Friday, 31 July 2015


Another attempt at an original poem . . .

He supposed it must be payback,
for too much time spent enjoying
the fruits for which others had laboured.
For years, he knew, he had been living on borrowed time.

Shortening days: he began to be aware of the silence
behind those forced and formulaic smiles.
Kind words and expressions of sympathy, but meanwhile
doors were being closed that used to be open.

This had been more than a little disturbing:
the sudden silences when he entered each room,
the stealthy undermining of security and status,
his removal from the loop, the world having moved on.

He had been for so long the point of reference,
the one always consulted, courted for his opinion;
these colder days he found himself excluded, even,
from the briefest glance at the plan,

while, outside, leaves had begun to fall from the trees
and the first frost of autumn was forecast,
along with a blue moon and its accompanying madness
to go with him into exile.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Sometimes there's just nothing to say . . .

. . . so here's a picture instead. This is where I'd like to be, but for the present Ann and I have to be homebirds. We took this picture a few years ago while watching bee-eaters and woodchats on the island of Lesbos.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Natural Atheist

The first draft of a poem written today . . .

I am, I think, a natural atheist;
I can find both sense and a sort of strange comfort
in the irrationality of my accidental life,
sprung as I am from blackness into a sharp and brief
splash of light, my self alive, before the darkness claims me
once again. That’s how it is
and how it must be, that’s all that can be proved;
and surely it’s enough, enough to contend with.
So leave me like this I say, I can do it. How is it then
that I keep coming across God,
not the one who hides in the pages of holy books
or the doctrines formulated by holy conclaves; no,
God just there, round odd corners of my life? And why is it
that I sense this God is wanting something from me?
Not just an image or idea - I could cope with that,
just airbrush God out of the picture,
just keep the stuff I can make sense of, or else
feel there is no need to - no, this is God
bumping into me, knocking me off balance,
changing my direction of travel,
challenging me into belief, into faith. I don’t need you,
I tell God, I can do this on my own; trouble is,
God insists on loving me, that’s the sense I have,
and so I find myself thinking
that maybe love itself makes too much sense,
and the light I live in is worth too much,
for the black to be all that’s next (or all that was before).
It seems wrong that nothing should have the last word.
Of course, I recognise that one of my major failings
is that I could never be a fundamentalist anything.
For all that,
I am, I think, a natural atheist,
or I would be, perhaps,
if only God would let me.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


My second poem, written over the past couple of days, addresses a memory from this time of the year but some fifteen or more years ago :-

It’s a busy day down there
as I peer over the bridge wall.
Along the lane I’ve enjoyed the blue sky,
the sun in my face as I walked, screwing my eyes,
the swoop of the swallows, chant of yellowhammers.
Now I’m leaning on these old stones
to gaze down into another world.
Fringed by ferns and loosestrife and hemp agrimony
the surface of the idling stream,
deep pooled and slow-moving here, is
pulsating with gold and silver whirligigs,
each one a splinter of sunlight unexpectedly mobile,
a dot of raw energy spinning around.
Above them bright damselflies float and whisper,
meeting and mating, delighting in the mix of sun and shade.
Now and again they settle, straight-winged,
just for a moment on some leaf or frond,
till perhaps a shadow crosses
to make them lift away. Today’s bright sun
has inspired all this busy motion. None of it was here
when yesterday I made the same walk under cloud, but now
it’s a busy day down there,
and everything seems to be dancing.
Meanwhile, down below where the dark water drifts,
it is business as usual at a deeper level.
There are other creatures moving, unseen by me,
nor, I suppose, by those sun-struck whirligigs and damsels:
the stream’s hunters continue to ply their stealthy trade
today as yesterday, and as every day.
Their community of violence does not reference the sun;
they do not seek or need the light.


I seem to have been doing quite a few poetic things recently, so today I'm posting two poems. Here is the first of them; someone said to me not long ago, "You can't really call yourself a poet unless you can write a half-decent sonnet." Well, I don't know whether this passes muster poetically, but it's my attempt, and it's from the heart - poetically, in Miltonian style and using a classic Italian rhyme structure, theologically reflecting, as so much I write, the thinking of Mother Julian of Norwich.

