‘patiney’ or ‘patteny paley.’ Many of these names stem from the oval, domed shape of the long-tailed tit’s nest, which Birds Britannica goes on to tells us ‘comprises an intricate mix of wool and moss bound and felted together with spider’s web, camouflaged with as many as 4000 lichen flakes.’

Other fond, and brilliantly appropriate, pseudonyms I often hear amongst modern day devotees of this species are ‘flying lollipops,’ ‘flying flumps’ or ‘Gizmos’ (as in Gizmo from Gremlins!) It’s a favourite bird of many a birder and wildlife watcher – and John Clare, the nineteenth century naturalist poet doesn’t let us down in providing a poetic tribute to Aegithalos caudatus. Inspired by his local ‘bumbarrels,’ he wrote this poem, full of closely observed detail – and a lovely, vivid sense of these busy little birds, which truly do ‘hang and hide along’:

Picture of book, John Clare, Selected=

                                  Bumbarrel’s Nest                                                       

The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains –
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along. 

                                                                       John Clare.

Picture of The Poetry of Birds book

(Bumbarrel’s Nest is one of the poems included in the anthology, The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee – more on this book later!)