Sunday, 31 May 2015

Siskins, and the (almost) death of a squirrel

Siskins are very messy feeders, so two visiting town pigeons were overjoyed this morning to feast on the abundance of sunflower kernels dislodged and dropped by the single male siskin that had monopolised our feeding station. Siskins nest nearby, so I hope for a repeat before long of last year's delight - a garden filled with playful young siskins. Just the one male at the moment, though, as a regular visitor. Tiring of the sunflower seeds, he flew across to one of the ornamental cherries, where he was swiftly rebuffed and despatched by the argumentative great tits that were engaged on an insect hunt there.

It's been wet overnight, and the spider webs that, despite my best efforts, festoon the posts and railings of our patio, are bright with raindrops this morning. The first bird to catch my eye, even before the siskin, was a song thrush, hopping brazenly up the path toward the patio as though he owned the place. I don't often see song thrushes in our garden, though they're frequently singing not far away.  One of my childhood memories is of the time a song thrush adopting a large seaside pebble I'd brought home and placed in my little bit of our garden, as its regular anvil, on which to smash the shells of snails it had captured.  Every morning there'd be a few more smashed shells scattered there. I wonder whether the decline in the song thrush population is linked to the increased use of slug pellets in our gardens?

One of our local squirrels was very nearly captured yesterday. I don't greatly mind squirrels visiting our feeders, but I do like to make sure they don't feel too comfortable doing so, as while they are there the birds don't get much of a look-in. So I often go out and blast them with a water gun, or chase them off with hand-clapping and mild swearwords (I wonder what the neighbours make of that?). On this occasion, though, the attack came from elsewhere. Having dropped quite a bit of seed when filling the feeders the previous evening, I'd left enough on the ground to attract this particular squirrel into rootling about on our lawn rather than climbing to the feeders as I might have expected. So it was happily making its way across the lawn when there came a sudden pounce and there it was, wrestling with a large black cat, a beast I've had to chase off my land a few times before now. The cat was twice the size of the squirrel, and though squirrels can give a pretty good account of themselves I didn't give much for this one's chances. So I intervened, sending cat off in one direction and squirrel in another. No harm done on this occasion, but no squirrels seen on my premises since then!

Saturday, 30 May 2015


A poem I've been working on . . .

Bees arrive, depart; hoverflies, too. Today
this is such a busy corner of my garden.
I watch them across the tangle of raspberry canes,
hard at work in the dappled sun,
dusting themselves with pollen:
a necessary part of the process
of forming life from life, forming also
fruit for the jar or table.

Spring has made a cold and clammy start this year,
leaving my roses locked in the bud,
while the swallows have missed by a week
their due arrival.
I am yet to hear the cuckoo -
last year he was all around.

Be glad of this day, then,
of its sunshine and unexpected warmth;
they say there’ll be rain yet to come,
spilling from strengthening and chilly north-westerlies.

Be glad too that we still have the bees,
honey, bumble, carpenter, mason.
The steady insect hum as I sit in this easy shade
supplies a chanter-note for the songs of spring, assurance that
the transfer of pollen still continues,
is under way. But remember: like the weather,
all is not as settled and sure as it can seem to be
on a day like this; we need so much that chanter-note,
that soft, assuring drone. Be glad,
but be watchful, take care; we need the bees.

Sunday, 24 May 2015


A poem written a few days ago, for a funeral ceremony :-

Rays of early sunlight filter through
the leafing trees, to light the garden flowers.
In serenity and beauty the new day begins
with birdsong and spider webs, and beads of dew.
And I think I trace you in the shadows of the trees,
rediscover you in the glistening flowers.
The bright green of the new leaves is a sign of hope,
and the freedom of the birds in flight lifts my spirit.
Those we remember with love will never leave us;
we may glimpse them in the beauty of the morning,
and we shall carry them in the deep places of our heart.


I have heard willow warblers this year, but it's a bird that's missing, so far as I can tell, from the bird population of our garden and the woodland behind. Its song is a sweet falling cadence of notes, and I'm sorry not to have heard it as part of the dawn chorus (or the evening chorus, which is sometimes almost as good) at our garden gate.