When, looking back, I trace the steps I made,
my wilfulness, my sin, my empty pride,
it shames me, Lord: if only I could hide
in some shade place until those memories fade,
or thou forget the false prayers I have prayed,
the dark distortion of the self inside;
my hopeful dreams, long left untended, died,
so cold the stone which on my heart is laid.
And yet I hear my Lord say, “Child, I know
how chill your heart, how far and lost you feel,
how mired you are in guilt and fearfulness;
come close, and see where living waters flow,
come, touch the cross, which is my true love’s seal:
I love you now, and never loved you less.”

Monday, 13 July 2015


Our garden fruit cage is delivering well, and I brought in a decent bowlful of raspberries last evening. Sadly, though, while we've got a few gooseberries to bring in, the bush itself has been almost completely denuded of leaves. We've been attacked by sawfly larvae, which can pretty well strip a bush in no time, leaving only a few of the outer leaves. I tend to have a quietist approach to garden pests, choosing to share some of what I grow with them, rather than blast them with sprays and stuff, but of course the pests themselves don't necessarily play ball!

Sawflies can have several generations in one year, so it's a problem that doesn't quickly go away if not sorted. They also take redcurrant leaves, but for some reason don't seem to like blackcurrant much, so our blackcurrant bush is still all right. It may be the strong smell of blackcurrants that puts them off.

So, what to do? I'm not inclined to use much in the way of chemicals, so I need to find a natural remedy or else just sit it out and hope for the best. One suggestion I came across involved making an infusion of foxglove leaves and spraying; trouble is, that needed to be done as soon as the caterpillars appeared. Far too late now! Apparently growing garlic nearby can be enough, so there's something to try next year; putting in some wild garlic might be enough, and it could look quite attractive when the flowers are out. Blue and great tits will readily take sawfly larvae, and we've plenty of them - maybe a feeder close to the gooseberries will make sure they're in the right place at the right time. Pyrethrum dust is also effective.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


Our garden birds list gained a new tick today when a red kite came drifting directly over us this morning, dipping down quite low over our front garden. We were able to get some great views - no time to grab my camera though . . . we were just about to set off for the Osprey Project, and everything was packed and inside the car already. Red kites are no longer an unfamiliar sight in the Welshpool area, but I hadn't seen one from our garden before. We get buzzards regularly - always very high up, though - and once spotted a peregrine, again very high overhead.

Red kites were very much part of the urban scene centuries ago. They are predominantly carrion feeders, and towns then were I suppose scruffier places, with plenty of good meals available for kites. In the south-east of England kites are settling well into the suburbs, I understand, as they regularly come to gardens when people offer suitable food. I have no intention to add minced steak to our bird table, though the kite is welcome to come and take the odd pigeon, if he wishes.

Meanwhile, we have very large numbers of goldfinches, alternating between bursts of bubbling song and what sound rather like harsh strings of swear words when they argue, as they do frequently. Many of the goldfinches are juveniles, a fairly plain sandy brown but with the distinctive gold in the wing. The juveniles are often still pestering adults for food, but generally just get a string of goldfinch swear words and an aggressive thrust-forward beak in response.

Our Japanese cherry, which blossomed prolifically this year, is now forming masses of small red fruits, which are popular with blackbirds. Again, there are arguments, and often parents fending off aggressively begging offspring. They have to learn that it doesn't grow on trees - er - well, it does grow on trees, but you still have to get it yourself!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Rubbish - my latest "Nature Notes" article

Yes! This month I’m talking rubbish; and I think I’m fairly well qualified to do this, as I volunteer as a “litter champion” and go out several times each month to pick litter and other rubbish off my local streets and footpaths. Sadly, there’s often an awful lot to collect. The reason for mentioning it here is that rubbish is not only unsightly, it can often cause harm to wildlife (and also to pets, farm stock and unwary people, too). Much of the litter we carelessly discard fails to rot away or biodegrade, and therefore hangs about for a very long time. And it doesn’t just sit there; drinks cans can disappear into long grass, only to be mangled up when the roadside verges are mowed, or when a farmer mows down thistles or nettles in a grazed meadow, leaving sharp shards of metal to cause injury. Broken glass is an even more obvious hazard, and there’s a lot of it about, I find, as I do my litter-picking rounds.

