Monday, 31 March 2014

Blossom and Birds

We're starting to get a bit of blossom in the garden, with the Japanese quince the first to show, though we've a couple of trees that will be out before long, and a rhododendron well in bud. We've also quite a lovely pale pink and sweetly scented bush by our front door, but I've no idea what its name is. Anyway, with the blossom coming I realise that one snag about feeding the birds through the winter is that, come spring, they're right there on the seed to attack your buds and blossom. But I don't mind too much; I think there'll be enough to go round.

This morning our pair of bullfinches was joined by a second female; I don't know whether this was a menage a trois, but I have to say they all looked pretty chummy together. This is the first time we've seen more than two bullfinches at a time. Anyway, they showed no interest at all in our feeding station - they were there for the buds, and were having a whale of a time processing through our little row of four blossom trees.

How could I really protest, though? Even the fattest, greediest bullfinches can't take all our blossom, and the fruit bushes, which I might worry about, are all safely contained within a cage. And the bullfinches are quite the showiest birds we see, so I'm glad they're there.

There are something approaching 200,000 pairs of bullfinches in the UK, and they have increased in numbers in recent years after a distinct fall in population numbers previously to this. The UK resident population is increased by overwintering bullfinches from the continent, but I'm pretty sure those in our garden are resident birds.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Closing words

As a person of faith, it can sometimes be quite a challenge to put together appropriate words for a secular funeral ceremony. Sometimes I need to, though. While I think my own faith allows me to lead the ceremony in a sensitive and inclusive way, and I certainly would not want to use words that presume a faith that is not there in the family and friends who have gathered, and perhaps wasn't there, either, in the life of the person remembered, there are times when I wish I could say more than I do, not about the certainty of anything, but at least about the possibility.

In fact, for me the most difficult thing is not how to start the ceremony, nor the words to use as people reflect on the one to whom they're saying farewell, or as the curtains close around the catafalque (in any case, they may very well be using music at that point, so I don't need to say anything). It's how to close it, when at an overtly religious event I would be using words of blessing.

Anyway, here is a sort of secular blessing that I shall use at a ceremony this week :-

The challenge of our lives is to live vigorously and beautifully, to live with courage and care. At the end of a life we give respect and dignity to the one we mourn not only in our grieving and remembering but also in our commitment to live our lives to the fullest, for the best of all answers to death is that we continue to affirm life. So for us who go out from here, may the love of friends, the joy of memory and our hopes for the future give us strength and peace and blessing as we travel on.

Friday, 28 March 2014


One of the things I love most about Spring is the way that things happen all of a sudden (or, of course, maybe it's just that all of a sudden you notice them). For example, yesterday . . . this is yesterday's post, really, I was just far too tired by the time I got in last night! . . . yesterday I drove past an area of woodland I pass very often, where there is always a good spread of wood anemones, and, while I swear that a couple of days ago as I passed there was nothing to see, yesterday the ground was carpeted with these beautiful and seemingly delicate flowers.

I say seemingly delicate, but I suppose in fact they must be as tough as old boots. Like many woodland flowers, their job is to get going as early as possible in the year, before the leaf canopy blocks out the light and get their flowers open and their fruit set. Our mild winter will have given this year's anemones a good start, but they need to get going whatever the weather - anyway, it's a treat to see them, and each one of these new signs of Spring growth is, in a way (even though of course I know they're all going to happen) a welcome surprise.

I love the way people say, as they do, "Oh, the days are opening out!" as though they had never expected it would happen. Somewhere at heart, despite all our scientific knowledge and worldly sophistication, we do still have a little sliver of primaeval uncertainty: will the spring really come, will the sun really grow strong again? - to which the anemone as it suddenly carpets the woodland, is able to speak.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Last Contact

(Something I'm still working on) :-

No-one had come in. The office door
remained closed against the cold March day.
Outside the window, the world bustled on - yet another delivery van
revving up in the yard, ready to go: all as normal.
And yet there had been someone there, he was sure -
someone standing at his shoulder,
someone he knew, who knew him. They had spoken.
What had they talked about? He could not remember,
no words, anyway; just a sense of something about
long-ago times, long-ago familiar faces, names and hopes and dreams.
A shadow fell softly across the bright window, and
for a moment, the traffic noise outside was hushed. A tear
coursed its salty way down one cheek, and it seemed to him
a hint of incense lingered a moment in the air.
He shook himself awake,
as the next delivery van manoeuvred into its space outside,
rattling the window, with the spring light cold and bright once more.
He stood, brushed some unexplained dust
from his jacket, went to put the kettle on
for coffee. The telephone began to trill;
he let it ring.

