Feeding time for the birds

I think the heron in the header photo has pretty much got breakfast sorted, don’t you? Some of our landlord’s goldfish are living their last moments.

Meanwhile, over at our local nature reserve, this egret’s just found something.

Another nature reserve: Slimbridge. Flamingos and a godwit look for their next snack.

And even if this sparrow hasn’t found any crumbs yet, she knows that a café is quite the place to look.

For Denzil’s Nature Photo Challenge #15: Birds feeding and drinking

And I’ll pop the hungry heron into IJ Khanewala’s Bird of the Week Challenge XIV too.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Friendaholic to Best of Friends

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Kate W: Books are my Favourite and Best

This month’s starter book is Elizabeth Day‘s Friendaholic. I haven’t read it, but apparently the clue is in the title: it’s an exploration of friendship.

I’ll start then with a book I’m just reading now. It’s Small Worlds, by Caleb Azumah Nelson. At its foundation are two things: the narrator’s strong friendships, deeply rooted in his wider family, and his love – their love- of music, which underpins all their moments of togetherness and happiness.

There’s a lot of dancing in Nelson’s book. So let’s go to Strasbourg in 1518, to a story based on a historically documented ‘plague’ of hysterical dancing: The Dance Tree, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, set in a time of famine, superstition, religious and moral outrage. This is largely the story of Lisbet, pregnant again having already lost nine babies in very early infancy, and beekeeper extraordinaire. Why has her sister-in-law Nethe been required to do penance in a religious community for seven years? Why have hundreds of women been dancing in a frenzy, for hour after hour, day after day? Why do yet more and more people join them? Here are family secrets, forbidden love, frightened and powerless women examined in a story rich in feeling and entirely readable.

I’ll take you to Glasgow now, to the recent past, to a city which seems to have had parallels with the Strasbourg depicted in the last book. Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart. Mungo grows up on a down-trodden Glasgow housing estate, immediately post-Thatcher: fatherless, with an increasingly absent and alcoholic mother whom he adores, a clever older sister who looks out for him, and a violent, lawless older brother. Why, at the beginning of the story, does his mother send him away on a fishing weekend with two fellow alcoholics whom she hardly knows? We return throughout the narrative to find out more. Mainly, we are in the poverty-stricken community Mungo calls home. And it’s here he meets James, and discovers his sexuality. That’s bad enough, but in sectarian Glasgow, Mungo is Protestant, James Catholic … This is a story with a deeply rooted sense of place, illuminating and pacy dialogue, with sectarianism, violence, fear and deprivation at its heart, examining what it means to be male in such a society, and the risks attendant on being gay.

We’ll stay in Scotland, but lighten the mood, by picking up a copy of Borges and me: an encounter by Jay Parini. A romp of a read – a lightly fictionalised account of Parini’s encounter with Borges: a writer whose work I, like Parini, have never (so far) read. Jay Parini, an American, was a post-graduate student at St. Andrew’s University, dodging the draft to the Vietnam War. He’s going through young-man-angst about the subject for his thesis (his supervisor doesn’t seem keen on Parini’s choice of poet Mackay Brown), his draft-dodging and his (lack of) love life. When a friend of his, Alistair, is called out of town on a family emergency, Parini is called in to house-sit Alistair’s guest, the blind and elderly post-modernist writer Borges. Almost immediately, at Borges’ request, they embark on a road trip round Scotland for which Parini is expected to be Borges’ ‘eyes’. Shambolic and unpredictable, Borges is also a fount of dizzying literary talk. This is a trip to savour. A book which is a funny and wry account of an unlikely and thoroughly Quixotic journey: indeed Borges names Parini’s ancient Morris Minor after Quixote’s horse Rocinante. And it’s persuaded me too, that it’s about time I read some of Borges’ writing.

More men thrown together almost by happenstance: this is very much not a romp of a read. A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli. An account of three German soldiers whose task on a bitterly cold winter day during WWII is to hunt down Jews in hiding and bring them back to the Polish concentration camp where they are based, for an inevitable end. This unenviable task is better than the alternative: staying in camp to shoot those who were found the previous day. They’re friends simply through circumstance, so they talk about family – about the teenage son of one of them – and they find just one Jew. Is he their enemy, deserving his fate, or is he just like them, a young man doing his best to survive? What if they return to camp with nobody to show for their day’s hunting? As the men retreat to an abandoned cottage to prepare a meagre meal, their hatred and fear jostle with their well-submerged more humane feelings to provide the rest of the drama for this short, thought provoking book.