Much of what we discard has held food or drink, and may therefore be tempting to wildlife. Not all the food we like is all that good for us, and it may not be good for wildlife, either. Salty or excessively sweet foodstuffs may be harmful; creatures may also be trapped by sticky residues. And the packaging itself can be dangerous; animals foraging inside can be trapped, and I have known of hedgehogs trapped by their own spines in yoghurt pots and similar packaging, for example. The plastic loops that link drinks cans are particularly nasty, and can trap fish and diving birds if in the water, or ensnare a variety of birds and small mammals on land. Cut or snap the plastic loops before discarding them in bins.

Cigarette smokers, sadly, are in my experience major contributors to urban and rural litter. Cigarette stubs are biodegradable, it’s true, but they still look very ugly. A friend of mine who can’t break the habit always carries a tin to put his stubs into. We know tobacco is a potential health risk, and we use nicotine as a pesticide, so it surely can’t be good to be scattering it about the place!

A number of TV documentaries recently have focused on the growing problem of plastic debris in the oceans; even thousands of miles from inhabited land, plastic bags and bottles sail our seas. They just don’t degrade!  What’s worse is that floating plastic bags, whether in the sea or in a local pond or river, can look enough like appetising food to tempt creatures into swallowing them. Even though they may not cause direct harm, they remain inside and severely limit the ability of the animal to digest enough real food to sustain itself. Discarded fishing-lines, hooks and weights pose a danger to water birds, and can kill. Fly-tipped rubbish, and from time to time run-offs from official landfill sites, can cause pollution of water-courses. Please, wherever you go, take your litter home with you or use a bin (there are plenty about, for example 108 just in Welshpool, I’m told). And in general, the less we dump, even legally, the better: re-use or recycle as much as you can.

Sunday, 5 July 2015


I led a service high on the border hills this evening, at the stone circle known as Mitchell's Fold, above the village of Priestweston. The song of skylarks was a constant throughout, and a poignant reminder of a sound absent from much lowland farmland these days, which would have been always present in my childhood days. Skylarks have not coped well with increasingly intensive agriculture; while they are by no means the only bird of agricultural land to have declined markedly, they are among the most missed, for their wonderful song from the ascending wing, hailed in poetry and prose.

Why have they declined? They are ground-nesting birds, and at a guess one problem could be that pairs will be attracted to exactly the sort of level green field that will in fact be disturbed by machinery and cut as a growing crop. So their nesting attempts fail. I did still hear skylarks singing when we lived at Llandrinio, perhaps because there was quite a lot of permanent pasture within the farmland there, but even then rarely more than one singing bird at a time. Up above Priestweston there were at least two birds singing; on a recent walk on the Stiperstones there were more than that. It was almost like being a child again.

One of my favourite flowers was liberally scattered over the site at Mitchell's Fold, and that's the little acid-tolerant potentilla known as tormentil. While it has the typical five-fold (cinquefoil) leaf of many potentillas, it is unusual in that the flowers have not five petals, but four.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

More on Sparrowhawks

I was told this morning of a kingfisher kill locally, almost certainly by a sparrowhawk, which is to my mind remarkable and can't happen often, both birds being such able and agile fliers. I've also had a number of conversations with people who are very negative towards sparrowhawks, which I am tempted towards when I think of the kingfisher, but  am not in general.

Are there more sparrowhawks? Yes, they've certainly increased over recent years. Do they kill garden birds? Yes, of course, and feeding stations provide a better opportunity than the hawk will find in most other locations. Birds are gathering there in good numbers and very regularly, and sometimes the placing of feeders allows plenty of cover and opportunity for surprise. We've tried to ensure that's not the case in our garden, but it's quite a small patch. But, third question - is that a problem? No, I feel.

We are maintaining an artificially high population of many garden species due to regular feeding, and therefore we're bound to boost the population of sparrowhawks. However, this is a classic case where predator and prey species are kept pretty much in balance, with the numbers of sparrowhawks fluctuating in a way that matches the charts for prey species, with the curve on the predator graph a little behind that of the prey species. If sparrowhawks kill too many prey species, then prey becomes rarer, and there is a consequent decline in sparrowhawk numbers.

The same principle of balance does not apply, though, to certain other species, with magpies being one I'd particularly note. I like magpies, and they regularly visit our garden without doing too much harm. They do, however, predate on small birds, and in particular they take eggs and nestlings. If the garden population of small birds is artificially high (which it is), many nests may be built in not very suitable locations (that will also be the case if gardens are too tidy and bushes and hedges too well-trimmed). If the gardener can see the nest, so can the magpie, or, for that matter, next door's cat.