Monday, 24 March 2014


I'm sure I heard some one in holy orders say - perhaps it was on an edition of 'Songs of Praise' - that for her God and music were more or less the same thing. Something like that, anyway. It's probably heretical, and likely to get one cast into prison in more puritan times, but to me it makes sense, even if I might strive to be more careful and say that nothing inspires and enables my awareness of God as much as music.

I am surrounded by sacred music, currently. 'Olivet to Calvary' is playing full time in my car, as I prepare for a choral performance (well, three, actually) of this work at Passiontide, and I have just returned from singing the Credo, or part of it anyway, there's rather a lot, of Rossini's Petite Messe Solanelle, to be performed in May at The Hafren in Newtown. And I'm loving it, although my throat is hurting just a little.

"Where words fail, music takes over" - so says a fridge magnet we used to have, though it seems to have disappeared or been filed away during one of our house moves. It's true, I'm sure; it's also true that where words don't fail, even so music gives them wings and lifts them higher. The story of the Passion is immensely powerful and moving however it is told, but music somehow helps its deepest meaning to slice straight into the heart. For me that's true, anyway.

This year I have said yes to too many requests, and I am singing too much. Those are the plain facts, and my poor old sore throat knows it's all true, in a purely physical sense. But another side of me knows that really I can never sing enough, there can never be enough music, let alone too much. It is hard work, but it is also a beautiful thing to be able to sing with others, and bring these great works to life; I'm so glad to be part of it, and immensely grateful to the conductors and accompanists who make it possible for ordinary folk in a small town and the surrounding villages to be doing so much music together.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


I always look forward to hearing the first chiffchaff of the year. It is always one of the first summer migrants to arrive - a month or so ahead of its close relative the willow warbler. Chiffchaffs do not travel as far on their migration as some of our summer visitors, with many of "our" birds wintering in the Mediterranean area. A small but increasing number of chiffchaffs overwinter in the UK in fact, in southern counties - these I think are mostly Scandinavian and other continental birds, though some may have spent summer here. Its cheery repetition of its own name gives me quite a lift when I first hear it, and goes on doing so through the summer.

This morning our male brambling was back in the garden, looking resplendent with his black head and rose pink flanks. He'll be on his way north soon, but I heard chiffchaffs today for the first time this year, not in our little bit of woodland as yet, but in two other wooded areas not a great distance away. Spring is with us, summer is on the way (though caution is advised, as tonight will be one of the coldest for some time).

The other bit of good news is the reappearance of the male bullfinch at our feeders. I hadn't seen him since our sparrow hawk visit the other day, and had wondered whether his boldness and bright colour had made him an obvious target.

Saturday, 22 March 2014


Lovely to see in our back garden this morning a male brambling in more or less full summer plumage. Whereas it might be possible to confuse winter-plumage bramblings, females especially, with the chaffinches with which they flock, the male in summer is quite unmistakeable, and very attractive.

We've had only very small numbers of bramblings among our quite large flocks of chaffinches, and I don't suppose we'll have them with us much longer; they'll be heading north to breed in Scandinavia and across to Siberia. There are very occasional breeding records in the UK, mostly with a north-eastern bias, but the fact that this one was already in breeding plumage does not suggest bramblings breeding in Welshpool in 2014!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Sparrow Hawk

Despite the large numbers of small birds that regularly visit our feeders, one bird we have not seen all winter is the sparrow hawk. A couple of weeks ago, I was ninety-odd percent sure I saw one flying over the woodland to the back of us, in a typical sparrow hawk cruising flight, but I hadn't got my glasses and the bird was some distance away. Today, however, I was called urgently by Ann to look at what was on our shed, and there sat a sparrow hawk, a male I should think from the size (the female is considerably larger in build than the male), surveying the scene.

