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!
Advancing age inspires caution when tackling physical tasks. I first observed this as a teenager, working in the local park. The old guys, as we thought of them, got as much and more than we did in the day with less effort. They weren’t afraid of work; most of them had been miners, but knew how to look after themselves as they worked.
So I try to plan jobs to take account of my aches and pains. Now, though, it is important to remember Robin, who takes great interest in whatever we are doing. Today it was stacking logs, just delivered from the orchard, to keep us going through the winter.
For Robin the logs were a source of dainties. After a year or two’s seasoning they had a population of woodlice, worms and other creatures, some of which were disturbed as I moved the logs, only to be pounced on by this miniature bird of prey.
We managed to work alongside each other very successfully. I’m sure he’s as good as any young Robin can be at self-preservation.
I have been trimming the hedge of ivy that has grown over the top of the garden wall, hoping to bring light to the apple trees and vine. That hedge held at least three birds’ nests: two blackbirds’ and a robins’, the latter dry as a bone and all concealed until the loppers passed by.
Less welcome were the many snails, resting up till the weather favours them again; they’ve been busy all through November and December until this cold spell set in. There were hibernating aphid and other pests, but my companion knew what to do with them. One of last year’s tenants, the robin, was keeping a very close eye on what was uncovered, and snapped up more than a few inconsidered trifles.
Michael McCarthy, writing in The Independent on Monday, commented on the lack of birdsong at this time of year:
This happens across the bird world, and the reason is simple: the business of mating and breeding is over and done with, and song is no longer needed. (An exception is the robin, which carries on singing as it defends its territory right through winter).
Well, as we walked up Abbot’s Hill to church this morning, we passed audibly through at least four robin territories. Fence posts and hawthorns seemed to be favoured singing posts today. But there is another bird that’s singing – though maybe McCarthy would not call it singing – the starling. These sociable creatures caught my ear last November (see ‘Children of the Sun’) and again one evening this week, on my way to post a letter. Nothing, so far as I could tell, to do with territory, for they were in a group of twenty or more on roof-top aerials and happy enough in each other’s company. But singing they were, alleluia!
From the bluetits’ perspective, an apricot tree full of aphids is a great blessing. That’s the virtuous reason why this human does not spray it with insecticide, but he also has a care for Mrs T’s tadpoles, which are now quadrupeds. And the tree could not be sprayed properly without a flying drone; it’s in a really awkward position.
That’s the lazy reason for not spraying.
The foliage means that unless you know where and when to look, you won’t see juvenile blackbirds or robins, sitting tight till parents come. You will hear and then see bluetit babies, since they travel around with the rest of the family, chattering away between beakfuls of greenfly.
Mrs T witnessed the return of our family of bluetits at coffee time yesterday, and went on her way rejoicing.
On Friday morning I sat outside to eat breakfast under the apricot tree which was full of the contact calls of bluetits. Our nestlings had flown, and Mrs Turnstone was too late to witness their taking off up the hill. Neither sight nor sound of them.
Later that day the robins from next door’s yew were in evidence, and we observed a change in behaviour from the blackbird cock, this time flying away and allowing two magpies to chase him. I’d guess his chicks were now fledged and not needing any sort of attention from murderous magpies. Young blackbirds are excellent at sitting still when first they leave the nest; this is one of a previous generation who did well at pretending not to exist.
With due respect to the bluetits and even the row between the blackbird and magpies, the noisiest have been the starlings, who seem to have co-ordinated leaving their nests to form chattering gangs, showing the children all the best places to feed and shelter. Wherever I went, Abbot’s Hill: starlings; the playing field: starlings; the river bank: the reeds full of starlings; even Mrs O’s garden: starlings. Hyperactive parents with hyperactive children!
But also in Mrs O’s garden – and heard by Mrs T: a family group of bluetits; I trust they are ours! the added bonus, a family of goldfinches. That pleased Mrs Turnstone.
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.