Let’s complete the circle by turning to another book whose protagonists’ family history lies elsewhere, as was the case with Small Worlds (Ghana) but whose home is now London. Kamila Shamsie‘s Best of Friends. This is a book of two halves. The first takes us to 1980s Karachi, and to the lives of two 14 year old schoolgirls. Zahra’s exceptionally bright and will do well. She’s less privileged than Maryam, who expects to inherit her grandfather’s successful leather business. An event takes place which comes in many ways to define their futures. Fast forward 40 years. The girls, now women are living in London, are successful and content. In many ways they are ciphers representing on the one hand liberal and inclusive politics, on the other successful entrepreneurship. Their strong friendship endures. Until the event from their teenage years comes back to haunt them. I didn’t quite believe in this and though the ending is intriguing, I was a little disappointed in this latest book from Shamsie.

So there we have it: a chain that explores friendship in its many guises. Next month? The chain-starter is the winner of the International Booker Prize: Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov and translated by Angela Rodel.

Why did the Greylags cross the road?

We don’t know. In the village, we have ponds on either side of the road, so why bother? I suspect they enjoy having every car, motorbike and lorry grind to a halt, allowing a small and patient queue of traffic to form in both directions. Sadly, I’ve always been just a little too far away to get a photo that properly represents the tailback.

Practising road-crossing skills on a footpath.

Our geese are less than popular here. Because of them, our mallard population’s efforts to breed come to nothing. So far this year, no duckling has survived longer than two days. I’m more hopeful for the moorhens.

A solitary baby moorhen.

The pavements are thick with goose droppings and hard to dodge, especially if you’re a toddler. The geese have spread from their traditional home down the road at Lightwater Valley, where there’s still room for them. On our smaller village ponds, they’ve chased away any of the quite large variety of ducks who used at least to call in for a while.

They’re hissy, protective parents.

Looking around the area – generally, it seems that geese – generally – are out for World Domination. They’re tough enough not to be predated, and are fierce unfriendly neighbours. Does it look that way where you are ?

I’m getting in early for Brian’s Last on the Card. Just to make sure I don’t cheat and take any more photos this month, I’ll leave my phone behind, and not take my camera with me when I go out.

Last on the Card: May 2023

And also I J Khanewala’s Bird of the Week. This is a relatively new challenge- quite a few of you have great shots of birds – why not join in?

My Haven of Peace

What’s your haven of peace? … asks Denzil, for this week’s Nature Photo Challenge. I don’t have to stop and think. I look out of the kitchen window, and there it is. The walled garden. It’s not ours – it belongs to our landlords. But they are eager to share it, and as they have more garden here, this space is often ours, and ours alone.

It’s a quiet place. Unless you count the birds: trilling, warbling, cooing, admonishing, singing. From our point of view, they’re often at their most tunefully loquacious in the early evening, when we’ll just go out there with a glass of something and enjoy their concert ahead of an evening meal.

That garden seat in the header photo is the place where I’ll go for a while in the afternoon, perhaps with a good book. It’s an ideal vantage point for butterfly-watching too.

Sometimes we feel it’s only right that we should do our bit towards maintaining this special space, so we wander about doing some weeding (leaving the nettles well alone for those butterflies).

We enjoy watching the seasons pass here too: from the first snowdrops and hellebores of winter, to the springtime tulips and daffodils, through to the abundance of summer and the rich russet and burnished tones of autumn.

Our special place: our haven of peace.

J’entends une chanson

For the past few weeks, days at home have been cheered by a very vocal thrush who starts his loquacious singing at round about ten to five in the morning, and continues with almost no time off for eating, drinking or rest until about two minutes to ten at night. Here he is, in the featured photo.

For the past few weeks, our small a cappella choir has included in its repertoire a 16th century French song, composed by the German Steurlein, celebrating this very thing. I suggested it, because it brought back memories of the choir I sang with in France. Some members have cut up a bit rough, complaining their French accent wasn’t up to the challenge. In the end, I gave in and wrote an English version. I promised them cheesy, schmaltzy doggerel and that’s what they’ve got. Still, it’s all quite jolly, so why don’t you sing along with the YouTube video?

Oh, can you hear the song bird who trills and sings for me?
His joyful notes are sounding from that far-distant tree.
He banishes the darkness, casts out my dreary dreams.
Oh, can you hear the song bird who trills and sings for me?

I wander in the garden, the birds are always near.
They're trilling, crooning, fluting, and singing loud and clear.
They sound the end of winter, and welcome in the spring.
I wander in the garden, the birds are always near.

Let's greet the start of springtime, the season of rebirth,
The birds and bees and flowers, all creatures on the earth.
We'll welcome all the sunshine, and bid goodbye to chill.
Let's greet the start of springtime, the season of rebirth.


Amy has invited us to thumb through our archives for this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge #250 and choose skyscapes and clouds. I’ve found it impossible to be dispassionate about this. There’s something about these images that’s so bound up with memories that I can’t distinguish good photos from the merely ordinary. I’m transported to that place, that time, that set of souvenirs.