Sparrow hawks will often find a vantage point from which they can scan the area before, in all probability, launching into their trademark swift and scything flight into a place where perhaps smaller birds are not being as attentive as they might be. Our shed provided a fairly decent vantage point, but would I think have been rather too obvious. Then again, had the hawk sat there for long enough, one or two birds might well have ventured to the feeders without paying attention. That didn't happen in this case, as the bird us peering through our kitchen window, and quickly flew off. I suspect he'll be back, though.

There are some birds I'd hate to lose, chief among them either of the bullfinch pair; having said that, though, predators like sparrow hawks are part of the natural balance of things, and if I am feeding the finches and tits, I have to be prepared for some of those smaller birds to be taken by predators. Sparrow hawk numbers vary quite precisely in accordance with numbers of prey species, and so a balance is always retained. The same may not be true of magpies, and I may return to that topic - but I do welcome sparrow hawks, even if at times through gritted teeth.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A Nice Morning

Ann and I took Mum-in-Law, Evelyn, to hospital this morning; she had an appointment at outpatients', to check on heart function, things like that. We were due at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen, at 10 am, so a fair old drive from home in Welshpool. Traffic was light, however, so we got there in plenty of time.

Following on from my post yesterday about the way in which we need each other (and my rather twee final statement about seeing everyone as a potential friend), can I just say that the hospital in Gobowen is not a bad example of this thought being translated into practice. As I walked through the hospital, I was conscious of the ready smiles of many people around me, and was cheerily greeted by hospital staff. One or two people I knew were also attending outpatients, as it happened, so I spent some time chatting - and everyone had the same positive things to say about the helpfulness, politeness and general cheeriness they had experienced from staff and fellow patients alike.

Of course, the hospital is not a general hospital, though it does fulfil some of those functions in the Oswestry area. Its orthopaedic specialisation means I suppose that a higher proportion of those attending as in-patients are (a) programmed admissions and (b) not in a life-threatening situation, and I suppose that makes a difference. The pace of things is not as frenetic, either, I suppose.

But isn't it also true that cheeriness breeds cheeriness, and that what we take out of this world balances with what we put in? "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make," as the Beatles sang. At all events, something is going right in that clean, bright and cheerful hospital, and long may it do so. A peacock appeared at the doorway (outside the main entrance), just as we were sitting down inside with coffee and scones - that was nice too. I'm reminded of a small cottage hospital I used to visit where the hospital cat was often on the ward - not a good move I suppose if a patient is, like my wife, allergic to cats, but a big plus for most of the patients. Pet animals and cheery smiles are probably worth as much as many of the drugs we take, in terms of helping us to feel and get better.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Needing Each Other

"No man is an island, entire unto himself" - familiar words, and very true. Some people maintain a wide circle of friends, others have fewer, sometimes very few, but we cannot exist without the interplay of human relationships, even if those relationships be entirely to do with service or commerce. And, surely, without family or friends the individual is greatly diminished.

Christians are called on to 'love neighbour as self', something I touched on in a recent posting on this blog. I return to it now because I have always been attracted by the thought of the neighbour as holy; why? because our neighbour gifts us the opportunity, day by day, to be of service to our Lord. 'Neighbour', of course, is not the same thing as 'family and friends' - I may have neighbours on the other side of the world whom I shall never see or know, but they are my neighbours nonetheless, because one definition of neighbour that is very true to, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is that my neighbour is anyone I have the power to offer help to, or turn away from.

It follows, then, that the definition of neighbour will include, as it did for the Good Samaritan in the story, people we would not regard as friends or feel any family attachment to - except that they like us are human, which in one analysis means they have a right, in their need, to whatever help I can offer. As a Christian I might add that they are loved by God as his own, and therefore I should strive to love them too.

That's an interesting thought, to me, which takes me further than the broadly humanist sense of duty towards one's fellow man and woman, attractive though that is in its own right. I am required to love people I may find it impossible, or virtually so, to like. That would seem to me to be a very challenging project indeed, but it may well lie at the heart of what Jesus was doing in the wilderness at the start of his ministry: it seems to me that that process was a testing time directed to ensure that in his ministry he would not be presenting himself in any flashy way, however plausible a strategy that may have seemed to be, but simply loving people who needed to be loved.