Willow warblers and chiffchaffs are very similar birds - to be honest, I can't tell them apart by sight. The habits are a bit different, and the song is very different. Chiffchaffs are among our first summer migrants to arrive, and, indeed, these days a fair few of them never leave, but hang about along the south coast and into the west country. Willow warblers arrive later, and have a long journey to make, as they spend the rest of the year in sub-Saharan Africa. That in itself may be a factor in their decline.

It would seem that the decline is not only locally here but nationwide, with numbers down from some four million to - I don't know, but a lot less - today.  The enthusiastic bird-shooters, legal and otherwise, that target our migrant species in the Mediterranean countries (Malta having been particularly in the spotlight) come in for much criticism, to a degree well-founded. It's also true that things are often pretty stressful for our summer birds in their winter quarters, where changing agricultural practices, loss of habitat and growing human populations are bound to have an impact.

Here there's been quite a lot of attention paid to our own agricultural practices. Many species, residents as well as visitors, that have been agricultural land specialists, have seen substantial population declines in recent years. Conservation organisations have long campaigned for a more wildlife friendly approach to agriculture, and I think the wisdom of this is being more and more accepted by statutory authorities and farming organisations. Things like better hedge maintenance and the development of wildflower-rich headland areas need not be costly to the farmer but can have a rich benefit where wildlife is concerned, not least by linking up what might otherwise be isolated bits of good habitat.

To this mix, however, I'd like to add a thought that occurred to me the other day. Populations of many native birds have been growing - provided they are adept at accessing things like garden feeding stations - and surely that in itself must have an impact on other species. One reason why resident birds are resident is that they are therefore early on the breeding scene each spring, and can - in a good year - raise more broods than the summer visitors can do.  Garden feeders and nest boxes help make more years into "good years". This enables resident species to be more effective in competing with the summer visitors for - often, I should think - the same food resources.  I'm sure that's bound to be a factor in the ways populations develop and decline - gardens and therefore people who feed birds in gardens are a hugely significant part of the so-called "natural environment" these days. The only question, it seems to me, is how much of a factor, set against the others listed above.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Up really early this morning to record the dawn chorus at our back garden gate, leading into the woodland behind. Beautiful singing, robin, blackbird, wren, garden warbler among others - but I shan't be able to hear how the recording worked out until later on - it was rather windy and drippy so I hope that won't obscure too much of the singing.

Spent some time then watching one of our local magpies, a regular visitor to our garden. He's lost one leg, but seems otherwise in good enough shape. It occurs to me that magpies, being intelligent and resourceful birds, probably cope better with disability than maybe some other species would. We had thrown out some scraps yesterday, so he had plenty to peck at on the ground, hopping quite well though occasionally having to partly open one wing to restore balance. But on other visits he has flown up to the fatball feeder and is able quite successfully to hang on there long enough to grab a morsel, and generally also to dislodge some other bits, that he can then at from the ground. And at times his mate has helped in this, though he was on his own this morning.

A number of blackbirds have also mastered the art of holding on to the fatball feeder. They can't manage to stay there for long, and there's a lot of wing flapping going on, but they manage to get a feed, again dislodging enough to then feed from the ground. Like the collared doves I mentioned yesterday, this is all learned behaviour: birds adapting to a new environment . . . but of course, it's that ability to adapt that makes these birds successful garden birds to begin with - they need to be to a degree generalists and exploiters. The species most at risk in these changing times are those that occupy a precise ecological niche in which diversification isn't possible. This includes, of course, those that find it necessary to migrate.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Pecking Orders

