Monday, 18 June 2018

Marsh Harrier


Also very much in evidence at Minsmere RSPB were Marsh Harriers. They're a common enough sight in the Fens close to our office, too, but it's easy to forget that 40 years ago, when I was just starting to get interested in birds, they were very rare indeed. Even now, there are fewer breeding pairs in the UK than there are breeding pairs of Golden Eagles – it's just that the Goldies are harder to see because they're in much more remote, inaccessible areas. But anyway, the return of Marsh Harriers are proof that organisations like the RSPB are making a real impact in some areas - we just need to start paying more attention to the habitat everywhere else.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Dartford Warblers


I was over at Minsmere RSPB in Suffolk earlier this week, and also managed to have a look at some of the smaller reserves nearby. At Westleton Heath, I heard and then saw four Nightjars. Having waited until it was almost dark, I'd pretty much given up hope that they were present, and then all started 'churring' at once, before they started to fly over the heath, with their white wing flashes standing out in the murk, and their 'wing clapping' loud in my ears.

The next day, I went back to see what might be around in daylight (I'd been told Turtle Doves were a possibility). No such luck, but Dartford Warblers were plentiful and were showing very prominently atop the gorse and other bushes. They're not great photos (as ever), but these were the best views of the species that I've ever had in the UK. Good to see that the Beast From The East earlier this year didn't hit them too badly – I'd heard that Cetti's Warblers in the area had been pretty much wiped out.


Friday, 8 June 2018

Liz Berry and Jane Commane at Ledbury Festival

Ledbury's always full of excellent poetry, and this looks like one of the highlights of this year's programme. Two great poets whose work carries a distinctive Midlands flavour (and there's been far too little of that over the years).

There's lots more to enjoy there, too - have a browse here.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Nebraska

Pitchfork publish regular reviews of what they consider significant albums of the past, and last week it was the turn of Springsteen's Nebraska.

At the time it came out in 1982, I would have been absolutely oblivious to it, but I did buy it not long after I got into Springsteen, around 1987. By that time, the muted initial response it had received had begun to dissipate, and various other artists had started to imitate its ultra-stripped-down approach. To be honest, that became a bit annoying – recording everything acoustically on a cassette player doesn't automatically confer integrity, depth and meaning on an album.

But for Nebraska, it was undoubtedly the right decision. Even though the recordings are so homepsun that at times you can hear Springsteen's chair creaking, the effect isn't to create an intimacy with the listener, but rather, as the article says, to isolate the artist from his subjects, allowing him to observe and report dispassionately.

Songs such as Highway Patrolman and Atlantic City are like short stories (the former was the inspiration for the film The Indian Runner), but in many of the songs here, what's not said is as important as what is. You don't know exactly what it is that the protagonist of Atlantic City has agreed to do, just that he's desperate and willing to try anything.

I like the more obviously personal Used Cars a lot, as well as the yin and yang of State Trooper and Open All Night, with the latter offering one of the album's few glimmers of light. The article highlights the echoey, early rockabilly sound, and they're right – it's far closer to that in spirit than to folk music, for all that it's acoustic.

I go back and listen to it every now and then, and there's no doubt that it's one of Springsteen's most important albums.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Forward Prizes 2018 shortlist

The shortlist for this year's Forward Prizes has been announced. They look reasonably varied to me, with some new names cropping up there, although as always they're pretty much dominated by the major presses.

I'll have to try to catch up with some poetry reading, to include some of these, over the next few months. Vahni Capildeo, who won the Best Collection Prize in 2016 , is nominated again – I enjoyed her last book, and I'll look forward to reading this one.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?

We recently ran an excellent feature by Lev Parikian in Bird Watching, about the theme of this book. I can recommend it very highly, whether you're already a birder, a lapsed birdwatcher, someone dabbling around the edges but determined to learn more, or an absolute beginner. Above all, it's about what it means to be a birdwatcher, and why building a connection to nature matters. Try it.

Strange spring

It's been a funny old spring, bird-wise. The cold temperatures right into the first week of May, and the northerly winds that brought them, held up the arrival of many migrants, and even now, I've yet to hear a Cuckoo, have barely heard or seen any Willow Warblers, and missed Wheatear altogether (although that was more that I haven't been to any suitable habitat, really). Hirundines and Swifts have been sparse, although numbers are starting to grow now.

On the other hand, some species, such as Yellow Wagtail, appeared in large groups when they did arrive, and there have been decent passages of things like Black Tern (plus a couple of White-winged Black Terns). Up at Frampton Marsh RSPB last week, there were some good waders – lots of Dunlin and Avocets, a few Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints, and Greenshanks.