Those people include me, of course, loved though I deserve not to be. With that thought in mind, and claimed as I believe myself to be by grace, I will do my best to live, to behave, as though every person I meet is potentially at least, my friend.

Monday, 17 March 2014


There was quite a substantial fall of trees in the strong winds that hit us a month or so back, and, as I travel around, the shattered or fallen trunks and the gaps in the hedgerows are still very visible. Somewhat to my surprise, very little damage was done to the trees in the little wood behind us, though. Perhaps this was because they are sheltered and protected from the full force of a south-westerly storm, by the natural topography and by the houses along the street, including our own.

My favourite of the trees behind us is a tall and well-ivied oak, which is of course teeming with life. Our oak trees probably support more life forms per square inch (or whatever measurement) than any other. Most of these creatures can't be seen from our patio, but the birds (and the squirrels) are very visible indeed just now, and I love to watch them: wood pigeons crashing about the canopy in an abandoned fashion; the running battle at one point in the winter between (or among) quite a crowd of jackdaws and carrion crows; and the mixed bands of finches and other small birds that now fill the tree with song and excited chattering. And soon there'll be chiffchaffs, blackcaps and wood warblers - they can't be far away now.

One bird I've searched for all winter in vain, in and around our garden, is the tree creeper. That's disappointing - the previous winter saw a tree creeper regularly out and about in our garden. Perhaps it's been too mild; last year's tree creeper had been forced to search for food away from its normal habitat, on our brick and stone walls and in our garden shrubs, but this year, perhaps, they've not needed to do that. I'm sure there will have been one in our great oak, from time to time, so I guess that, for all my searching, I've just been unlucky and missed it. By the way, someone I used to know claimed to have a tree creeper that regularly visited the feeders in his garden. I refused to believe him, as this wasn't something tree creepers do so far as I was aware, but when I called to see him, yes indeed, there it was. I've never known one do this anywhere else, though.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Best Laid . . .

Today has not gone as planned, despite the enjoyably warm and sunny weather. The plans included lunch at a favourite country pub, for example, which didn't happen. The plans did not include calling out the emergency doctor, which did. Well, here's to tomorrow, so far as all that is concerned; let's hope for better things. Meanwhile, it's worth just making three observations, the first of which is the old saw that "life is something that happens to you while you're busy making plans." The making of plans fools us into believing that we can control events and even destinies; we can't, of course, though from time to time we may manage to impose some vestiges of order here and there.

But, secondly, when things do not go according to plan the events of life do still include blessings and benefits, and these are sometimes all the more welcome for being unexpected and maybe undeserved. There were quite a few bits of today that seemed to include no trace of blessing at all, and that I felt screwed up about, really - but not everything was bad or sad. In particular, and this is really my third point, even when things go wrong and are difficult and painful I find I am often lifted and warmed at heart by the kindness of others, some of them friends, some of them strangers, who just say and do the right things at the right time, and quite often are prepared to go the extra mile. They have been present today, and I am glad of that.

Finally, in the bright sunshine of today, my favourite spring flower (and Wordsworth's), the lesser celandine, has been quite beautiful, with sheets of glossy yellow to reflect the sun here and there along the edge of the wood. I think the name celandine relates to swallows, so this is a flower supposed to bloom at the time the swallows come. In reality it's in flower rather earlier, but on a day like this you know it won't be all that long before they are with us - and I am already listening out hopefully for the first singing chiffchaff, not here yet but surely not too far away.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


Busy in the garden today - a bright and sunny one, and at times while I was out there, I was all but deafened by birdsong. Blackbirds especially were singing very competitively, and from time to time meeting up to battle physically as well as vocally, though usually that amounted to no more than a bit of hostile wing-flapping. Yesterday, though, as I drove along a country lane, I was able to watch two blackbirds continually trading places: one would be perching on the top of the hedge, the other in the lane, then the one in the lane would fly up and displace the other down into the lane. The two birds swapped places about four times before my vehicle got too close and they both flew off.

