Peak Swallow

August 25, 2017

If there’s one thing we’ve missed since we moved to the new house, it’s been having a whole shed just for the swallows which meant a ringside seat when the various broods fledged and – having mastered the whole swooping-out-of-the-window trick – started practising their flying around the yard. Indeed, having resident swallows is a great way of marking the passage of the seasons: from the cheery moment when the first one arrives back from Africa, chattering busily about its journey, to the sudden silence when you realise that they have gone, and they didn’t even say goodbye.

trainee swallows

Trainee swallows on the roof below our bedroom window. Paving beyond demonstrates our relaxed gardening approach …

So we were pleased when we looked out of the window the other morning and discovered not one but dozens of swallows, some still clearly novice flyers, swooping round our garden and perching all over the roof of the house. At one point there were well over 30 all lined up on the wires, and it’s been very distracting trying to work with a bird zooming past my study window at warp speed approximately every 30 seconds.

Not having hosted their nests in our own garden means we can’t feel quite such a sense of proprietorial pride in these birds but, as the other half pointed out, at least our somewhat relaxed attitude to gardening means there’s plenty of insect life around for them to hoover up. Plus there’s the fact that I ride so slowly up the hill that I’ve usually gathered my own personal cloud of flies by the time I get to the house (and if the swallows were to learn that and start greeting my approach by swooping round my head for a free snack, how cool would that be?).

swallow food

We have various plans for the garden, from a greenhouse to a sitooterie* but so far they have not quite extended to building a swallow shed, especially as both the neighbouring farms feature steadings with plenty of swallow habitat. Still, if a corner of the garden somewhere proves hospitable to hirundines (house martins are also welcome, and possibly easier to accommodate), then that will be a massive plus. Meanwhile, we shall continue to enjoy any birds who grace us with their presence, however fleeting.

* The place in the garden where you can sit oot, obviously

I Brake for Baby Birds

July 25, 2017

It’s that time of year when the hedges are full of recently fledged birds, all a bit, well, crap, in the endearing way baby birds are. Which is fine, until they launch themselves in front of your bike and, like learner drivers, prove to be a bit slower off the mark than you were quite expecting. Twice now I’ve had to jam on the brakes to prevent myself from rear-ending a low-flying beginner that hadn’t quite made it to safety.

Sadly, it also means too many sad little flattened feathery corpses on the road. so far I’ve seen an oystercatcher, a rook, several blackbirds, a goldfinch, a yellowhammer and any number of unidentifiable little brown jobs (I really should probably get back to filling in Splatter Project reports).

It was cheering, though, to pass a hedgeful of a flock of something – hard to tell what when you’re zooming past. One went, and then another, and then they were all pouring out of the hedge to get away, hunners of them, chirping as they flew, setting the whole field beside me in motion. It was a laugh-out-loud kind of sight, the way they just kept coming as I passed, as if the hedge itself were taking flight.

And not a one ended up under anyone’s wheels, which counts as a bonus at this time of year.

Peak Bird

August 28, 2014

starlings on a wire

There was another batch of trainee swallows outside our window this morning, making use of a break in the rain and joining a pair of warblers happily gleaning insects in the huge fennel plant by our front door, the spotted flycatcher hawking for insects off the roof of the shed, and the wagtails stomping up and down the guttering – not to mention the usual chaffinches and great tits, a scruffy pack of sparrows that loiter in the village, a squadron of starlings that spend a peripatetic life among the farms between here and papershop village, the jackdaws that live in the ruined cottage, a mess of pipits in the hedgerow (I think they’re pipits, but they never stay still long enough for me to confirm) – everything but (thank God) ASBO Buzzard, which seems to have called off its campaign of harrassment for the year. At this time of year, I cycle with a bow-wave of birds fleeing before me in feathery panic, from a tiny wren that barely gained enough height and speed to clear my front wheel to the murder of rooks beating slowly away from the scene of some crime on the road. We may not actually be at peak bird (the tens of thousands of geese and swans that descend for the winter probably outnumber – and definitely outweigh – our summer migrants) but it certainly feels like there’s an abundance now, before the swallows leave and the predators and the weather take their toll.

I even watched a peregrine being harassed from pillar to post by a gang of small birds that seemed entirely fearless. If anything, it was the peregrine that was in fear (and I can testify that being flown at even by something much smaller than you is not to be lightly dismissed) for it had left its lunch – a half-plucked pigeon – on the tarmac.

pile of pigeon feathers

When I came back, birds, peregrine and pigeon had gone, with only a pile of feathers remaining. Make that peak bird minus one.

In the Moment

August 15, 2013

OK, sometimes I don’t entirely daydream away my bike rides. Like yesterday, when I started up a small group of birds feeding along the road verge. They kept taking off and flying ahead of me, crossing and recrossing the road, perching on the walls briefly before flying on again, and chirping all the while. It was as if I’d become part of the flock too, gliding through the middle of a cloud of birds for half a mile or so until they veered off and left me on my own again. And then, turning the last corner to swoop down the hill into Papershop village, the sun managed to break through and fill the valley to my left with streaks of watery sunshine, all veiled with cloud.

All of which was some small compensation for the ride back from Bigtown this afternoon, when the weather gods finally caught up with me and gave me all the soakings I’d missed all summer, all in one go. My clothes are still drying round the house …


September 4, 2012

As is traditional for September, the minute the summer is over the sun has come out, the days have warmed up and the weather gods have been busy giving us a little taste of what we could have had, had we been generous enough with the goat sacrifices.

