Blue Tits in Our Nest Box

Our garden is visited by many birds and each year we’ve enjoyed watching them on the bird feeders. House martins have nested in the gable ends of the house and given us splendid aerial displays. Pheasants are regular visitors, Other birds have also made nests, some in bird boxes and this year we got a new blue tit box – one with a camera and waited to see whether it would be occupied.

We were lucky, as one blue tit spotted it and she started to occupy it, flying in and out and pecking the edges of the hole. For a while she was on her own. She spent quite a lot of time knocking with her beak on the walls of the box and then a male came flying in and joined her hopping around the box to inspect it. They looked so funny as their feet skidded on the smooth floor of the box, but then they began to bring in bits of plant material, scattering it around, then re-arranging it haphazardly. And then they removed all of it and I thought they’d decided to go elsewhere – but no, they came back and more material appeared and then they took it all out. This went on for a while.

I wondered if this was normal and decided I needed to find out more about their nesting habits. After checking several bird websites, I found this little book – Blue Tits in My Nest Box by David Gains, a mine of information.

And I was relieved to read that this was exactly what the blue tits in his bird box did too. I breathed a sigh of relief and waited to see what would happen next. It’s the female that does most of the nest building And she kept on bringing in more plant material and feathers, tossing it all around, then sitting in the middle of the mass, holding out her wings and shuffling round and round, she made a hollow with her body.

This doesn’t look like the nests you see on TV wildlife programmes, but eventually she was satisfied with it and laid her eggs. We were so excited as one by one five little featherless chicks hatched. Sadly one of them died and we had to remove it from the nest. In the photo below you can see their open mouths as they waved the heads around when the adult birds came in to feed them. The fourth bird was smaller than the others – you can just see its little mouth behind the others. I’m sure it didn’t get as much as the others as they jumped on top of it to get fed!

As they got bigger they began to flatten the nest, jumping up and down, trying out their wings. Eventually the day came when one by one they left the nest until there was just the smallest one left. It kept trying to jump up to the hole and I didn’t think it was big enough to survive outside, but it made it. And we next saw them in the garden on the bird feeders and trees, fluttering their wings and opening their beaks as the parents continued to feed them.

I began writing this post earlier this year when the blue tits were hatching and never finished it. I spent so much time watching what was going on in the nest I got so behind with everything. It was fascinating.


Latest e-book additions at BooksPlease

We’re in self isolation right now and one of the things I’m hoping to do is to spend more time than usual reading. And one of the best things about reading e-books is that you don’t have to go out of the house or meet anyone to get them. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers – this was my Mother’s Day present from my son.

An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.

The Feather Thief : Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson – I’ve been watching Chris Packham’s daily live broadcasts and this is one of the books that he recommended.

One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring, home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. Once inside, Rist grabbed as many rare bird specimens as he was able to carry before escaping into the darkness.

Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide first told him about the heist. But what would possess a person to steal dead birds? And had Rist paid for his crime? In search of answers, Johnson embarked upon a worldwide investigation, leading him into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.

Was Edwin Rist a genius or narcissist? Mastermind or pawn?

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020. I’d reserved this at the library, but as it’s now closed I decided to buy the e-book!

Danny Conroy grows up in the Dutch House, a lavish mansion. Though his father is distant and his mother is absent, Danny has his beloved sister Maeve: Maeve, with her wall of black hair, her wit, her brilliance. Life is coherent, played out under the watchful eyes of the house’s former owners in the frames of their oil paintings.

Then one day their father brings Andrea home. Though they cannot know it, her arrival to the Dutch House sows the seed of the defining loss of Danny and Maeve’s lives. The siblings are drawn back time and again to the place they can never enter, knocking in vain on the locked door of the past. For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known.

Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.

Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto

Writing Wild

3.5*

‘An exciting, expert, and invaluable group portrait of seminal women writers enriching a genre crucial to our future.’ —Booklist

Blurb:

In Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto celebrates 25 women, both historical and current, whose influential writing helps deepen our connection to and understanding of the natural world. These inspiring wordsmiths are scholars, spiritual seekers, conservationists, scientists, novelists, and explorers. They defy easy categorization, yet they all share a bold authenticity that makes their work both distinct and universal.

Part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history, Writing Wild ventures into the landscapes and lives of extraordinary writers and encourages a new generation of women to pick up their pens, head outdoors, and start writing wild.

My thoughts:

Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers and Mavericks Who Shape How We See The Natural World is by Kathryn Aalto and illustrated by Gisela Goppel. Published by Timber Press it will be released in paperback on 1 April, with a Kindle edition to follow on 14 April 2020.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do enjoy reading books about nature, so Writing Wild appealed to me. Kathryn Aalto’s reason for writing her book was to highlight what these 25 women writers have written, their historical significance and the barriers, biases and bullying they overcame to write. It covers two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. Gisela Goppel’s portraits of each writer head each chapter. Aalto writes an introduction to each writer and includes excerpts of prose, poems and essays with added recommendations for further reading, plus a list of sources and an index.

Predominantly American and British, some of these women writers are familiar to me, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Vita Sackville West, Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard and Helen Macdonald. Others are new to me, but I would like to read several of their works, such as Andrea Wulf’s book The  Brother Gardeners in which  she explores how England became a nation of gardeners. Wulf, a design historian, writes horticultural and historical history through narrative nonfiction, borrowing techniques from fiction to make nonfiction come alive. Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses essay collection, which Aalto describes as written with  laugh-out-loud humour and depth of empathy, also particularly appeals to me.

