Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

The Tuesday Poem

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Today I’m feeling melancholy and wanted to turn that into righteous anger about the oil spill with a poem for the Tuesday Poem blog – but of course couldn’t find a modern angry poem that was both apposite and out of copyright. I can think of several I’d like to use in a future bout of wrath (Adrian Mitchell’s for one) if I can get permission for them.

Meantime, this Charles Causley poem touches the edge of anger and futility – in this case directed at war.

LOSS OF AN OIL TANKER by Charles Causley

Over our heads the missiles ran

Through skies more desolate than the sea.

In jungles, where man hides from man,

Leaves fell, in springtime, from the tree.

A cracked ship on the Seven Stones lies

Dying in resurrection weather.

With squalid hands we hold our prize:

A drowned fish and a sea-bird’s feather.

With thanks, once more, to David Higham Associates for permission to use a poem by Charles Causley.

Revised version

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I saw what I assume is the definitive version of Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful poem in this morning’s Guardian, so I’ve updated the version I put together yesterday from her radio broadcast.

The definitive version is even better than my imagined one – see the real thing below.

Silver lining

Monday, April 19th, 2010


Carol Ann Duffy is a tremendous poet and this morning I heard her reading a new poem she’d written about the cloud of volcanic ash that’s covering Europe. As always, she has produced a pattern of images that are immensely rewarding to contemplate.

She read the poem on the BBC’s Today programme, and I haven’t seen it in print so I can’t know that I’ve got the punctuation or the layout right. But here’s a link to her reading it, as well.


Five miles up the hush and shush of ash,
Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate -
I could write my childhood there.
Selfish to sit in this garden, listening to the past
(A gentleman bee wooing its flower, a lawnmower)
When the grounded planes mean ruined plans,
Holidays on hold, sore absences at weddings, funerals… windless commerce.
But Britain’s birds sing in this spring from Inverness to Liverpool, from Crieff to Cardiff,
Oxford, Londontown, Land’s End to John O’Groats.
The music’s silence summons,
That Shakespeare heard, and Edward Thomas, and briefly, us.

By Carol Ann Duffy

At last! Dotterels!

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

I saw three dotterels on the beach at the nature reserve yesterday. I’m fairly sure they were the New Zealand ones (“not common” as well as endangered) so I feel a sense of achievement. Now I can leave (tomorrow, alas) in good order!

Dotterels look very sweet, too. Here’s one of them.


Not common good: very common not so good

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009


I seem to have become enthralled by distinctive birds with red beaks. First it was pukeko that took my heart (see my earlier blog). Now my latest passion is the oddly named variable oystercatcher, which – I was excited to discover – isn’t a common sighting. “Not common” is what my book says. The ratings go from “very common” through “common” and “quite common” to “not common” and “rare”, and after that it’s only “sanctuary birds”. The book doesn’t rate “extinct”; we have to use our imaginations for that one rather than my excellent (borrowed, thanks Pam) binoculars.

In my limited bird watching experience, an amateur’s enthusiastic identification of an uncommon bird almost always turns out to be a disappointing mis-identification. So, from my own recent experience: no, it probably isn’t a (rare) yellowhead, it’s probably a (very common) yellowhammer. And although it took me about a week to be sure, it wasn’t a (not common) New Zealand falcon circling over the bush, but the (very common) Australasian harrier. (A lovely sight, though, however common.)

But when I saw these distinctive birds on the local beach, I was in luck. (They didn’t agree: they hurried away complaining loudly in shrill voices about my intrusion into their space. They even complained again today when I returned, and they were about 40 metres away out on the tidal estuary: I couldn’t see them without binoculars but clearly, they could see me.) The thing is, there isn’t anything else that looks like this, so you can’t really mistake them for another bird.

But just why these black ones are called ‘variable’ is a mystery to me. Bird names are often puzzling – like the American red-bellied woodpecker that doesn’t actually have a red belly. What’s that about?

A variable oystercatcher, when it is actually variable, as opposed to when it’s black all over like the ones I saw, looks almost exactly like a pied oystercatcher, and they all say ‘kleep kleep’. The border between the colours is a bit smudgy on the variable ones, and not on the pied ones, but otherwise I don’t know how you’d know. (And how do they know? That’s another mystery.)

Why not call my ones ‘black oystercatchers’? Or is that just too damn obvious?

Anyway, tomorrow I’m raising my bird-watching game a notch or two. I’m going back to the beach to look at some dotterels. Banded ones are quite common; New Zealand ones are not common. Frankly, I look forward to meeting any of them.

The bird of my dreams

Monday, May 4th, 2009


I have fallen in love with pukeko – these absurd and insouciant birds. My local friends scorn my new attachment. They tell me that pukeko are an unsuitable subject of affection, but of course I won’t listen, and anyway I don’t care what they say. I’m besotted with them.

What I love about them most is their sense of comic timing. These birds are the natural comedians of the bird world, and their daily rituals make me laugh with delight. Top of my list of pukeko pleasures is their careful – their extravagantly, exaggeratedly careful – walk. Like a drunk mimicking the characteristics of a sober friend.

