I’ve just been watching a magpie hiding a biscuit beneath a leaf. I’ve got kids like that.
Kittiwakes Kittiwakes on iron girders, man-made cliff edges to which they return to breed away from the tumult of the North Sea, settling upon this industrial, rusting enclave, still singing of the waves at two in the morning. ©Andrew James Murray
In honour of Dylan’s recently bestowed honour, I thought I’d repost this from the summer just passed.
I’m behind with my Springwatch. So much so that it is now summer. I watched one of the episodes I recorded yesterday, and learned an amazing fact about the nightingale.
This bird, in an attempt to woo a female mate, chooses around 600 notes, and then combines them into about 250 phrases. From these it produces its song, and every time it sings, its song is different every single time.
Think about that: from the combination and variants open to them, every time these birds sing, they never repeat the same song. Each time they come up with something original.
The latest research seems to indicate that females select males on the quality of his song, because the nightingales that sing the best are the best providers of food for chicks. Ready to pull, they clear their throat and give it there all.
Never worked for me on Karaoke night.
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I saw this yesterday while waiting for the 163 bus. My son James wasn’t sure if it was real, or alive, but I think that like everything else in Bury bus station it had given up the will to live.
You can’t help but walk around craning your neck as you look high. It’s the unusual juxtaposition of these monoliths of light framed against the night sky. They draw your vision skyward, dwarfed by our own creations.
With a view to remembering, I had set off on my final night’s walk, crossing the bridge behind my hotel, at dusk.
I took the same route as last time, but this day being a Sunday meant the atmosphere was more subdued, the army of office workers gone, leaving behind a vacuum for nature and a wandering Manc to fill.
I had this familiar, definite trail in mind, but, as often happens, it was birds that led me astray.
As darkness fell, I heard gulls somewhere overhead. Studying the night sky, I could make out their aerial skirmishes beneath the towering cranes.
I began to walk towards the direction the birds had flown in, now aware that I could hear the carcophonous shrieking of many others somewhere up ahead. And so they led me from my safe and ordered plan.
They took me to a point called Limehouse Lock, a part of Canary Wharf I hadn’t been to before. I stood there, against iron railings, peering out to locate the gliding forms.
There were hundreds of gulls-skimming above the dark waters of the Thames. Some low, just above the surface, some higher, all moving as one great flock.
Don’t gulls sleep at night, even in a city that doesn’t sleep?
At night it is always dark water. I could remember looking out over the Saltsjön one evening in Stockholm, regarding the depths there as black water. Expansive and ominous, deep and threatening, I thought of Lindqvist’s book Harbour. In that novel, the writer made an evil entity out of the whole body of water, no doubt influenced by the death of his own father who was lost at sea.
I could imagine it, this great mass, untameable and omnipresent, claiming all who are foolish enough to try to master it.
I stayed for a while. Away from the bright lights of the city, here was the greater thrill: being led to somewhere different, somewhere new, by these feathered guides. Watching them move uninhibited en masse over the masking shadows of the Thames.
We’ve just got back from a few days spent in South Wales. We got the weather, and so travelled to a local beach for the kids to wile away some hours and, yes, tire themselves out for the evening wind-down.
After a while, and of course with my better half’s blessing, I went off for my customary, solitary walk. I headed up a sandy path, taking me high past a meadow and along some cliffs, where some of my old jackdaw friends were nesting. Around twenty of them were flying overhead as I rose higher along the trail which was part of the famed Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail. I had immediately identified their call, they being these days like my own totemic bird.
A single linnet moved with me, too, darting from fence post to fence post alongside me on my right. To my left there was no fence, in fact there was a sheer drop onto rocks below, a sign warning me Beware Cliffs Kill – Stick To Paths. It made me more amused than anxious, thinking about this serial killer named Cliff and what his body count was. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. My eye was foundering in a vista of blue sky and sea.
Jackdaws, linnets, there were other birds too, some of which I didn’t recognise. It is man’s nature to name everything he sees, in order to claim some kind of ownership. I have heard it said that there is a certain power in a name.
I used to walk in my local woods wondering about the trees I couldn’t name, picking out unfamiliar shapes among the many oak and beech, until I came to the realisation that I didn’t need to know what they were in order to appreciate them. In fact, the mental discourse often obstructed the experience.
The same with birds. I don’t need to be able to name them in order to take delight in their sudden appearance and song. Unless I’m writing about them, for readers such as yourself, for then it serves to create a more precise mental image for you.
After a while I picked a descending route that led me down to a secluded bay, not a soul in sight. There was just I, and the cacophony of waves, and birds, and insects. The sun beat down on me, sheltered from the sea breeze.
I sat upon a rock, now viewing the the incoming tide at eye-level. The expanse of ocean swells something inside you. It’s as though your perspective suddenly heightens, but at the same time your sense of self diminishes. You realise how tiny you are in this great, wild, uninhibited context.
Below the towering cliff I found a large cave, water dripping onto gleaming pebbles within its dark maw, almost like a linear breadcrumb trail, beckoning me in. But I only ventured in for a few metres. Caves make me nervous – I was acutely aware of all that weight that was above my head.
I reckon Cave hadn’t killed as many as Cliff, but still. I wanted to stay in control.
Coming back out of the cave and skirting the edge of the beach, I spotted a small fish lying motionless on the sand. Again, I couldn’t tell you the species, but suffice to say it was small and silver, about the size of my little finger. I bent to pick it up and was startled to find it was still alive – its sudden wriggle prompted me to snatch my hand away. Then, in full rescue mode, I scooped it up with a handful of sand and lowered into a nearby shallow pool. It flitted away, burying itself away on the sandy bottom.
Immediately I found another such fish, prone upon the sand. And yes, this was alive too. Perhaps they had some kind of survival strategy that I wasn’t aware of. Maybe I had fortuitously stumbled upon their last gasps. Either way, I deposited this second fish in a similar pool, giving it another chance until the sea moved in and liberated it.
I made my way to a sharp but navigational incline and headed high again, leaving the private beach behind me. Once more I was at the highest point of the landscape again, looking out to a hazy horizon.
“Hello. Taking it in?”
I turned to discover a woman who must have been in her seventies, her attire and vigorous face giving all the impression of a professional walker.
“Yes,” I said, “but I’m thinking it is about time I got back to my wife and kids!”
She smiled, conspiratorially. “Worth it though, wasn’t it?”
“Absolutely. It’s beautiful.”
She nodded, like we were sharing a private, intimate understanding, then I bid her farewell. We left each other, she heading in one direction, agile, fleet of foot, and I in the other direction, now weary-legged and beginning to puff.
I returned to the familiar beach, finding my wife and friend sat on a spread blanket, chatting away while keeping careful eyes on the kids who were jumping incoming waves in the distance. I fell heavily upon the ground beside them, and promptly relived my journey with them both, taking them along the route I had taken and recounting all that I had seen. I spoke of birds and fish, of sea and sky, of caves and cliffs, and then, somewhat grandiosely I waved my hand in the air and informed my well-travelled friend:
“This is my Ibiza. This is my Tenerife.”