Birds, Ecology, Wales

Never Malign the Humble Starling

It could cost you an admirer!

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Starling by John Quine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

I once had a very high opinion of a man for whom I worked, in a lofty Victorian hospital with what they now call ‘orangery windows’ in the roof of the long ward on the top floor. One day a bird that had strayed into the ward became trapped, flying up against the glass of one of these windows.  His frantic tweeting was disturbing the ward and distracting the medical students that my boss was trying to teach — it didn’t take much to distract a medical student.  Now, I knew he was an enthusiastic bird-watcher and early tweeter (nothing to do with Twitter — it was long before that).  Perhaps I thought I’d impress him.

“I’ll get the pole and let the bird out!’ I said and went to fetch the thing like a giant boat-hook that opened the sky lights.

“Good idea!” said he.

When I came back, they had moved along the ward, nearer to the bird and could see the flapping, squawking creature more clearly as it threw itself repeatedly against the glass in panic.

“Oh!  It’s only a starling!” said the boss ” Leave it!”

Crash!  There it was, shattered on the ground — not the window — not even the bird — but my shattered illusion — my respect, in shards on the floor of a paeiatric ward in North London.

Later, when the previously wise old patriarch, now demoted to a racist tyrant, was having his coffee, I went back and released the bird.

I remember this because it is the time of the year when flocks of these enterprising and social birds ‘graze’ our fields looking for something, I’m not quite sure what.  They alight (several hundreds of them), making a great stain on the hillside, chattering.

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Then they lift in a swirling cloud and swoop low over the pasture scattering the sheep  who are scared, they are convinced that this murmuration of birds is supernatural. Suddenly the cloud swoops into a tall tree, all talking, so that the Douglas Fir twitters with an invisible din.

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Then they are off again swirling, the ball of birds, tumbling up and down the valley, in and out of the morning mist, like a great ball of the lightest, flightiest, celestial dough, rolled back on itself and kneaded by an invisible force.  A splash of dough lands on the overhead electricity wires, then drips, bird by bird, back onto the grass.

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All the time more and more individuals are joining the throng then, suddenly, they are gone.  All that remains is the throb of a thousand wings as they pass overhead, there is nothing like it — perhaps the sheep are right!

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Starlings by Paul McGreevy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 Have a look at these murmurations: http://essexnaturalist.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/starlings/

 

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Birds, Poetry, Welsh culture

‘I am a man like you,’ but was he? R.S.Thomas (1913-2000)

 

Yesterday was one of those days that can’t be wasted — bright winter sunshine, long shadows on crisp all-day frost — a day for adventure.
We have been reading the poems and the entertaining biography, by Byron Rogers, of the Welsh poet, R S Thomas, referred to by Philip Larkin as Arsewipe Thomas whose personality was as fascinating as his poetry which was, though marvellously constructed, at times, patronising and judgemental of the Welsh ‘peasant’ (a strange concept in itself in the second half of the twentieth century).
Thomas’s enigmatic personality has intrigued me since I saw him speak in an interview on the television about Wales and the Welsh language, never had I seen someone’s subject so at odds with his delivery! His words were contradicted by all the non-verbal elements of his speech.

Thomas’s identity seemed caught between two cultures and isolated by  ‘intellect’, education and calling. He was ordained in the Church of Wales, the Welsh branch of the Episcopal Church, essentially the Church of England, viewed with suspicion by many Welsh, the majority of whom attended Non-conformist Chapels.

He was an Anglican priest who had adopted an affected upper class accent though he was born in Cardiff and brought up in Holyhead, North Wales, but he felt Welsh to his core, learned Welsh as an adult and was an outspoken nationalist.

Yesterday in the sunshine, we went in search of clues to his persona, not with much expectation.
We visited his church in Manafon, not far from here —

He was not the first poet to have had the living, the heritage board listed a whole bibliography of bardic priests — R.S. was only the last of many — did that egg him on to write in Welsh — his poetry in the Welsh language never seems to have made the grade which must have frustrated him.

