Abel was riding behind Grandad, across his favourite bridge in the old Tannery housing estate. A few yards on, he announced, ‘I saw two baby ducks.’ Grandad did not see them, but Abel missed out on the grey wagtail chick with its parents, (or was it two chicks with one parent?) by the Glebe. He missed our blackbird cock feeding a chick as big as himself on the scraps of fat fallen from the fatballs that the starlings have been telling their chicks all about, very noisily.
But we’ve all seen the baby robin who is already as tame as its parents, here perching on the bike’s handlebars. Spring is fun when you are nearly four or even nearly 70.
The day was warm enough for Mrs T to seek the shade when we stopped at the Oxford motorway services. Perhaps that was why the starling took no notice of us as it sat, wings spread out, feathers fluffed, soaking up the sun, maybe half blinded by it.
The bird was so relaxed that only the arrival of the caretaker, emptying the bins, persuaded it to move into a nearby bush. Had it even noticed the two red kites, skimming the trees, barely six metres above us?
They noticed us humans and departed. He survived their survey,
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 probably should not take my mobile phone to church on a Sunday, though 90% of the time I remember to silence it – and then forget to turn the rings on again afterwards, so receive no messages.
However, the gadget serves to record, once in a while, the glories of what I might otherwise miss. This third-rate photo just gives the impression of scarlet pimpernel and purple grass heads taking over some bare soil at the top of the hill. Almost an abstract.
Lovely enough to say, ‘Good Morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.’ (WH Davies).
Next day, somewhat dispiritedly riding home in the rain, I spotted maybe a hundred starlings, adults and juveniles, enjoying the downpour because it was bringing worms and leatherjackets to the surface of the park. Would I have noticed them if they’d been quiet? Maybe not, but they are incapable of staying quiet! ‘Good Morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.’
He still makes me look to the back door of the house if I am in the garden: the next cock blackbird up the street, with his imitation of a telephone ring – the same one that we have indoors. As well for my sanity that he is not a song thrush, singing each song twice over! I heard the same notes again this afternoon, from a blackbird near Mrs O’s garden; far enough away not to be the same bird. It’s usually starlings that work mimicry into their songs – or so I thought.
Back in our garden, three of us have seen Mrs Tittlemouse this week, even if Mrs Turnstone was just in time to see a tail whisk behind a brick, she did see her mascot. Smiles all round.
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.
Autumn,and time to start tidying the vegetable patch at Mrs O’s garden, harvesting beans in the process.
The goldfinches were active and noisy in nearby gardens, but hidden in the conifer next door there was a blackbird, singing under his breath a long, complex song; not, to my uneducated ears, the song of a novice. I look forward to hearing more from him as winter progresses.
I was reminded of another blackbird who lived maybe 25 years ago in a garden I maintained in town, behind a lawyers’ office. His subsong included a ‘warbler’ phone ringing tone, but he never, in my hearing, used this in his full song. A starling would not have been so conservative; we had a very accurate phone mimic a couple of years ago. More than once Mrs T or I have got up from tea in the garden – and realised it was the starling.
Tidying the planting troughs in our own garden showed why our canine visitor Melba was interested in the corner where they stand. When the bedding petunias were removed there were small heaps of grain husks, suggesting that Mrs Turnstone’s woodmouse friend had been raiding pet food supplies and bringing grain there to enjoy under cover. Melba clearly knew about this well before we did.
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!
My brother’s home is an old timber-framed hall house, rescued by him and his wife from impending ruin but now comfortable for humans, cats and bats. This year a new species moved in.
The space between the timbers is filled with painted fibrous panels, a number of which have had neat round holes drilled into the top right-hand corner – always the top right-hand corner – by woodpeckers. Just one hole is occupied.
Adaptable woodpeckers! I foresee starlings and sparrows occupying the spare holes if their requirements are less stringent than Mrs Woodpecker’s. Will my brother and sister-in-law get any morning lie-in if that happens?
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.