Ten winters ago we put the nesting box in the pyracantha outside the kitchen window. Blackbirds have built on top of it, twice, and small birds have used it as a winter roost, but now it holds a blue tits’ nest. These tiny creatures, also known as titmice, are close relatives to chickadees.
I’m glad to have them around, since they eat lots of insects, including the aphids on the apricot tree. So the tree never gets sprayed to keep them fed and the garden alive with birds. Mrs Turnstone is mighty pleased, and it’s a joy to see the cock fly in under cover of the bushes along the public footpath. I think Mrs Bluetit is still sitting on eggs.
Meanwhile, as well as the starling in the eaves nearby, there is a robin in next door’s yew and somewhere in the ivy on the wall is Mrs Blackbird. Collared doves are in the birch, wood pigeons in the lime planted after the hurricane, while a hedge sparrow singing opposite the kitchen window means his hen must be nearby. House sparrows seem not to be nesting with us this Spring, but before now they’ve had the second brood above our bed after a first elsewhere. The cuckoo I’ve not heard for a week or more which is probably good news for the hedge sparrow.
Our roses are at least two weeks behind last year coming into bloom. No Mermaid yet, nor Alberic Barbier; there are some roses in South facing gardens up the street, but turning onto the footpath there is a noticeable drop in temperature out of the sun and into what can be a wind tunnel, channelling the SouthWesterlies that come along the road opposite.
Lunch with the cuckoo was special enough, but I had arrived at the Goods Shed just as Enzo was taking the bread from the oven. My loaf was wrapped in a flash and straight in my bag. Back home, I spread it with wild garlic pesto, tomato paste, cheese and olives. Satisfying!
Read NAIB’s account of foraging Welsh wild garlic, below.
Mrs Turnstone is trying to grow some in a shady part of our garden, thanks to a gift from a friend. We’ve allowed ourselves no more than a couple of leaves for salad this year, hoping the patch will spread.
Just too late for St George’s day, the cuckoo was calling from the railway bank (See ‘Vandalism takes many forms’) yesterday as I sat out for lunch and later for afternoon tea. The clamour of our local blackbirds and robins did not quite drown him out. The two cocks take turns to sing from our apricot tree.
Saint George’s did have one returning migrant to show me – a kittiwake gull by as I cycled along the beach against a brisk East wind, only to find my appointment cancelled. The health police would tell me the ride did me good; I know the kittiwake and the cuckoo did!
Sometimes you actually do contrive to go around with your eyes open. This last Sunday morning was one of those times. On our way up Abbot’s Hill to church there were blackbird and robin babies around. The young blackbirds from our ivy were being shown where to find water in next-door’s blocked roof gutter; the robin hopped across our path by the college. Joy enough there, but there was a wren too.
Walking home, aside from ubiquitous rabbits, and the ducks and moorhens on the college pond, so beloved of Sunday afternoon walks when the children were little, the first sighting was of two green woodpeckers, parent and child perhaps, probing the ground softened after the storms overnight, at least until we came around the corner. The bird that flew up into a pond-side tree, however, was much less familiar: a young cuckoo, finally chased away to fend for itself by its exhausted foster-parents. Was it the child of the one who sang for us all day in May?
A hundred yards further, and the cries of crows above us drew Mrs Turnstone’s eye, then my own. There were three rooks, making a great deal of fuss, mobbing a buzzard who was certainly low to the ground and perhaps a little off his usual beat, or maybe it was another juvenile bird trying to make his way in the world. The crows won the day, at least in their own eyes; the big hawk soared away up the valley and the rooks returned to their own business, perhaps to contend with the woodpeckers who were already undulating their way back to the rough turf near the monument. The buzzard was soon out of sight above the wood; no doubt to find some unsuspecting victim before the day darkened. Was he bothered? Not much I suspect, but the rooks were happy to see the back of him.
Mrs Turnstone is still talking about Magdalene College’s Ragged Robin plantation. One way and another, that sent me to Keble Martin’s Flora, which gave me the Latin name: Lychnis flos-cuculi L., or the cuckoo’s flower. Since this was named by Linnaeus himself, I guess the Swedes, like their German neighbours, associate this plant with the bird of spring and summer, rather than our winter companion. And when the North Wind doth blow, what does the Swedish robin do then, poor thing?
The cuckoo of May Day Eve is still vocal across the meadow. He must be spending his time in the woodland on the disused railway bank. He’s the first resident cuckoo we’ve had so close in a great many years.
We recently returned from Wroclaw, Poland, where the house looked across meadows to an active railway track. The trains asserted their territorial rights by whistling as they approached the nearby level crossing.
Also vocal in claiming their territory were blackbirds, a most emphatic and persistent reed warbler, a cock pheasant and two cuckoos, one of them a little hoarse. The birds’ outpourings made early morning tea a pleasure in the tiny back garden. I like to think their emotion is one of celebration as well as assertion: enjoyment of the gift of home.
As for the cuckoo: he had no home, and was probably hatched in the warbler’s nest, down by the railway line’s territorial marker – the reed-filled ditch.
I found myself wishing that the birds’ territory would not be entirely swallowed up by the houses advancing, terrace by terrace, out of the city. Perhaps the railway and reed beds will provide a lasting haven for the smaller birds. I doubt they will shelter the pheasants once the fields are all built over.
And yet; it must be a joy to move out of those grey communist era apartments into a place of one’s own, a room of one’s own. Virginia Woolf almost took that for granted – then realised how precious a gift it is and wrote about it. I have to confess to rubbing my house keys like a talisman as I turn the corner and make for home. Let’s say I know how blessed I am.
The tide of builders’ equipment in the Turnstone garden has receded, leaving the family to enjoy the corner under the apricot tree for coffee and cake. This afternoon even Mrs Turnstone was not with me but sleeping off her night’s work at the hospice.
But I was not alone. Peeping from the log pile or between the plant pots: two black eyes and a twitching nose; round ears, tiny hands and a magnificent tail; the new generation of woodmouse clearly sees the garden as hers. She’s discovered that builders drop sandwich crumbs around the bench. I don’t think they know about her; she’s only half-grown so cannot have been out much.
Her mother made free of the kitchen last summer and foraged across the ground floor, hoping we’d not swept up. She would sit fearlessly by us, holding her find and nibbling contentedly. The cupboards had to be mouseproofed when she took to eating oats from the packet, or biscuits or pasta. Traps were ignored or raided with impunity. She would scuttle across bare human feet of an evening, trusting we would do her no harm.
That brave or foolhardy trait has been inherited by today’s youngster. Let’s hope she escapes the local cats, who watched the compost heap all through last summer. We have disturbed nests there before.
More firsts: the first cuckoo on Mayday eve, and the first swallow, spotted by Mrs Turnstone the day after Miss Tittlemouse appeared.