The church was locked but the situation was idyllic with its rectory on the riverside, surrounded by meadows and tall trees.

R.S. Thomas wanted to see the beauty of this landscape reflected in the true Welsh people but they disappointed him seeming brutalised by the harshness of their lives.

You failed me, farmer.  I was afraid you would

The day I saw you loitering with the cows.

Yourself one of them but for the smile, […]

            For this I leave you

Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies […] (Valediction)

Apart from poetry, Welshness and a preoccupation with the darkness of other people’s minds, oafs and yokels (The Country Clergyman), R.S. Thomas was a bird watcher — I suspect like an old boss of mine who expressed interest in a trapped bird, flapping itself to a frenzy against a closed sky-light — when I asked if he would like me to get the pole and open the window, he said, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t bother, I can see now, it’s only a starling!’

The starlings yesterday in Manafon were making their presence felt if only by weight of number.  A vast murmuration had settled on tall trees near the church, the wide valley thronged with their chatter.  You could have swept them up from the ground.

 

We drove in a wide arch through the Banwy valley, skirting snow capped Snowdonia, to Eglwys Fach (Little Church) Thomas’s next parish, arriving at dusk, another church dedicated to St Michael and I am reminded of the lines

A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,   (The Chapel)

This was a Welsh speaking area close to the bird reserve at Ynys Hir but a lot of the parishioners were middle class English ex-pats.  In the church yard there are stones inscribed with names that are not Welsh —

Come to Wales

To be buried: the undertaker

Will arrange it for you.  We have

The sites and a long line

Of clients going back….

It ends…  Dirt cheap, a place where

It is lovely to lie.   (Welcome to Wales)

The church was locked — whether to keep God in or keep him out — one cannot tell.

They laid a stone trap

for him, enticing him with candles,

and thought he would come like some huge moth

out of the darkness to beat there…   (The Empty Church)

R.S. Thomas spent a lot of time waiting for God, but then…  The meaning is in the waiting. (Kneeling)  Possibly he was looking in the wrong place.  In his quest he moved ever Westward.

On the next irresistible day perhaps we will follow him to the far west and the Lleyn peninsula.

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Trees behind the church at Eglwys Fach in the last of the sun.

 

 

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Birds, Hill Farming, lifestyle, Wales

Aerial Dog Fights

We are not in a war zone but over the undulating landscape of Mid-Wales fighter aircraft of the Royal Air Force rent the sky and intertwine their parabolas as they pass behind the hills to emerge and cross, one with the other with micro-second clearance — they travel in pairs, weaving like mating dragonflies on amphetamine, never quite making contact, thankfully — so far.

Photo: Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)]

2 Hawk TMk2 Aircraft courtesy of Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD (OGL v1.0)

They use this area for low level training (I don’t think it’s a secret) and use our house as a landmark or perhaps we are located exactly on the intersection of the invisible lines of the virtual grid that is projected onto the land by a NASA satellite  (the eyes in the sky).  When we were slating our new roof the eyes in the sky were obviously interested, sending fighters to make pass after pass over our house, lower and lower in the sky, trying to topple the large khaki penguin, wrapped up against the elements (it was winter — we do everything late).  Were we part of a secret military exercise — a pretend enemy missile installation under construction — subject to constant aerial monitoring and due for annihilation when we fixed the last ridge tile?  Or was the intelligence officer just keen on DIY, trying to see how we feathered and leaded the valley of our new roof?

Anyway we enjoyed the attention.

We’re not paranoid, not even when a massive Hercules transport plane hoves over the horizon which, in these hills, can be just yards ahead.  Motorists on the mountain road swerve to avoid the huge alien craft that rears up as they approach the crest of a hill!

The remains of a fuel tank from such a plane was in our barn for years, jettisoned by a pilot who misjudged the height of our hill, and quickly squirreled away by conspirators to fill the oil lamps of this valley for a generation — or so they say!