I think that a major factor in maintaining a higher-than-it-should-be population of magpies is roadkill. Crows in general cash in on roadkill, but I rarely see a dead creature on the road without magpies around. This must have a seriously beneficial impact on magpie numbers, and means that those numbers are not closely correlated with those of small garden birds in the way that sparrowhawk statistics are.

Friday, 3 July 2015


We had a visit the other day from a sparrowhawk, the first I've seen on our patch since much earlier in the year. Our visitor then was a rather grey male, this was a tawny and much larger female. The first intimation that something was up was a blackbird alarm call, then birds scattered in all directions as the sparrowhawk came through. As the hawk hit the feeders - which didn't seem to be at high speed - there was a great flapping of wings, then she continued through. I presume she did strike, but I can't be sure. I was sitting on our patio only a short distance away, so I'm sorry not to have seen more than I did - blame the "Independent" crossword!

This stock picture gives a good impression of the bird we saw:

We had a siskin at the feeder this morning, the first I've seen in nearly two weeks, so it's good to know they're still around. We have plenty of greenfinches, despite concerns nationally about disease. We share that concern, though, and greenfinch numbers have been severely hit by Trichomonosis, a disease that affects many garden birds but seems to have hit greenfinches in particular since about 2006. "Springwatch" was encouraging better hygiene of garden feeders this spring, and we make sure all ours are cleaned every week. 

This shot of male and female siskins is from our previous garden (same feeder as this morning, though!).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

New Start: Humming-Bird Hawk Moth et al

Well, here we are in the second half of the year, so time for a new start, and a fresh attempt to make daily, or near-daily, reports on this blog.  There's no shortage of stuff to write about, after all.  I've wanted to mention what seems to me a distinct shortage of swallows and house martins this summer. To be honest, we never see many here, but we do usually get a few passing over. Not this year, not so far. But yesterday there were plenty of house martins busy where I was in Four Crosses, so perhaps it does just depend where you are; and at the old cemetery chapel in Longden Road, Shrewsbury the swallows were busy at their nests in the cloisters, as always. Even so, numbers of hirundines as of other migrants have been decreasing, there's no doubt about that.

Our bird feeders have been very busy of late, with large numbers of greenfinches, goldfinches and tits, among others. Here, though, is a rare view of one of our feeding stations empty!

We had had them out of use for a day or so while we cleaned everything, and it's taken a little while for the birds to find their way back to us. Not very long, though - last time I looked out of the window, there was plenty going on! We have three feeding stations, one of which is out of use through the summer. We feed fat pieces and sunflower hearts, plus other bits and pieces as needed. I tried niger seed but it just left a mess everywhere, and the goldfinches preferred the sunflowers anyway; and I don't put peanuts out except in small quantities, as they tend to be consumed very slowly and therefore, to my mind, pose more of a disease risk. Scraps, including bits of apple, get put out as and when. We are very conscious of the need to keep everything clean - where birds are coming back again and again to feed in the same place, infections can easily be passed on, and good hygiene is essential.

Speaking of migrants, which I was a bit back, one turned up at a committee meeting I attended last night, which with the weather as it was, took place out of doors, in a garden with some lavender in full bloom. Those sitting near the lavender were startled by what turned out to be a humming-bird hawk moth. There are such wonderful creatures, and it's a couple of years since I had a good sight of one. The meeting paused for several minutes while we observed the moth, which fed on the lavender for a while before eventually leaving us. I didn't have my camera with me, so this is a picture borrowed from elsewhere :-

A strange sound in our garden this morning somewhat startled me. It was quite a loud tapping sound, almost like hammer blows. I could see nothing happening, just the usual birds, so I descended the steps from our patio to see a blackbird fly away leaving a snail on the garden path where it had obviously been trying to break it open. Song thrushes famously smash snails on anvil stones, and I remember a pebble in my childhood garden being used for this purpose, to my delight, but I hadn't previously come across a blackbird trying to smash snail shells. I may have saved a snail, or perhaps the blackbird returned to finish the job. I'll go out and look in a moment!

Bees are very busy in our garden in this good weather. Here are photos of a bumble bee on hypericum, and a mason bee getting stuck in in one of our insect homes :-