The wood behind our garden was alive with birds all day. I was delighted to see a wren exploring the base of the old elm just behind us in quite a proprietorial way. There's quite a lot of brush and other cover just there, so that could be a nesting site. In a previous garden we had around twelve newly fledged wrens zooming about in all directions, and it would be nice to repeat that experience. I am pretty sure I saw a sparrow hawk drift across, but it was only a glance and I can't be sure. Up to five buzzards were riding the thermals high overhead, and two herons flew across, my gaze attracted by their harsh cry. They nested not far away last year, I think.

The woodland falls away sharply behind our garden to the stream below, the drop being I suppose some twenty-five to thirty feet. The heavy rain last winter has taken away some of the bank, and local pet dogs from along the road have been burrowing in where the ground is disturbed, so I've been trying to rebuild and stabilise things, not that I think there is any danger of major ground movement. Access into the wood is easy, via the gate pictured below; movement through the wood is much harder as the bank sides are so steep, so the wildlife is more or less undisturbed, except for the busy dogs that are occasionally let loose there.

I love gates, which to me always carry with them a flavour of possibility and opportunity. The one in my picture at the title of this blog is in one of my favourite places, Arnside Knot, on the edge of the Lake District and overlooking Morecambe Bay and the Kent Estuary - the picture was taken on my last visit there some two years ago.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Both Sides Now

I attended two funerals today (in a professional capacity). Both were well attended, very moving, very personal (and I remember with some sadness and shame how impersonal funerals tended to be when I started out as a minister many years ago). Both were very well taken, one by a humanist celebrant, the other by an Anglican priest. Both, I think, addressed the need both to celebrate and affirm a particular human life and the person who lived it, and also to look, each of us there, at our own life journey and how we are using what we have and are.

I have great sympathy with humanism, which at its simplest states that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to live a fulfilled, useful, moral and caring human life. I can't really argue with that, even though personally I do believe in God. The fact is, I don't connect well to the pedantry that seems to be a feature of much theology, and have never been conservative, still less fundamentalist, in my approach to the Christian faith, since my sense is that to do that takes me away from the example of Christ, rather than leading me to him. As I read the Gospels, what I discern there is that how I live is clearly more important than what - in detail - I might claim to believe.

Yet I am a Christian. Ultimately, I do take that leap, or sometimes just a step, of faith, so that if I am a humanist, I am a Christian humanist (and isn't that where humanism began?). My non-believing friends may accuse me of weakness, needing to have God there as a backstop or advisor or imaginary friend (that last being a taunt that gets thrown around quite a lot by those who believe that atheism and growing up are one and the same. I don't).

I on the other hand find myself feeling sorry for those whose limitations as regards vision, imagination and spiritual awareness mean they can't take that step into a wider and deeper sense of things that includes, ultimately, not only a sense of myself as spiritual but an awareness of God that, with time and practice becomes not only idea and philosophy but also relationship. Is it that I can't live without that prop or security blanket? It certainly does not feel like that to me; indeed, I sometimes think it would be such a whole lot easier all round if I didn't believe (and, by the way, I could do with the Church making things easier for me sometimes; I read the letters page of Church Times, and despair).

Of course, there is the whole heaven and hell thing - well, heaven mostly, we'd rather think that we go somewhere nice, wouldn't we? One funeral today spoke firmly about this life being all we have; the other included a rather lovely story that was intended to steer us toward a belief in life after physical death. I am sufficient of a mainstream Christian, despite the Church's best efforts, to have a living and settled faith in the resurrection of Christ, and this not as a one off but (quoting Paul) a first-fruits; but life after death doesn't play that much of a part in my personal thinking. I tend to want to live as though this life were all, and hope perhaps to be surprised by the hereafter. Anything else, and perhaps I run the risk of losing or wasting those precious days and  hours and minutes that - for me - are God's gift, born of his creation, and given to me to use lovingly, wisely and well.