Take my header photo, for instance, which I’ve posted before, more than once. It takes me immediately to that special day when I was part of an evening boat trip quietly floating through the lagoons of l’Albufera near Valencia, while birds made their final flights as the sun settled below the horizon. It’s a memory which will never leave me, whether the photo is a winner or not.

Longish sea trips to the continent bring memories of languidly looking at cloudscapes from early morning till nightfall as our ship smoothly purrs towards its destination. Here’s one …

… or this…

Or there are those memories of January days in Cádiz. An unmissable part of our routine was to head to the beach at dusk to watch the sun slowly disappear into the sea.

This shot, from our time in the Balkans shows that a slightly neutral skyscape can be a perfect backdrop for a questing bird of prey. And this was a holiday of birdsong, wild flowers – and memories of a still wild landscape.

A quick visit to France, to the Minervois for a moody sky. This was a trip just a few weeks ago, when on the same day as this shot was taken, we saw tiny daffodils sheltering from the brisk wind.

I can’t leave this post without a local shot, taken as we walked a habitual path alongside our River Ure.

Mountain Apollo Revisited

I had my photos of the much-loved butterflies of an English summer day all lined up to display for Denzils’ Nature Photo Challenge 13# Butterflies. Then I realised I wanted to share something else instead: a photo of a rare butterfly I first saw in the Pyrenees, ten years ago now: the Mountain Apollo.

Mountain Apollo

July 31st 2013

I just want to share a photo I took on our walk on Sunday, when we went to the Gorges de la Frau.  This butterfly seduced us all with its distinctive spots and white grisaille wings.  It turns out to be rare, a protected species, and known only in mountain regions, mainly in Southern Europe.  The French know it as Apollon, and its Latin name is Parnassius Apollo.  If your French is up to it, you can read about it here.  

And here’s a small taste of the Gorges de la Frau, only a few miles from our house.

Out in the Streets of El Masnou

Take a trip northwards along the coast out of Barcelona, and you’ll enter a different world. You’ll trade Tourist Central for pleasant, ordinary towns where people can just get on with life. You’ll only hear Catalan and Spanish in the streets, and souvenir shops or restaurants with tourist menus and helpful pictures and translations into several languages are unknown.

The town just before our daughter-and-family’s is El Masnou, and we recently enjoyed a stroll around after a long lazy lunch there. Old and new, high-rise and low rise all live together in a congenial hotch-potch. There’s a harbour, as shown in the feature photo, and pleasant squares with Modernista villas once built for sea-captains.

And of course there’s street art … such as a series of images of women, whom I ought to recognise, but don’t …

… and any number of images with an axe to grind …

Or not ..

And then just a couple of others, near a disused factory, with a building site beyond …

… before finishing up in a square outside the church shown above, looking out at the Mediterranean, with Barcelona on the skyline at the right. And with an image of the winter, summer, autumn and winter painted on one of the walls.

Actually, I’m cheating. The photo at the bottom was taken on a January day when the sun was absent.

For John’s Lens-Artists Challenge #249

and Natalie’s Photographing Public Art

Fake Flamenco

A blogger whose posts I enjoy is Rebecca, of Fake Flamenco fame. She keeps her curious eyes open, as she walks and explores the natural world and other things that attract her notice. She informs herself and then her readers about social and political issues in Latin America -which I find so interesting as this is very little covered here in the UK. And she’s a poet. Every month she throws out a poetry challenge, which I always try to join in on, because she translates every poem that’s submitted into Spanish. There’s something very special about this. That she would spend time reading our work, then interpreting it faithfully, and in the same poetic style as our own efforts is quite wonderful.

This month she invited us to submit a haiku including the words waterfall of stars. I’m not someone to whom the haiku form comes easily, but we’re coming to the end of blossom season here in the UK, and I thought I’d write about that. And Rebecca rose to the challenge of translating.

Dying petals dance,
faded blossoms flutter down –
waterfall of stars.
Pétalos bailan
flores marchitas caen–
cascada estrellar.

You can find all the other entries here.

Venerable Trees, Ancient Trees

The tree in the feature photo is a cherry tree in the deer park at Studley Royal. This is a shot of it in flower, as it has blossomed every year for the last four hundred years. By rights, cherry trees don’t normally live beyond thirty years old. Forty is pushing it. This tree has a pedigree, and can prove its longevity, but as you can see, it’s in quite a bad way, and may not last much longer.

Our home patch is home to many vintage specimens. Look at this oak tree about a mile from our house. It could have been pushing its first tender roots down into the soil as William the Conqueror was sailing to our shores in 1066.

Come and have a look at some of our wonderful local trees, shaping the landscape, and now accorded legal protection: a right they surely deserve.

Even when their lives are finally over, their majestic fallen trunks and branches continue to feed the earth from which they came, and the creatures who call them home.

I have probably posted one or two of these shots before. Too bad. I think these trees deserve more than fifteen minutes of fame.

For Denzil’s Nature Photo Challenge #12: Trees