It's interesting observing the pecking orders in our garden. Whilst bigger birds like magpies, jackdaws, wood pigeons and even blackbirds take precedence, there's also a clear delineation between other species, though things can vary. Blue tits, for example, come close to the bottom of the pile, and really only coal tits give way to them - but the pair nesting in the box not far from the feeding station have developed a feisty willingness top see off more or less any other bird that comes near. Generally, of the small birds, the nuthatch is top of the pile, though last year we had one that was uncharacteristically timid. Usually the nuthatch will only give way to the great spotted woodpecker. Of the finches, greenfinches are the boss birds, extending their necks and batting with their wings to see other birds off. Chaffinches, always looking rather ungainly at the feeders, are a long way down the list, but goldfinches have a high status, and the little siskins will hold their own with the greenfinches. Bullfinches approach cautiously, but once in place give way to no-one. The robin is not very good at using the feeders, but is often quite combative. A lot of its energy is spent though on seeing off other robins, and, for some reason, dunnocks (which, most of the time, just peck around at ground level away from the firing line). Great tits are unsurprisingly first among the tits, and long tailed tits sort of just drift in and out. The blackcap we had through the winter was very quick to defend "his" food supply . . . but, come spring, though still around became much more tolerant. We get collared doves, too - one has realised that by perching in a rather ungainly fashion on the sunflower feeder he can cause quite a spillage of seed, which he and his mate can then exploit at ground level. There's a little mouse appears when that happens, too.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

My Nature Notes column for the month ahead . . .

Identifying Garden Birds

As the trees that surround our garden get fully clothed with summer leaves, so many of the birds all but disappear, and I have to rely on songs and calls in order to identify many of them – not a strong point of mine, but I’m learning. The dawn chorus continues through this month, though it’s beginning to tail off as parent birds have so much work to do; it’s a good opportunity to listen to what’s there, and you can look up birds on the RSPB web site and listen in to recordings of their songs and calls.

Many of our commoner birds continue to visit the feeders – blue and great tits, chaffinches and house sparrows, even the great spotted woodpecker. Others are now absent – it’s been ages since I saw a nuthatch, for example – preferring to feed on the insect life that abounds now in the trees. Summer visitors like warblers rarely if ever come to garden feeders, and our blackcap that was so regular through the winter (until quite recently blackcaps were only here in summer) has now abandoned us. I’m not good at distinguishing between the various warblers, blackcaps excepted, and many of them, if glimpsed at all, get noted down as LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs).

By and large we don’t get any rarities, though a peregrine falcon flew high overhead the other day. Unusual birds generally turn out to be plumage variations in familiar birds – blackbirds that are partly white, for example, or chaffinches with over-large wing bars. Our basic rule if that if we see a really strange bird we can’t identify, it’s a chaffinch, especially if we can only half see it through the leaves. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when it comes a bit closer and we can get a better look, that’s exactly what it turns out to be. We get bullfinches regularly, very handsome birds, especially the male; we’re also sometimes confused just by seeing a bullfinch from an unusual angle!

Young birds often differ in plumage from the parents, and at this time of the year that can be another source of confusion. Young blue and great tits are much the same as the adults but with a lighter, greyer plumage till their first moult; young blackbirds are brown and spotty, but not to be confused with the much more spotty song thrush.

A word of advice regarding young birds: you can often find very young bundles of feathers hopping about the garden looking quite helpless and vulnerable, and people worry that they might have fallen out of the nest or been abandoned. If they’re fledged, then they’ve left the nest. They may not look as though they can fly, but they can, even if not very well. And the parents may well be out of sight, but they’ll be around. Of course they are vulnerable, and some will be lost to hawks, magpies, squirrels or cats – that’s life and nature, unfortunately. But the parents will do their best to protect them; keep an eye on them by all means, but basically leave them be.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Dawn Chorus

Having a wood just a few yards from our bedroom window is quite handy at this time of the year. If I wake up early, all I have to do is open the window and I can lie peacefully in bed listening to the dawn chorus. And what a chorus it is! I listened the other day from about 4.30 onwards, with the chorus reaching its peak at about 6 am. The robin was the first bird to sing, joined by a blackbird soon afterwards. I also identified song thrush, great tit, blue tit, nuthatch, chaffinch, goldfinch, wren, chiffchaff, garden warbler, blackcap and dunnock. Plus, I think, whitethroat and willow warbler, but I'm not sure. And wood pigeon of course, but you can't shut them up.  And others I couldn't identify, I'm not the greatest on bird song.  I have a little recorder, so at the weekend I'll get up and go out and about with it if the weather is suitable. But for now, I'll stick to lounging in bed and listening in!

