Seen from the train in Kent this morning, a field with winter cereal showing through, and a flock of gulls keeping their social distance from each other. Other than keeping a rather greater distance from it, they were ignoring a fox in the middle of the field, eating what seemed to be another gull.
These gulls keeping their social distance were at Portree on the Isle of Skye.
After a big Christmas meal among a crowd of adults, some of them unknown to him, 18 month-old Abel was getting restless so he went to the back door and found his wellington boots. It was time for some fresh air.
By the corner of the park he stopped. He pointed at the lilac tree and shook his finger – a gesture he uses if he hears a loud noise like a siren – or grandad sneezing. Grandad’s sinuses were not challenged on this occasion; the noise was coming from the tree: Robin playing his part in the dusk chorus.
Abel watched and listened till Robin changed his perch, then said, bye bye. Off he went into the park and straight up onto the old abandoned railway line. At the top he paused again, listening. Singing close by were a thrush and blackbird as well as another robin. After listening for a while, it was bye-bye to these birds too. We were unable to see them.
We did see the gulls flying below the clouds on their way to the coast: bye-bye to them too.
It was dark when we said bye-bye to Abel, but he pointed from his car-seat to our own robin, still singing, still patrolling his boundaries by street-light. Bye-bye Abel, thank you for listening with me!
Imagine working out for the first time that these are individual birds!
Mrs Blackbird with nesting material
Seeing the world through new eyes: what a blessing!
Our grandson is a year old. Twelve months ago he could not focus at a distance, so a great deal of what goes on around us he is seeing for the first time. That index finger is forever pointing at something interesting; today the birds. Sparrows in next-door’s roof, arguing the toss in great excitement; starlings in family parties, descending on our tree, never silent; the cock blackbird, hidden by the leaves, but even louder in his song – or his warning notes – than the others. Louder still, the herring gulls circle, often calling though sometimes silent; magpies and pigeons stalking the playing field, but best of all a jackdaw, who leaves his group and walks beside the buggy for a good few yards, no more than five metres away, bright eye locked onto bright eye. Bird! Bird!
I must have had Christmas on my mind even to entertain the idea for a moment. Well, how could it be mistletoe, growing out of the brick arch just north of Peterborough? It looked the part at first sight: a spherical shrub, branching down as well as up, but it was our old friend Buddleia, beyond easy control above a railway track.
So what will take over the world when humans are gone? Buddleia, brambles, birch, briars? Rats, foxes, jackdaws, gulls, magpies? We’ll never know!
We’ve begun revising for GCSE exams by working through past papers. A recent English paper from Wales asked students to read about urban herring gulls.
That noisy juvenile in Cornwall was amusing, but I’ve also had run-ins with these resourceful birds, swooping down to steal a seaside lunch, attacking my students and me when we dared venture into the yard behind our building to raise a phone signal, but most especially at that same building when I rescued a juvenile whose first flight flopped down the boiler room steps. His ungrateful parents were not amused but my students were.
The other evening at dusk I was still pruning the bushes that divide our garden from the public footpath, with passers-by homing from work or school, many of them wearing earphones. Difficult even to make eye contact through their personal bubbles!
Yet above their heads flew an army of gulls, effortlessly homing to their roosts along the salt marshes, their subhuman calls echoing from the surrounding house walls, their white bellies glowing back gold to the dying sun: one of winter’s blessings.
They were both seeking attention, each in his own way singing for his supper and disturbing the peace. First of all we heard the guitarist, plucking a Spanish concerto from his strings, playing against one of those recordings without the soloist, the over-amplified sound carrying a hundred yards and more across the harbour.
Even he was not loud enough to drown the pathetic cries of a fledgling gull, wheedling crumbs from whoever cared to toss or drop them, though he was not risking getting under the feet of any human or dog wandering the quayside. The whine continued, now from one side, now another, as he chased down anyone rash enough to occupy a bench.
The Jackdaws’ more dignified method was to watch from a vantage point and once the humans had got up and left, to circle down, without fuss, and snap up whatever crumbs and trifles the people had scattered about in their usual messy fashion. A most efficient tactic, and managed without the chatter these birds maintain on our rooftops or, as we saw them today at dusk, returning to St Petroc’s tower.
Just before twilight, as we enjoyed a cream tea, we observed a fourth, silent, species of scavengers, scuttling across the roadway, retreating down the steps onto the harbour pontoon if dogs or children took too close an interest – a troop of our tribal totem, the Turnstones. Cream tea crumbs seemed as tasty to them as the delicacies discovered along the tideline. I hope they are getting all their vitamins, but they looked healthy enough and certainly had their wits about them.