Having said all of that, even the first funeral, the humanist one, spoke of the ways in which we live on in memories, in our genetic inheritance if we have children and grandchildren, and in the impact we have made on others by our friendships, our work and the way we have lived. From a Christian perspective, I say amen to that, and would hardly want to say anything more; after all, I know I can't earn my way into heaven, nor do I want to be scared into being good by the threat of hell. I want to live well and lovingly because I believe that is the highest calling on me - to live as though other people matter as much as I do (and other creatures, too, I think I'd want to add). The Bible tells us that if we love God, we prove and demonstrate that by loving our neighbour as ourself - these two loves are the one and greatest commandment, according to Jesus. And to love my neighbour as myself would also seem to me to be a profoundly humanist thing to do.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Man versus Squirrel (6)

Peace has broken out at our feeders! It can't last, I suppose, but for the moment all is sweetness and light. I have placed a feeder conveniently for the squirrels, and for the most part, since squirrels like an easy life as much as the rest of the world, that's where the squirrels are staying, allowing the birds to use the main feeding station in reasonable peace. So far so good, anyway.

Meanwhile, the female bullfinch unusually came alone to the feeders this morning. There were no other birds there at the time, so I was interested to see whether she would still head straight to the fat ball pieces (see my post yesterday). She did - so her choice of feeder certainly isn't just because other feeders are in use and she's shy. She clearly is shy, though - a coal tit, hardly the world's most threatening bird, came to the nearby peanut feeder and that was enough to send her away. It's interesting to see the male and female of the same species having such different food preferences, though - the female bullfinch always at the fat ball feeder, while the male never goes there. I'm reminded of the old tale about Jack Sprat and his wife!


I came across Edna St Vincent Millay's powerful and moving sonnet about loss in a collection I was looking through the other day.  I think it was first published in 1931.  Millay, active as a poet in the first half of the Twentieth Century and winner of the Pullitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, was a particularly fine composer of sonnets. It's not a style I've tried, but perhaps I will.

"Time" isn't an easy read, I suppose. The first two lines make that clear enough:
'Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
who told me time would ease me of my pain . . .'
It speaks very clearly to the human experience of loss, the yearning for what has been, and even for what never had the opportunity to be: the shunning of those places that carry reminders so as to avoid the pain, and, conversely, when thankfully coming to a place that holds no reminder:
'I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
and so stand stricken, so remembering him.'

When such deep thoughts are placed and expressed within the strict literary limits imposed by the sonnet form, they grow in intensity and gain new power, I think. The writer's pain is accurately defined and transmitted, in a way that - for me, anyway - cannot but connect with and expose my own sense of loss.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


Lent is upon us, and I've decided to cut out two of the things I really love to eat - cake and chocolate. This time I mean it . . . so none of the weaselling out seen in past years, such as giving up cake but excluding scones and flapjacks from the definition of cake, or giving up chocolate but still consuming it when used to coat a digestive biscuit. Well, it's been a week so far, and the resolve is holding, and the money saved will go to a good cause, as yet to be decided.

Watching our garden birds, it's clear that different foods suit different species - well, we knew that, of course - but also that different birds of the same species seem to have their own likes and dislikes (just like us, in other words). Among the most delightful of the visitors to our feeders is a pair of bullfinches; the male is by some distance the most showy of our regular visitors, with his bold black cap and deep rose breast, but the female is also attractive, with her more restrained breast plumage of salmon-grey. They almost always appear together, and the male often stands guard until the somewhat shyer female has taken her place at the feeders. Their taste in food is quite different. The male is generally at the sunflower seed feeder, with occasional forays to the nyger seed; the female, on the other hand, always goes to the fat-ball feeder (almost the only finch of any species to do this), where we have small fat pieces with seeds and insect parts added to the mix.

I wonder a little at the comparatively unusual food preference of the female. It may be that she is gaining particular nutrition from this food that will improve her breeding ability, or of course it may be that, as a rather shy bird (unlike the male, who can be something of a bully-boy), she prefers to keep away from the squabbles that are constantly breaking out at the seed feeders. Or of course, it may simply be that she just likes the fat balls more!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Man versus Squirrel (5)

It is proving immensely satisfying to shoot our local squirrels with the toy water gun we acquired last summer for the purpose. It's brightly coloured (and a sticker promises 'super power'), and the squirrels have only to see it in my hand now and they flee . . . while, on the whole, the local birds seem pretty unconcerned.

