May Follows

And after April when May follows / And the whitethroat builds and all the swallows

 [From: Home Thoughts from Abroad by Robert Browning]

Summer has not got a foot in the door until the swallows arrive back from Africa. They usually congregate in large numbers a quarter of a mile away at Southridge farm by late April but don’t appear to head down here until the first week in May. This year there are two pairs of returners. One of the many reasons cited for declining number of swifts, swallows and martins is the shortage of suitable nesting sites. The conversion of old working buildings into hermetically sealed modern dwellings and the bland, nature repellent design of too many new homes mitigate against avian lodgers. Here at least we can offer what they need – an open sided old railway goods wagon turned into a garden shed and two lean to porches with rafters and eaves. (A total of six old nests). I also think our garden pond helps in providing open water to create mud for nest building plus a source of insect life for feeding. The birds dive into and would take up residence in our barn sized lock up garage workshop if we let them. They are after all, barn swallows.

It took a while to clock their off stage presence but I’ve just realised that we already have birds nesting in the garage. Starlings had set up home under the building’s corrugated coralline roof at the far gable end years back, Kim tells me. An unobtrusive tunnel entrance under the roofing sheets disguises and protects their unseen, though often heard, brood. 

A short bike ride either direction along our lane is an occasional exercise I set myself to maintain basic fitness and it always brings cheer. First of all as a reminder of the sheer privilege of living here in unspoilt wild country; miles and miles of upland farmland, hidden valleys and open fell with the odd cluster of farm buildings or isolated homesteads sheltering under a vast canopy of ever changing sky. Secondly I love the seasonal offerings I’m cycling by. Bright eyed clusters of common dandelion, with healthy redoubts of other delightful spring flowers; white deadnettle, ground ivy, celandine, primroses Hawkweed (dandelion’s elegant cousin) while alongside the recently cleared ditches is that welcome lover of damp ground Ladies Smock or Cuckoo Flower (and then, as if on cue, I hear a cuckoo call from the wooded valley of the burn below). Wonder at the tenacity of silverweed (potentilla anserina yet to flower) whose shimmering delicacy of structure appears incompatible with its ability to burst through tarmac where road meets verge.

Predators go about their deadly business in seconds. A female sparrowhawk harnessing speed and agility over and above any military drone raises alarm cries from our startled avian residents as it pivots effortlessly in & out of the yard. A stoat circles three times at breakneck speed along a drainage channel between lawn and bank, only pausing to raise its head and chest above the grassy parapet in search of prey before disappearing again.

The various tribes of garden birds usually ignore the nest boxes put out for them but this year I’m pleased to report the amorous and energised dunnock trio have set themselves up in an open sided box placed three years back under the eaves of the railway hut, part hid by spare boughs that stand bundled there as reserve pea and bean sticks. Robins, for the first time are nesting in the ivy on the northern porch wall while the first pied wagtail chick we’ve seen, in shades of grey livery, has appeared out front, looking rather lost. Of the two sets of blackbirds who normally nest east and west ends of the garden, somewhere in the stone walls behind bushes and trees, one pair is always ahead of the other. It never ceases to surprise us that the chicks are virtually the same size as the adult feeding them and that they spend as much time running around the place as they do making short low level flights. As reported in an earlier diary, it is almost inevitable that at least one youngster will end up drowned in a water trough.

At least this year there will be one less watery grave for them to fatally explore. After two years of experimentation I’ve given up using the galvanised cattle trough as a tank pond and have turned it into a flowerbed instead. Neither oxygenating plants nor insect life could thrive in such a sterile and challenging metal box environment, which also produced an oily surface film, although the various Irises did manage to survive. The repurposed tank, drained and filled with soil, replaces two much smaller galvanized feed troughs that proved too shallow for effective sustainable planting, needing too much regular watering. Placed by a south facing wall, set symmetrically under the bathroom basin overflow pipe, my tank might almost pass as the original water trough.

A friend told me a story about the church graveyard in his village in Cumbria. A neighbour confided that she’d witnessed the aftermath of shocking vandalism in Gods acre and showed him vases overturned and flowers scattered everywhere, a right old mess. What was the world coming to when people do this sort of thing? The next day my friend’s other neighbour told him what had actually happened, for he the neighbour had witnessed it take place…. Crows and magpies, in unholy alliance, knocking over flowerpots and tossing blooms everywhere before flying off.  

Catching up during good weather with minor structural work…putting in new poles and refixing the fallen barbed wire to protect drystone wall on our neighbour’s field side; putting in a set of stones at top of garden bank steps; stacking the last drop of logs to dry overwinter in the east end store; scattering fresh gravel from a dumpy bag on paths and in the yard; rebuilding a border wall at the back of the old playhouse; cutting and setting a slice of turf to widen an awkward narrow curve of lawn….all quietly satisfying tasks when undertaken at the right place and time.

Keen to see if the hedgehog had survived the long winter and this kickback April I raised the wooden lid of its low level hideaway in the spinney and ruffled the compacted bed of moss, leaves, sticks and straw and was rewarded with a grunt. I quickly replaced the cover and left, sorry to have disturbed it in the day time yet pleased to know it was alive and well in its cosy lair. The yard security light has been coming on a lot recently so we can’t help wondering if the nightly foraging of our resident hedge pig was the trigger.

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