Belonging Together

I can't remember whether I've posted this before - if so, it's posted again! I wrote it a while back for a funeral service I was preparing, and I've used it a few times since. It says what I wanted it to say, and I hope provides a message that transcends the boundaries of doctrine, faith and unbelief.  I've tweaked it to use at different stages in the funeral or memorial ceremony, but here is the form in which I've used it as a word of farewell and committal.

What does it mean, to belong together? Simply that, on our own, even the greatest of us is only quite small. We are formed and made to be part of something greater than our mere selves: to give and to receive, to love and to be loved, to be cared for and to care. We are measured not by what we get and gather and own, but by what we give: within our families and with our children, in the nurture and teaching we have offered; among our friends, in our loyalty, and in our sharing of joys and tears; and within the wider world, in service and compassion, in perseverance and honest work. Like leaves on a tree, one day it will be our time to fall, and for some this will be too soon and out of season. Here we say our farewell to [N], and here we commit the body in which we have known [her] to the elements of the earth from which we are formed. May we do so with this thought in mind: that what each of us has given to the greater whole really matters; each life matters, each person matters, and what we have given of ourselves is what will live on.

Monday, 11 May 2015


Plenty of bats in our garden tonight. They are, I think, pipistrelles, very small, marvellously aerodynamic, fascinating to watch as the light fades, as they hunt along the woodland edge. Plenty for them to catch, I should think.  I used to enjoy listening for the echo-locating squeaks of bats as they flitted backwards and forwards across the quad back in schooldays, used to enjoy the sound of grasshopper warblers in the hedges and thickets along the canal towpath too; those days are long gone, now I have to be content with what I can see!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Sunday Talk

It's been a while since I posted here!  I need to get back into business . . . this is a talk I've given this morning, Rogation Sunday :-

Some churches call today Rogation Sunday. The days leading up to Ascension Day (which is Thursday) are called Rogation Days. They don’t really have a Christian origin, so far as I can make out - it seems the original tradition goes back to pre-Christian times, when crops were ritually blessed in the hope that they would then grow free of disease. Rogation isn't a word we use very much, but it’s to do with prayer. In particular, rogation is asking prayer.

Because the original rogation days were to do with the growing crops, Rogation Sunday these days is often used as an opportunity to reflect on the world around us, its riches, its resources, and on how we use it and value it and conserve its natural beauty and richness. Our responsibility to generations still to come, and our responsibility to God to care for his creation.  “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground” was originally written, in Germany, as a rogation hymn not a harvest hymn.

I do value the chance to preach now and again on things to do with ecology and conservation, and indeed God’s bounty and the wonder of his creation.  But I’m not going to do that today. Invite me back sometime to preach at harvest. Today I’d like to focus if I may on prayer;  and in particular about what we should be asking of God, and how we might do that.

I might be better listening to a sermon on this subject than trying to preach one. Asking isn’t one of my strong points.  I've always been impressed by colleagues who're good at delegating, bit it’s not something I do all that well.  It's not that I want to do it all myself;  or that I think I can do things better than other folk can (sometimes I can, often I can't).  I think the main reason I don't like to ask is that people might answer 'no' - and I don't like the way that makes me feel when they do.

So I set up stress for myself simply by being afraid to ask.  If that can happen in a single human situation, it also happens in our relationships with God.  It's why prayer becomes humdrum or half-hearted.  It's why we end up not praying at all, or else praying in a way that ceases to include much real asking.  But really, prayer that lacks rogation - asking - is prayer that's incomplete.  It's not all there.  So there’s something worth thinking about on these last few days leading up to Ascension Day.

Prayer - asking prayer - is a vital part of the story of the Ascension, because from Ascension to Pentecost the disciples stayed in Jerusalem, as they’d been told to do, and there - as we’re told - they were constantly praying to God. They were asking God to fulfil his promise to them, and to pour upon them the gift Jesus had told them they must wait to receive.

And I think, reading that, that when we begin thinking about what we might ask of God, before anything else the burden of our prayer should be the same as that of the disciples; we need first to ask God for himself, to ask him to be present with us, and to pour out his Spirit upon us.  But what would that entail?  The other day someone was telling me that he reckons the Holy Spirit is regarded in some circles rather like the chap who doesn't quite fit in with the ethos of the club.  The chap who comes in wearing no tie, or choosing to wear his suit with brown shoes; One of my fellow choristers last night at Theatr Hafren was wearing brown shoes with his dress suit. “No-one’s going to see my feet, I’m on the back row,” he said. “What’s the world coming to?” remarked one of the other basses. “How can anyone sing a concert in brown shoes?”

