Sing a Song of Sixpence

Four years ago, when we elected to give up a comfortable and familiar life and take on a lengthy renovation project in the middle of a high moorland wilderness, our only question was “Will we regret it if we don’t do it?”  Knowing our answer, we sold up and moved, confronting adventures and mishaps along the way.  We did not know what was in store for us, but somehow, we knew the journey was going to be worth it.

And it has been.  Each time we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home.  This old house, complete with its three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects left to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, like a fine host who offers a comfy chair and a warming drink.  On a windy, wet evening — of which we’ve had more than our share this winter — we feel snug and dry.  And nothing beats a warm summer’s day, when we can bask in the beauty of the landscape.

It hasn’t all been Bordeaux and vistas though, and we’ve faced some steep learning curves:   Maintaining Generators; Replacing Oil Tanks; Building Concrete Plinths; Repointing; Addressing Damp; Refilling Potholes; Dry Stone Walling; Keeping Chickens; Keeping out Badgers, Foxes and Sheep; Death; Predation; Smashed Fingers and Scratched Corneas; Determined sheep; Leaks; Floods; Rats; and, Rabbits, to name but a few.  We’ve also put to use some of our known skills like mixing cement, hanging ceilings, refinishing floors, basic plumbing and electrical work, and gardening.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

Blackbird by Thomas Bewick. Image found on the Internet.

At the same time, I have been observing and learning more about our local birds.  I’m not a twitcher, nor do I proclaim to know much beyond identifying the birds at our feeders, but my desire to uncover a few ornithological abilities has taken on a new dimension:  To locate where the blackbirds are nesting and to observe their broods.

We have friends who have a nice little nest at eye height in the hedge along the edge of their garden.  My search will not be so easy.   To focus, I need to look for the Blackbird’s nest in the kind of real estate these birds prefer:  Deciduous trees with dense undergrowth.  Hmm.  We have a number of trees around the property, but the undergrowth isn’t exactly what I would call dense.  Muddy and pocked with mole hills perhaps, but not dense.  Blackbirds tend to favour evergreen or thorny bushes such as holly, hawthorn or honeysuckle.  We’ve planted these, but the hedge plants have a few years to go before they offer up any real protection for nesting birds.  And sometimes, they might build nests in sheds or outbuildings, making use of a ledge or cavity.  Oh, and back in the day, you might find four and twenty of them inside pies.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

Sing a Song of Six Pence vintage image found on the Internet.

My skill of spying nests is not great, so I intend instead to stalk these birds to see where they come and go.  And like any good birder, I must do this with a bit of stealth.  Something else I seem to lack.  Walking outside usually means I send birds flying.  Sam jumps and barks in anticipation of a walk, while the chickens come running up in hopes of a bit of apple or some corn.  The grazing sheep and cows all stop what they’re doing to assess me.  In short, I am easily observed.  Following a bird, with its rapid and evasive flight pattern to its nest will be no easy matter.

To get started, I thought I’d read up on Blackbirds.  I already know how to identify the male Blackbirds with their slick, black plumage and a splash of saffron ringing their eyes and covering the bill.   It’s the kind of look that says, “I know how to go out on the town, and yet am not at all stuffy.”  Sophisticated and yet, whimsical.  The female birds are “dressed” more to my style; nothing particularly impressive and that’s okay.   Fortunately I also can comfortably recognise the lovely songs of Blackbirds among our community bird choir.  This may help me locate them when my visuals fail.

What I hadn’t realised is the lunar symbolism attached to these pretty birds.  There are plenty of people who see Blackbirds as dark and mysterious creatures, keeping their secrets safe.  Well now, that upped the ante on finding their nests!

While I’m hopeful, I’m not what you’d call driven.  I’d like to find the nests and observe the breeding cycle.  A few years ago we found a nest of Pied Wagtails in the wall of one of our sheds.  Their hidden home had a front and rear exit and I must have walked past it for weeks before I ever noticed it.  What drew my attention was the attack flight of a protective parent when I moved too close and paused near their homestead.  This well concealed residence was home to seven babies who soon learned to fly.

Last year, we had nearly twenty-five nests for Swallows and House Martins, which isn’t our highest number.  I can see the Great Tits bomb into the stone walls tending to their hidden homes.  There are probably wrens and Robins nesting in these walls, too.  Since moving here, I’ve hoped to find the Blackbirds setting up camp nearby.  I’ve spotted two males and one female.  One of these males likes to sit outside the window where I work.  Could any of them be living within a short distance to our front door? Or, are they just stopping by for the afternoon to observe the chickens and resident Jackdaws and sing us a happy tune?

Crockern captivates and enchants, providing a deep sense of place and belonging along with a peace and quiet that befalls one upon arrival.  I can think of no reason why at least one pair of Blackbirds wouldn’t make their home here.

Returning from putting the bird feeders away and the chickens to bed, Roger said,  “You’ll never believe what I saw in the shed.”  As it turns out, there was a pair of Blackbirds flying about where we store the bird and chicken feed.  Perhaps their nest is in there?  I go into this shed a half dozen times a day and haven’t thought to search here.  Instead, I’ve been preoccupied looking around the yard and area gorse bushes.  Have I missed the obvious while I singularly search for one thing?   And then it hits me, like so many answers to unasked questions which stare us right in the face:  Despite  all my efforts, I may or may not locate the Blackbird’s home anytime soon, and it doesn’t matter as we found ours.

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Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.

Chickens

Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.

 

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.