One pukeko foot comes up – and then it stops in mid air while the pukeko looks around. At this stage it appears to be deep in thought, contemplating its next move or the mysteries of the universe: I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess.

Time passes. The foot stays up. I hold my breath in admiration – because, after all, it’s Some Foot we’re talking about here. A very large bright orangey-red one, in fact, and surprisingly slender and fragile, at the end of an equally slender bright orangey-red leg. Just poised in mid air.

Maybe the pukeko is waiting for laughter or applause? No, the foot’s come down again, and it’s the other foot’s turn for aerial indecision.

This extended performance is only the start of the show. There’s still the running to come – and the running’s the highlight, it’s what you’ve really been waiting to see. There it goes – head down and white feathered bum right up in the air, streaking away across the fields, legs speeding, little wings flapping in the air like elbows on a clown.

Oh, they can fly if they want to, if they really have to, but they mostly don’t. For sheer joy from a watcher’s point of view, though, a flying pukeko probably wins the most points. Those absurd legs and feet dangle down helplessly, even maybe dangerously, while the wings flap ever more frantically to clear a fence, or a tree, or just to keep that big blue body in the air. It looks dashing and perilous, and borderline impossible, a pukeko flying.

But like all great comedians, pukeko carry a secret sorrow in their hearts. I’m fairly sure I know what that sorrow is: it’s their tragically appalling road sense. They do that hovering trick at the edge of roads, seemingly indecisive, legs a-quiver with unspoken questions.

Shall I? Shan’t I? Which way? Any way? Oh all right then – off I go!

And then they try to throw themselves under the wheels of your car.

If you were walking down the road they’d see you as a danger; it’s cars they don’t seem to rate on the danger scale. And like cats, they don’t seem to learn from the sad fate of their friends and relations, they just keep right on throwing themselves at cars.

The only good thing is, their secret sorrow doesn’t seem to be terminal for the species. There are lots more pukeko around now, than when I grew up in New Zealand. So my love affair can bloom and thrive.

So it’s bye bye birdies, and hello fish!

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Well, I still don’t know how the magpies are doing. I can see they’re still hard at work, mostly still on the inside of the nest but they’re also doing some work on the underside. I suspect once more that they’re novices, because there’s a pair of magpies out the back that seem to be further advanced, and working more regular hours. But here’s something else we can all watch!

Just look at this! How sweet! You can feed the fish as much as you like (click on the screen with your cursor) and they always come back for more. Or you can ignore them completely and they still swim on for ever.

I find it soothing. I don’t have to worry about these fish, like I do the magpies. Clearly, they’re fine. I like that a lot.

A magpie nest update

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Well, the nest-building pattern has changed a bit over this weekend. The birds seem only to be working on the nest in the early morning and the late afternoon now, and Number One stays inside the nest all the time when they’re doing the work, while Number Two’s the one to bring back twigs. Number Two offers the twigs, one by one (much smaller twigs than before, so there’s no need any more to back in, or do the twisting bit) right into the nest. Then there are some small quick movements from inside, as Number One – I assume; I can’t see – weaves them in place.

I don’t know why the working hours have changed. Do they have another building job? Are they on half-time? Or are they partying in the sunshine in the best of the warm spring days, while the going’s good?

Two for joy?

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

You know that old rhyme about magpies?

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret that’s never been told.

It used to be challenging to see more than one or two at a time – and if you were unlucky enough to spot only one, you just had to accept the ‘sorrow’ suggestion. But these days, on Primrose Hill and in Regent’s Park, it’s much more usual to see a whole lot of magpies at once – and so now, if you see only one, you just have to wait a few seconds and its friends and relations will be along. In fact, maybe we need some additions to the rhyme – I saw nine together last autumn.

These days I’m watching a pair of magpies make a nest in the tree outside our front window. It was a complete mess at first, just a random-looking heap of twigs. I thought they must be young birds, and that perhaps it was their first attempt at a nest. But they’ve done a lot of hard twig carrying and twig weaving in the last week, and the nest suddenly looks much more stable.

It’s very interesting to watch the two magpies at work. At first they just took turns to arrive back in the tree with a beakful of twig, and the hardest bit seemed to be getting a long twig through the branches and into the nest site – oftentimes they’d both back in, twisting their heads around to clear the path. But now one of them stays inside the nest, and since I can’t see inside I can only guess that it’s the female in there, maybe adjusting the lining and smoothing everything down. But the other bird, probably the male, keeps bringing long twigs in, though, so perhaps they’re not up to the lining bit of the job?

It makes me realise how little we – or at least, how little I – know about the secret life of birds. This couple are apparently so purposeful and hard working, but I haven’t a clue how they know what to do, or how they adjust their activities in the light of circumstances (available nest sites, size of available twigs, placement of nest materials, and so on). I can only watch and marvel at their dedication.

Here’s the nest with magpie number one inside, and magpie number two arriving with a twig. You can just see the long horizontal twig sticking out of his (her?) beak on the right, as he (she?) backs carefully over to the nest.