For those who like their Church to be orderly and domesticated, the Spirit comes as a disruptive and unruly intruder who isn’t always bothered about etiquette or rules. The Anglican communion service includes the words: 'The Lord is here!’ and the response is ‘His Spirit is with us.'  But do we really mean that?

The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, or so St Paul writes. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask that our Lord himself be present with, within and among us as his people; and how else would he be with us, than as an uncontrollable and uncontainable force, encouraging us to action, exposing our shortcomings in faith and service, enabling our fellowship, our understanding, and our prayer; and not necessarily playing to the rules we so often chose to make.  Luke’s account of the first Christian Pentecost uses images of wind and flame, uncontrollable and even terrifying things, to describe what it meant on that day for the Holy Spirit to fall on the disciples. Of course the Spirit is also the Spirit of gentleness and fellowship, and the bringer of joy. But here’s the thing: the Church was born by the gift of the Holy Spirit. So can Church truly be Church, wherever it may be, unless it prays this prayer today, for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

The Church is God's possession; it isn’t that God is somehow a possession of the Church.  So if we're asking God for anything, that asking has to begin with our placing ourselves in his hands, and under his power.  Our first request of God should be that he himself will be with us, and that he'll open our eyes and minds and hearts to what else we need of him.  It's then that our asking will be made appropriate and adequate, because then we find that we pray according to his mind.  'Ask anything and I will grant it' Jesus says (as St John records him).  Now there is the most amazing offer!  In fact, what Jesus says is 'Ask anything in my name and I will grant it'.  And to ask in his name is surely also to ask according to his mind.

One problem is that often we don't really ask at all.  Or we don't ask with confidence.  I'm like that as well;  asking people things but including a get-out clause in the question.  Or even worse, asking people for much less than I really require of them, and then either having to ask again, or else feeling frustrated that I haven't really got the things I need.

We should pray with confidence.  Anything, Jesus said.  Nothing is too much for God.  But we should also pray in humility;  a prayer is not a magic spell.  Praying doesn't give us power to change the natural order of things.  That's not to say God might not do that, but our praying has to leave space for his complete freedom of response.  We cannot demand a specific answer of God, any more than a small child can (or should) demand a specific answer of its parent. The child may know what it wants;  the parent should know what it needs.  The two are not the same.

One famous prayer begins with the lines: 'I asked for strength that I might achieve;  I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.'  And it ends by saying:  'I got nothing that I asked for,
but everything that I hoped for.'  God knows our needs, and our needs may not be the same as our desires. Good parents often have to say no to their children, and to say “You’re not doing that, you’re doing this; you’re not eating sweets all day and watching DVD’s, you need to eat your cabbage and do your homework.” We shouldn’t be too surprised if our prayers to God are answered in much the same way.

Finally, when we ask things of God in prayer we should be praying that prayer with commitment.  For an asking prayer in effect is inviting God to offer himself in our service (maybe not ours individually and personally, but for the healing and helping of our world).  To pray such a prayer with honesty and integrity must involve our own self-offering.  Another famous, but simple prayer says: 'Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me'.

God does answer human prayer. He does change things that need to be changed - and he uses our self-offering to do it.  It's no real prayer to say, "I haven't the time, energy, interest, money to do anything about this so here, God, you sort it out." 'Show me, Lord, how I can be part of the answer, and not just part of the problem.'

That simple but profound prayer is maybe where I should leave this little talk.  Except to make one more small point.  The disciples were constantly at prayer, we're told.  So should we be.  Make time - make regular time - for prayer (I'm sure you do), so that your relationship of prayer with God is a real one.  Rogation means asking, but not all our prayer is asking prayer;  and our asking of God should always be within the context of a wider and deeper and continuing relationship of trust, friendship and worship.

To quote one last short prayerful word:  'You must seek him in the morning, if you would find him through the day.'  Amen.