It was a great pleasure that the first bird I heard this year was a song thrush from a bush in a neighbour’s garden, closely followed by blackbird, starlings, pigeons, jackdaws … suburban Canterbury on wings.
I gave greater pleasure to Mrs Turnstone when she heard that in the course of tidying the woodstore, separating the kindling from the logs that had been hastily laid on top of them, I had seen a woodmouse scurrying to safety. She had not liked laying down poison for the rats that had infested the other end of the garden, fearing for the colony of mice that has been here longer than the family Turnstone. This year’s Mrs Tittlemouse is made of stern stuff.
A grace note to the story: the kindling was 18 month old apricot. Clattering the sticks together released the scent of the fruit, just as the leaves did. See ‘Two unexpected autumn gifts’, November 24th 2018.
It began with a low flypast by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, fighter planes from World War II; after that our eyes turned again and again to the deep blue sky. Then Vincent spotted a buzzard, not unknown in Canterbury – see 3 September 2015, Bravado of the Birds.
Not unknown, but worth downing tools for. Who was going to see him off, I wondered, recalling ravens, jackdaws and gulls escorting these predators away from their children – though sadly ravens are not seen over Canterbury today. But no jackdaw nor gull appeared, instead there was another buzzard soaring over us, and then two more. None of us earth-bound humans had seen four together over Canterbury before.
Too early in the year for this season’s chicks to be on the wing, surely? Were these four juveniles or two parents with last year’s offspring? Certainly two bore pale flashes on their underwings, and one of these was audibly and physically corrected when it flew too close to one of the others. We heard it over the roar of traffic from the inner bypass.
From up there the birds could see a long stretch of green: our little acre is on the river and just across the main road that runs behind us lie the Westgate Parks which lead to the meadows, and the cycle path to Ashford which we earthlings visited yesterday.
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!
It was late morning when Mrs T called me into the garden. ‘What is the matter with the birds?’ she asked. Ever the pessimist, I suggested that they were discussing the grapes on our fence, which are approaching ripeness and becoming sweeter by the day. A few days’ sunshine this week has helped, I’m sure.
Clapping my hands did nothing to disturb the starlings – for it was they who had occupied next-door’s tall birch in numbers. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ said Mrs T, as indeed I was. I doubt they’d have heard much less than a cannon shot.
As I walked out, I realised that they were also mass-murmuring in the first three lime trees along the road into town. I expressed my fears for the grapes to a neighbour, but returned to find the grapes intact. Perhaps they were off the starlings’ radar. A few years ago there were very few locally, and the raids on the grapes were carried out solely by blackbirds. They are not in such numbers, and to be truthful, we have never done much with the grapes. So let’s see what happens.
Other gatherings of birds today: a skein of geese, high, flying North, maybe Brents making for the Swale mudbanks; jackdaws gathering on chimneypots as the light fades, before seeking the shelter of the capped chimney opposite Mrs O’s.
The birds’ sociability is a sign that the year is changing.
The coastal path was full of dog walkers till almost halfway between the two towns. Cyclist, slow down! Turnstones out looking spruce, waiting on the breakwaters for the tide to turn. Are these ones too far down the pecking order to haunt the harbour for easy pickings from the boats and fishmongers?
A quarrelsome synod of Jackdaws at sunset at St Martin’s church. I stopped counting at fifty.
A snowdrop and violet in bloom beside our front door; Mrs O’s Daffodils nose up above the ground, active buds on her elder and flowering currant.
And the flood was there again across the road at Bekesbourne. Rain and hail showers lashing cyclists this morning. At least one survived!
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!
Saint Peter’s churchyard in Sandwich is on the South side, a good spot to bask for a quarter of an hour’s worth of Saint Martin’s Summer sunshine, having paid my Armistice Day respects to the poppies by the North door, and to the men they represent.
Once seated on the bench, it did not take long to realise I was not alone. From the church roof, from the tower and from the tall hawthorn bush behind me, rose the whirrings and chucklings of a murmuration of starlings, and contented chacks from the resident jackdaws, never still for long.
i enjoyed my fifteen minutes in their company before the chimes reminded me to make a move.
If these birds were not out in the nearby fields, gleaning and foraging, they must already have been well fed, ready to enjoy life. I think they may have stripped the hawthorn already, since the bright red among its branches came from a rose that was rambling all over it. Inspired planting! The rose should follow on nicely from the mayflower as summer gets going, and gives winter colour as well.
There are a few species of crow in Britain: the most familiar around the Turnstones’ home being Jackdaws and Magpies. In Cornwall, Jack is present along the cliffs as well as the quaysides, and is by no means totally dependent on crumbs of human generosity. There is another crow that inhabits the rock faces and narrow ledges, but not the carrion crows that we saw in numbers stalking the fields above the slate cliffs.
It was not wishful thinking. That is a crow, yes, but neither jack nor carrion crow. Mrs T saw its orange bill without prompting from her husband – a chough, no, a pair of choughs! They may be associated with Canterbury, but they do not live here, in fact, I’d not seen one since we sat at the top of the Great Orme, eighteen years ago. To bed with a smile once more!
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.