However, it has to be said that it doesn't put them off for long. They bound into the nearby tall trees, wait for me to go safely back indoors, then sneak straight back down again. They know very well, it would seem, that I can't stand guard for ever. Nor do I wish to, I have to say; I haven't really got anything against the squirrels - though I know they can be a pest, and that they will in season take eggs and chicks from nests. I don't mind that I'm feeding them as well as the birds, but it's a matter of balance, and I'm unhappy that a squirrel at the feeding station keeps the birds away. Anyway, I have now hung a feeder specially for the squirrels, and we'll see what that does.

There is also now a genuinely squirrel-proof feeder hanging away from the main feeding station, and it took no time at all for it to become the feeder of choice for many of our visiting birds. If the squirrel tries to get to the seeds, a cover slides shut over the feeder, so the squirrel has to give up and go away. Hooray! Except that a slight design hitch means that the metal sheath tends to stay down over the feeder, until moved back up by me, so the feeder becomes bird-proof as well!

The next tool in my armoury may well be a capsicum spray - not liked by squirrels, but not bothersome to birds, so I'm told. You can buy this, but perhaps I'll try making some. On a happy note, we've had a couple of visits from the woodpecker, the first time we've seen it for several weeks.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Local Press

I really enjoy reading local papers, and it's sad to think that, free sheets apart, the circulation of local weeklies is generally on the wane. It's rare to open the local weekly paper without seeing someone I know named, and quite probably photographed too, and that's certainly part of the attraction. But I'll happily read local rags when away from home too, even though I don't recognise anyone (or, for the most part, anything) within them. I think the main attraction is a sort of re-settling of the balance - between good news and bad, between big news and little, between big politics and little . . . I find myself somehow brought closer to the times of long ago, when very little that happened beyond the bounds of one's own town or village was really of any importance or note.

Of course, our little community here is as capable of producing bad news stories as any other, but in the local rag the children winning prizes for poetry or song at a local eisteddfod are just as important and newsy as the men up in court after a drunken brawl on a Friday night. Photographs of the car stolen then crashed by joy riders may feature on the front page, but the balance is redressed inside with pictures of the first, second and third prize winning carrots at a local show. As many of the stories warm the heart as chill the marrow - in fact, rather more of them warm the heart. And for the most part, the celebrity culture that uses up so much national newsprint (even in the quality papers, so called) is absent, unless you happen to have a star from Corrie or Emmerdale opening a local fete. The fact is that really, anyone can become a celebrity in the local rag . . . it's even been me, once in a while!

Even the letters page can be fun, despite those correspondents who persist in writing sloganising letters on national politics. There's always someone sending in an old photograph from schooldays or of some long ago civic event or summer pageant, asking for faces to be identified. Even though I don't still live in the community in which I was brought up, I still enjoy seeing those. Long live the local weekly, I say. Our local paper, not always renowned for its accuracy, is nonetheless loved by many - even for its mistakes. For most of us, most of the time, it's a feelgood experience, which I certainly look forward to, week by week.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Melting in the Dark

Last week, having elected to play 'cake-related' songs during his drivetime show, Simon Mayo played the Donna Summer version of 'McArthur Park'.  If ever there was a clear case of criminal damage done to a work of art, that is it, in my view - almost on a par with taking a scalpel to the Mona Lisa.  All respect to Ms Summer as a disco diva, but she was entirely the wrong person to sing that song, and comprehensively ruins it - though I suppose the arranger and producer must take some of the credit also. She sings without the slightest sense that she has any understanding of what the lyrics mean, and her shout at the beginning of each instrumental interlude robs the song of any remaining traces of the wistfulness that is its real theme.

Why Mr Mayo chose to play that version rather than the wonderful Richard Harris "original", I don't know. I suppose hers was the bigger hit, having made no.1 in the Billboard chart in 1978 - and again in the dance chart as recently as last year, I understand. I suppose it does work as a piece of dance music, but the Richard Harris version works as a song. I love a story song, and so have always been a major fan of the writing of Jimmy Webb, most of whose songs seem to combine a strong thread of narrative with a wistful pull at the heartstrings.  I wish I could write like that - perhaps at my very best I do at least make an attempt in that direction, but my very best doesn't come round all that often.

