Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

Piano Story

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It’s a sad day because my piano for – I guess – about twenty years is about to be collected and driven up to Birmingham for our son. I bought it because I began (almost accidentally) trying to run a church music group where everyone else was a better musician than I was. I was a moderate but very rusty acoustic guitarist and a half reasonable singer but apart from guitar notation I couldn’t read music. My critics, and there were many of them, voted mostly with their feet when I tried to introduce new music to the church, but enough of them remained to fight a guerilla war with me and the musicians and ensure that there was a constant supply of scorn and hostility on offer. The only alternative was to get better at what we were doing and so initially I got some proper guitar lessons and when I was on top of that instrument I bought the piano and found a teacher.  Actually I had two teachers – the first, Bryn, was a lovely man who would reminisce about his days playing the piano at strip clubs and how his dad was a star at the local pub but only ever played on the black notes because he reckoned it was impossible to play a dud chord whatever notes you hit. Hmm ….

My second teacher, David, was a brilliant musician, composer and choir director who would rap my knuckles with a ruler when I made daft mistakes. I never became a real pianist but I learned to read enough music to resolve most of the disputes that arose in the band.  I took a couple of courses in music theory at the university too, and as the music group grew I taught myself to conduct and, ‘though I say it myself, we were pretty good for a bunch of amateurs and we had a lot of fun too.

Sad to say, since I retired and we moved here to Bath, I haven’t sung at all and the music has slipped away. Our flat is in a cast concrete box and so sound travels very easily. Piano practice is repetitive, noisy and downright antisocial so the lid has remained closed and the music is in my head. Bach has been a great consolation. Meanwhile my tiny study has become a pit and so after a clear out of books I knew I wasn’t going to read (I’ve more than replaced them with new books) the piano is the next thing to go and today when the removers leave I’m going to turn the desk around so I can look out of the window at last, and I’ll be able to get to the shelves that I’ve had to crawl under the desk to reach.

So a bittersweet moment to contemplate, but with months of incarceration to face, it makes sense. Yesterday we heard a commotion outside on the green, and about fifty gulls (lesser black backed) were circling around in a highly agitated state. Then we caught sight of a man down on the green who was flying a falcon – a Harris Hawk I’m pretty sure. The gulls surrounded it and harried it from a distance but the hawk was having none of it, nonchalantly perching in the trees for a breather and then setting off to menace them once more.  I guess this is a new council attempt to discourage these visitors who make the most tremendous racket during the breeding season, and tear open rubbish bags, spreading their maggotty contents across the streets. It was wonderful to watch the hawk working.

Outside the streets are uncannily quiet and the supermarkets are struggling to cope.  Our son’s partner was almost elbowed to the floor in Waitrose yesterday as the middle classes fought over the toilet paper.  Later she witnessed a fierce argument at the checkout when one customer was not allowed to buy two four roll packs  when the customer behind was allowed to buy sixteen in a pack.  This morning I got a rebuke from Facebook for posting a completely innocuous photo of a joker in a hazmat suit because it ‘breached their community standards’ – I’d copied it from an online newspaper so I guess they’re a little behind the curve in their attempts to stifle discussion. These are strange times – I hope we’ll be able to get up to the allotment later today, I’m going stir crazy already.

 

 

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