The aerial activity recently has been more pastoral.  The crows that roost and build their nests in the wood do not like the buzzards, nor are they very keen on the red kites —

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— that swoop down from great altitude to pick up the remains of pheasant carcasses left on the hillside for them by this lazy farmer’s wife who is fed up with making soup.

 

The buzzards are ever present,

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mewing to each other and circling above the trees and crossing the valley.  The crows are intelligent and social creatures and resent this invasion of their airspace so have formed an air force of their own.  They  climb up high in ones and twos and swoop down on the buzzard from above and behind and the buzzard will twist and roll to face the enemy with his talons outstretched and they will engage and drop and spin in the most aeronautically alarming way — a real dog-fight.

They recover and the buzzard continues to beat his Herculean way across the field of combat as the crows re-form to attack again.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the plucky crows especially after the chicken incident — imagine our delight when a great bird of prey alights just under our bedroom window to consume its prey — we are honoured and watch and wait, enthralled, to photograph its every move and later rush out to examine the spot — only to discover the remains of our last bantam hen!

173Best Buzzard

 

 

Photo of Hawk aircraft by Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF/MOD [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Birds, Medical

Survival? Against All the Odds.

I didn’t see the accident — just the blood on the road as I swerved to miss her as she  staggered blindly in my way.  I stopped and the cars behind were already pulling out to overtake me,  I  switched on the hazard warning-lights, jumped out and ran back.

No one else stopped —  they hadn’t seen her — now she lay helpless in the gutter — I had to be quick or there would be another accident.

I could smell her blood, it was on my hands as I tried to hold her — steady her.  She struggled and kicked — there were two huge gashes on her head, I could see the bone, liquid was bubbling from one of her eyes and blood was coming from her nostrils, strangely the cars whizzed past, their drivers oblivious to the drama.

I had nothing with which to do anything.  I ran back to the car and found some carrier bags and the dog’s lead (no first aid kit of course) — anyway there was no time for that.  I tore the bags flat and wrapped her in them, swaddling the little duck like a baby and trussed her up with the dogs lead so that she would not injure herself any more — she calmed.  I lay her in the dark boot of the car wedging her in so she wouldn’t roll about then closed the lid.

Now I could have driven to town, to the vet — yes, she was  (and still is) a duck — a little mallard, hit by a car — well she probably flew into the moving vehicle — she was, is after all, female — but I did not.  I’ve seen the expression on their faces when you present them with a wild thing and I’ve paid the price!

No, I took her home.  My husband groaned and, once again, our wet-room came into it’s own.

?????????????????????????????Trying to walk, she repeatedly toppled over to the right but in the half light of the darkened shower room she settled and sat quietly all that day and all the next.  Nothing ate her.  She moved around a little but would not eat the slugs which I had collected for her and which climbed their slimy way circuitously to the ceiling , nor did she try the bread in water which she spilled, nor the caterpillars that pupated on the tap.

On the third day, she was thin, dehydrated and matted but walked more steadily and looked up at me as if she saw me.   We had to go away to a funeral the next day so first thing in the morning I carried her to our pond and put her down gently by its side.  All the way there she was looking from side to side  as if getting her bearings..  Next thing she topples forward and plop!  She’s in the water, she lowers her head so that the pond water flows into her beak and she takes a long cool drink and paddles off purposefully around the margin  of the pond.

Away to safety.

Away to safety.

On the far side she climbs out onto the bank under the muddy cliff where the water from the spring  runs down in a curtain.  She settles there washed by the tiny waterfall.

Next evening when we return she is still there.  She watches me throw bread on the water then stands up straight and flaps her wings two or three times to test them, shakes herself and settles down again.

Camouflaged.

Camouflaged.

 

Next morning the bread is gone and so is she, flown away or carried off by a fox.  But wait…

What's that?

What’s that?

There she is, sitting near the path, ready for breakfast.

Breakfast!

Breakfast!

We have a friend who is a farmer, when asked if he has to get up a lot in the night for his animals he says, ‘No, God does the night shift.’

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