One of the things I learned reading this book is the name ‘Cli-fi’. I hadn’t come across it before but of course, it is not a new genre. As Aalto points out it goes back at least to Jules Verne’s 1889 The Purchase of the North Pole. Contemporary examples including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. The writer she chooses to illustrate this genre is Saci Lloyd, an acclaimed writer of cli-fi, whose vivid and action packed books include The Carbon Diaries, about the effects of carbon reduction policies. They are gritty eco-thrillers featuring Laura Brown a 16 year old trying to manage life with a carbon deficit card.

Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer. For the past twenty-five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. Her work explores historic and horticultural themes with a contemporary twist. She is the author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Her website is kathrynaalto.com.

My thanks to Timber Press for a review copy via NetGalley.

Snow Scenes in the Garden

The snow from the beginning of March had nearly all gone, with just a few areas in the back garden still covered in snow, when it started snowing here today. We’ve had snow flurries all day but it’s all gone now.

This is what it was like at the beginning of March in the heaviest snow fall we’ve had since 2009. This view is from the kitchen of the decking where the snow had piled up in front of the patio doors.

Heidi looking at the snow

The photo below is of the end of the garden next to the field.

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the garden over the stream

And this close up shows how the snow had blown into drifts along the back fence.

The view from the front window – blackbirds, chaffinches and sparrows. At one point there were six blackbirds and lots of little birds – I tried to get a photo of all them together, but they kept flying away.

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Below, a close -up of a nuthatch on the fat balls.

Nuthatch

We had a couple of rare visitors too – first a woodcock

And then an otter – the first time we have ever seen one in the garden. I watched it come up from the stream, dripping wet early one morning. It made its way to the back door and had a look at Heidi’s cat flap! She was scared stiff.

A TMO – a Tree of Multiple Occupancy

I meant to post this a couple of weeks ago – it’s that time of year when the garden seems to take over my life and this year there’s been quite a lot going on in our garden.

This is an old ash tree in the field behind our house and we’ve called it a Tree of Multiple Occupancy. It’s hollowed out at the top with several holes lower down and the occupants are mainly jackdaws and wood pigeons. This is not a happy household as none of them get on and the jackdaws regularly patrol the tree trying to scare off any birds that come near.

In the early mornings I’ve seen a barn owl going into the top hole, chased by the jackdaws. I’ve seen the owl a few times now – one evening it came sweeping out of the top hole followed by a group of jackdaws. It flew into our little wood and after just a short time it flew back into the tree. I wish I’d had my camera handy that day, it’s an absolutely beautiful bird!

I also wish I had a camera inside the tree to see the arrangements – is the tree hollow all the way down? Do they all have nests? And is the barn owl nesting there too?

The great tits and bluetits have been busy – the great tits made a nest in an old hollow fence post and produced four young ones. David’s video shows the fledglings leaving the nest early one morning. We also have had bluetits nesting in a great tits’ bird box on the gable end of the house. And now the swallows are here, swooping around the sky – such wonderful aerial displays.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

The Attack of the Sparrows

For a few days now little white feathers have been appearing on the lawn at the front of the house – and in the back garden too. We were a bit worried that our cat had been catching birds, but mice are her preferred option. We were wrong – it wasn’t down to Heidi.

This year our house has been home to four lots of house martins, with four families in four nests, one at each of the gable ends and a fourth on the front wall of the house built over the cover of an extractor. These birds have been dazzling us with their spectacular aerobatics as they’ve been swooping and sailing above us high in the sky most of the summer, catching the insects that love to bite me. Needless to say I love house martins.

I don’t know how many broods they’ve had but there are still fledglings in the nest at the front. According the RSPB they can have up to three broods and I suspect each of the families have done that this year. They’ve made quite a mess on the walls and window sills with their droppings.

The puzzle of the feathers on the lawn was solved the other day when we saw two sparrows attacking the nest, pulling out feathers and poking around inside the nest – and the fledglings were still inside. I never knew what aggressive little beggars house sparrows are! The RSPB site tells that they often damage house martins’ nests and even attack adults, eggs and young birds. This attack was rebuffed by the house martins and the sparrows flew off – but there are more white feathers around this morning, the war continues.

Sparrow on HM nest

Peacock Butterfly: Saturday Snapshot

Peacock butterflyWe’ve seen lots of butterflies in the garden recently and I just managed to get a photo of this beautiful Peacock Butterfly when it landed on the decking the other day. It’s quite a big butterfly, as butterflies go, and is easily recognised by the eye-spots on its wings. It flew away before I could creep around it to get a better shot, but you can still see the eye-spots.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

Saturday Snapshots: Wych Elm

We have a wych elm in the back garden. This year it’s been absolutely full of seeds, many more than usual:

Wych elm P1080810

The seeds have been blowing all over the garden, covering the lawn and borders. They grow in clusters:Wych elm P1080813One got caught in a cobweb:

Wych elm seed P1010780Here it is in close-up:

Wych elm seed P1080809Wych Elms are hardy trees and have greater resistance to Dutch elm disease than other elms. The name ‘wych’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning pliable and refers to the tree’s twigs. Its wood has many uses, including underground water pipes (in the past), boat building and the seats of chairs – it’s also the traditional wood used for coffins.

I love trees – and they are good for you:

A garden without trees is as hard to envisage as an art gallery with pictures. Trees soften the landscape. They provide shade in the summer and protection during the winter. A screen of trees around the house can provide enough wind-shelter to reduce by a tenth the energy consumption in the home. Their canopy of leaves acts as a highly effective pollution filter, absorbing many of the major atmospheric pollution gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulphur dioxide. Research also reveals that we are happier and more relaxed when we are in leafy surroundings … (The Therapeutic Garden by Donald Norfolk page 105)

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

Click on the photos to enlarge.