Twice this week we’ve woken to glorious clear mornings, glorious enough even to tempt the other half onto his bike, which is pretty much the pinnacle of weather glory. The joy of cycling at this time of year is that everywhere is stuffed full of birds, the summer migrants not yet having departed and the winter not yet having taken its toll on the new fledglings. This morning we cycled through a hedgerow full of flitting, chirping sparrows and every telegraph wire* was adorned with massed swallows. We even had a sky full of seagulls at one point although we were a bit cautious about stopping to watch them swirl with open-mouthed admiration.

But, warm as it is, it’s not quite summer, really, is it? Yesterday morning we even heard the first call of geese in flight and even though the other half reckoned they were probably resident Canadas or Greylags, rather than the returning winter Barnacles, nothing quite says winter’s on its way like the sound of calling geese, just as nothing quite says spring is coming like the first oystercatcher squeaking dementedly overhead.

And this afternoon? As I took my coffee out to the bench at my normal coffee time I spotted this:

The looming shadow of the house already encroaching on my sunny spot…

It really is all downhill from here

* I know they’re not actually telegraph wires, and haven’t been for decades, but they’re still called that, right?

Hello Birdy

April 15, 2011

So there’s a cheerful little bird that has taken to sitting just outside our bedroom window and greeting the morning with a cheerful little song that sounds (to my bleary ears) like ‘Wakey! Wakey wakey! Wakey wakey!’. I’m not sure if it’s just full of the joys of spring or if it’s trying to tell us that the feeders are empty and need filling again. There are, obviously, worse sounds to wake up to* but I do urgently need to find out how to reset the damn thing so it goes off at a reasonable hour…

*when we lived in Maidenhead in the town centre the street cleaning machine used to get sent round seven days a week in the early hours and I can tell you that at five am on a Sunday it sounded like the slow approach of the opening of the crack of doom, especially when you added in the effect of the orange flashing light on its roof. Only the lack of a heavy goods vehicle licence and the home address of the leader of council prevented me from renting one and driving it past his house in the early hours to see how HE liked it,** but I digress.

** in the end I think I settled for a stroppy letter.


August 24, 2010

One nice thing about this time of year – I knew I’d think of something eventually – is that we seem to have reached some sort of bird maximum. With all of this season’s birds fledged and out and about and the summer migrants not yet gone, every farm yard I rode through today had its mass of sparrows and every stretch of telegraph wire its population of chattering swallows and martins. We won’t see this many again until the wintering geese arrive from Svalbard to spend the season on the coast. I went swooping through a thick flock of swallows this morning and they were so numerous and flying so low and so intent on chasing down every bug that I worried I might actually end up inhaling one. Now there’s a reason for keeping your mouth shut on a ride…

On the down side, I looked at the bright sunshine this morning, thought ‘it is August, after all,’ and didn’t bother to pack my gloves. One hour later I arrived at my destination with my hands numb and aching from the cold. Winter is on its way.

Ask and it Shall be Given

July 23, 2009

There are worse problems, I suppose, but we’re having difficulty keeping our peanut feeder filled these days. And for once, the problem is not squirrels (besides, if it was it would be red squirrels which are allowed to raid the feeder because they’re so damn cute), but woodpeckers. All winter and spring we’ve had a pair of great spotted woodpeckers, male and female, using it regularly, and now they’ve taught junior how to use it as well.

And that appears to be all they’ve taught him. For why would you go around risking a migraine to extract a few grubs by banging your head against a tree when there’s a nice peanut feeder to use instead? The problem is, three woodpeckers working in shifts make pretty short work of an average feeder-full of peanuts. So junior spent all of yesterday learning the hard way that you can’t get peanuts out of an empty peanut feeder, and this morning he was just hanging forlornly off the bottom of it, waiting for the Peanut God to come and fill it up again.

Which of course the Peanut God, aka the other half, duly did. We’re suckers, I know. But come on, too many woodpeckers on your feeder – that’s definitely a nice problem to have…

(Picture to follow if I ever get close enough without it flying off.)

It Gets Worse

February 11, 2009

So we’re sitting having lunch, and I’m feeling that there’s still a small corner left that needs to be filled

Me: I was thinking of having some toast, do you want some?

OH: you might struggle a bit

Me: why, where has all the rest of the bread gone?

OH: …

Me: you fed it to the birds, didn’t you?

It’s a slippery slope, I tell you.

Next Stop Africa

August 13, 2008

I opened the door of the shed this morning to an explosion of wings and mad squeaking: the swallows have left the nest. The next thirty seconds was a mass fluttering panic as the birds learned the hard way that you can’t fly out through a closed window, however scary the monster might be who has invaded your haven. I left the door open when I went for the paper and by the time I came back they were swooping around the yard to the manner born.

Not that I got much chance to admire their aerobatics. For I discovered that the only thing on two wings scarier than a buzzing buzzard is an adult swallow defending its young. Buzzards might be bigger, but swallows have the advantage of speed, accuracy, and an enraged chattering noise that’s more alarming than it might sound. So I shall confine myself to admiring them from the doorstep in the my-god-is-that-sunshine and enjoy the show while it lasts. Because pretty soon they’ll be off to bother the flies of West Africa. And I’m not sure that I can blame them at all.

PS Anyone notice the progression of the last three posts? No doubt, this time tomorrow I’ll be menaced by a cat…