I place McArthur Park somewhere near Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' in my library of songs . . . both look back at moments, shared times, you desperately want to last for ever, but of course they don't and can't, and nor can they ever be re-created. Life is a series of bereavements, and there is a sense of that in both of those songs. Jimmy Webb uses the way in which the colours melt into each other and fade as the daylight goes as a theme, linking it to the image that has been ridiculed by generations of DJ's but has always worked for me - an iced cake left in the rain to melt and spoil. Something wonderful worked just that once, and will never happen again, can't ever be made like it was that day.

The depressive mentality takes the reality of bereavement, of losing what was wonderful and can't be repeated, and dwells on it to the extent of refusing to believe that anything as good or beautiful can happen again. The truth is that, even as we say goodbye to past experiences of beauty and ecstasy and love, so the future remains replete with possibility and promise (at any rate, for most of us, most of the time). Faith encourages me to understand life in terms of direction and flow, and purpose, rather than merely as a series of random events - in which case, not only am I bound to look forward in hope and expectation, but also to believe that there is always something to take with me from within those lost days of wonder or joy. Nonetheless, the wistful notes of songs like 'McArthur Park' and 'Wichita Lineman' will continue to engage with a tender spot in my soul . . .

Saturday, 8 March 2014


Lesser Redpolls are seen more frequently than they used to be, and are found as breeding residents over much of the UK, and as winter visitors more widely still.  They are beginning to be seen fairly regularly at bird feeding stations, including those in large and wooded gardens.  We have had them at our feeders just a few times this winter, and today one has been present from early morning. Although it seems to be able to fly quite well, it looks as though it may have been injured at some point, and some of the feathers in its right wing are not very tidy. This may be why it seems fairly tame, staying at the feeders when other birds are absent. It is feeding well, though. I wonder how long it will stay? Like the siskins which are still present in some abundance, redpolls won't be staying in our suburban gardens through the summer, though we won't have to travel too far to see them.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


My monthly 'Nature Notes' column . . .

You’ve only to step outside our backdoor at the moment to be assailed by birdsong - though perhaps that’s the wrong word, as of course it’s a lovely sound. Bird vocalisation is a vast scientific subject, with lots of research going on as to how bird songs and calls develop, how they are used, and so forth. Almost all species of birds produce some sort of vocal sound, but it is the Passeriformes (the perching birds) that are particularly noted for their singing ability - birdsong being, I suppose, those bird calls that are tuneful to our ears.

In fact, bird songs can be quite complex;  by definition ‘song’ is more than a mere cheep or squawk, something relatively long and often melodious, and usually though not always associated with some aspect of courtship. Exceptions to this, such as the winter song of the robin, are linked to the need to establish and defend a territory. Interestingly, birdsong outside of the tropics is mostly delivered by the male, while many tropical species have song delivery shared equally by both sexes.  The vocal organ of birds is the syrinx, and songbirds have a number of muscles controlling this area of membranes over which air is passed, allowing a wide range of different notes and sounds to be produced, often at quite high volumes.

Why do birds sing?  As already stated, bird song is mostly related to reproductive activity. Songs are sung to attract a mate, and to establish and maintain a breeding territory. Often the male will establish a breeding territory and then seek to attract a mate to it, and the males of some migratory species will arrive before the females.

Song helps to stimulate and synchronize courtship, and indicates a readiness to breed.  This may be why both sexes sing in many tropical species, where breeding can happen at any time of the year and is dependant on food supply rather than season. The song can help to maintain the pair bond, and often fairly plainly plumaged birds, where male and female are not very distinct from each other, can have quite complex songs - with regional variations and ‘accents’.

There is certainly a competitive element to birdsong, especially where the more complex songs are involved. Males signal their effectiveness as mates by singing long and complex songs, to which they may well add new elements, perhaps copied from other sounds round about.  At this time of the year, many birds will sing from prominent positions - this is especially true of blackbirds, thrushes and robins; their songs may be used to intimidate opponents as well as to attract a mate.

Not all birds can easily be seen as they sing, however, so it’s good that songs are distinct - the RSPB and other organisations produce DVD’s of birds with the song for each species, a good way of learning to tell one from another. Anyway, there are some beautiful sounds to be heard at this time of the year - make the most of them!