One Called Paul (Part One)
A few years ago, while cycling back home along a country lane from Kendal’s Saturday market, I was attacked. The assailant came out of nowhere, making an unearthly noise, causing me to fall onto the grass verge before she escaped over the fields. On reaching my destination, slightly bruised, I persuaded my wife to come back with me to see if she could help identify my attacker. Upon returning to the scene, we observed the same miscreant harassing other folk who were innocently on their way to the village of Mealbank that late spring morning.
“Curlew!” Fiona told me. “Must have a nest nearby and she’s seeing off any possible threat to her eggs.”
Having recently been persuaded by my wife to join the RSPB, I was fascinated by the sound this wonderful bird was making, the devotion it displayed in protecting its progeny and its undoubted bravery. Somewhat perversely, I felt weirdly proud that I’d had such a memorable encounter.
Although I still defer to Fiona’s ornithological expertise on all occasions, the experience triggered an increased interest in birds that visit or are resident in the British Isles. It also became a focus for the occasional poem which later featured in a small nature related collection called Fledge
, published this year by Maytree Press. In the lead-up to its release in July 2020, I published a series of facts about native birds in the form of a countdown on my blog, some of which I’ve repeated here along with examples of the avian poetry featured in the book.
I hope you like them …
Did you know that there are four species of avocet? They are the American, Andean, red-necked and pied. It is the pied avocet with its long legs for wading and fine upward curved bill which is the symbol of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Did you know that in Victorian times, robins were called little postmen because of the red coats postmen wore in the nineteenth century? Yes, of course you did …
Did you know that the wren is so wonderful they named it twice? Troglodytes troglodytes
, or cave dweller is very successful in the British Isles and is one of the most common, widely distributed and noisy little birds you’ll come across.
Did you know that the indigenous starling, which is surprisingly low in number, is augmented by German and Russian émigrés that bulk up numbers in those marvellous murmurations we see at dusk. British, German and Russians working together to produce something quite beautiful … there’s a thought.
One Called Paul
Five drab juveniles land outside my window;
goth eyeliner, raucous and rucking over territory,
fouling up my window ledge, five floors high.
Under murmuration shadows, three leave suddenly,
startle the two, who, drawing close, look to each other,
before the larger wings it with thousands over late city skies.
The smallest catches reflections in the high rise glass,
checks its rag tag feathers for signs of iridescence
emerging in the half-light of a noisy urban dusk.
But through my window, I see only reluctance in movement.
I wonder if this one’s worried; ill-prepared to join in
and just needs a little more time to practise.
Did you know that this elusive and well camouflaged bird can be found around wetland reedbeds? There were only eleven males left in 1997, but because of the hard work of conservationists in RSPB reserves, that number is now around 200.
Did you know that in some parts of Europe people believed that seeing a harrier perched on a house was a sign that three people would die?
Did you know that there are two members of the cormorant family in the British Isles? In Old Norse, the shag is translated as ‘scart’ which is an approximation of the sound it makes and is not an indication about how you connect it to the back of your telly.
Did you know that there have been two stand out creative pieces about this lovely bird: a song written by Paul McCartney entitled ‘Blackbird’ and a poem called ‘The Safety Of Clouds’ in a collection called Fledge by Jonathan Humble?
The Safety Of Clouds
On hard wet ground, exposed like a pulsing nerve,
half a yard from the comfort of grass,
it writhed unsteadily to unheard music,
while the connoisseur’s eye judged its girth from a bush.
Rainwater marinated and near wasted after a night of passion,
casting tired letter shapes as the sun split clouds overhead,
this six inch nightcrawler knew of its place on the menu,
coelomic fluid spurting in jerked responses
to the half perceived silent threat of a hidden beak.
Meal fixed in a yellow ringed eye,
target acquired, locked on, the beak cared not,
its sudden action initiating a hopeless animated letter S
on the pavement, as the sun denied witness to death throes
and buried itself back in the safety of clouds.
Did you know that goldcrests are the smallest birds found in the UK? With thin beaks, they are ideally suited for picking insects out from between pine needles. In our garden, the Christmas tree planted fifteen years ago has become goldcrest central.
Did you know that among a number of weird medieval beliefs about the osprey was that it had one webbed foot and one taloned foot? Apparently fish became so mesmerised by them, they’d turn belly-up in surrender.
Did you know I was once bullied by a gull that was after my chips in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens? In years gone by they were known as mews and are quite long-lived birds, with a maximum age of 49 years recorded for the herring gull.
Did you know that this bird was misnamed in the eighteenth century (being mistaken for a similar American species)? It really ought to be known as the musselcracker as it doesn’t actually catch oysters but cracks mussels.
Did you know that in a mating display, snipe produce a ‘drumming’ sound during a ‘winnowing flight’ which comes not from their vocal chords but from their rear ends? To be clear, this is caused by tail feather vibrations and is not the result of a high fibre diet.
Did you know that St Bueno, a seventh century sky pilot, was helped by a curlew when he was experiencing difficulties off the coast of Wales and so he promised to pray for the bird’s protection? Well I reckon old Bueno must have fallen asleep or got distracted recently and he needs to get his bloody finger out promptly.
I am not your enemy dear messenger,
but still your intent feels murderous.
And though your reckless, adrenaline
fuelled passes and doppler cries
have sent these old instincts into full
flight mode, my head disappearing
into my shoulders, my fifty year old
body separated from my bicycle to lie
expediently on this damp grassy bank,
I cannot help but admire your bravery
and the skill with which you missed my
skull by inches. How were you to know,
my crescent beaked nemesis, that I am,
in fact, a fully paid up member of the
RSPB and have no designs on the eggs
you’ve hidden, but am, instead,
merely on my way back from buying
Morecambe Bay shrimps for my
mother-in-law, who, as well as liking
sea food, agrees with me that
curlews are lovely …
All images by Jonathan Humble