Some of these things may be connected to longer term declines or increases, but others are part of what makes migration, and birdwatching, so endlessly fascinating. Things turn up where they shouldn't, or when they shouldn't, or both, and so you never know quite what you'll find when you leave the house.

It's something I touched on in my book A Sky Full Of Birds – you can buy it here, or if you'd prefer a signed copy I have paperbacks available. Just email me if you're interested.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Battle Royal and Blood Royal

Over the last few weeks I've read Hugh Bicheno's two-part history of the Wars of the Roses, Battle Royal and Blood Royal. They're extremely readable, with plenty of in-depth material that I hadn't come across before, and he's particularly good at looking at what the motivations of the participants might have been, the more obscure members of the gentry as well as the big names.

But at times, he's prone to making big claims without producing much evidence to back them up, most notably regarding the legitimacy of Edward IV. Now you can make a good case for him not having been the son of Richard of York, but some of the reasons Bicheno gives don't really hold up. Yes, Edward was a lot taller than either of his supposed parents, but his brother George and one of his sisters were also notably tall, so I'm not sure what that proves. Given that much of his argument, especially in the second book, depends on you accepting his claim, this unwillingness to go into detail is annoying at best.

What also gives me cause for concern about these claims is that Bicheno is rather slapdash in his approach to minor details. He repeats the old myth about the Battle of Losecote Field being so called because the rebels threw away their livery as they fled. In fact, it was never called that until the 19th century, and the name more likely comes from 'hlose-cote field', a locally common name referring to a cottage with pig sties.

Similarly, in his description of the Battle Of Edgecote, he talks about the slaughter of the Welsh Yorkist troops as they fled, and says that Welsh Road runs through the battlefield, implying that it is so called because it's where the slaughter took place. But Welsh Road actually gets its name because it's an old drovers' route through the Midlands, used by Welsh drovers to avoid the main turnpikes. That's all pretty well attested, and long stretches of it even now show all the signs of having been so.

Nit-picking, maybe, but it makes me wonder about the lack of evidence for his bigger claims.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

New-look England

Well, maybe Ed Smith is going to prove me wrong straight away, which can only be a good thing. I agree with most of what Jonathan Agnew says here. Buttler is, as Smith has said, a unique talent, and I'd always want to find a way to keep him in the test set-up. He's the sort of player that could win you a game in a session, and for all the nay-saying about him being a 20/20 player, there are others who have made the switch successfully. David Warner, for example.

Bess looks a good choice, too. He probably won't get a lot to do in these first couple of tests, but it's a bold selection.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Three reasons to be depressed by cricket...

...other than cheating Australians and the misery of England's winter tours, I mean.

1 TalkSport getting the rights to broadcast England's tours next winter. I don't care who they recruit, it's not going to be Test Match Special, is it? And although TMS these days isn't always as good as it could be, it's still pretty great.

2 The creation of another new format for the ECB's city-franchise league. Why? They say it's partly to differentiate it from their 20/20 Blast competition, in which case why not just do one or the other? Preferably the former, as many cricket fans, me included, will have zero interest in supporting artificially created teams that ignore large parts of the country. Reading around the decision, it seems the ECB don't really give a damn what cricket fans think, though. They want to attract new audiences. Which is fine, but pretty pointless if you drive away your core audience in doing so. Also, why the obsession with speed? They've shaved time off the game anyway, but will then penalise teams for slow over rates, with the result, of course, that potentially close finishes (which is what people want to see in limited over and 20/20 cricket) will be ruined by late adjustments to the target. If I'm giving up an evening to watch a game of cricket, half an hour here or there makes no difference, but I do want to see the game decided by skill.

3 The appointment of Ed Smith as national selector. How predictable that it should be an Oxbridge educated former Middlesex player. There's a lot of talk that he'll take a stats-based, 'Moneyball' approach, which is fine up to a point, but I suspect will mean a return to the chopping and changing of the 80s and 90s. It's no coincidence that England's best years, during my lifetime, were with David Graveney and Geoff Miller as selectors – both of them emphasised continuity, consistency, and settled teams.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Redstart Day

I've probably written on here before about the fact that April 20th is, in my mind, Redstart Day. For years, on my old patch, I would see Redstarts migrating through the area, usually in a hedge at Thornton Reservoir, but occasionally at somewhere like Groby Pool.

The date already had great significance, because it was the birthday of my older sister Rebecca, who died of cancer in 2004, aged 35. And somewhere along the line, the two things became linked in my mind, and going out and seeing a Redstart became a little ritual of remembrance.

Of course, there's a self-fulfilling prophecy element to it. Migrating Redstarts favour particular habitat, so you have to go out looking for them specifically, and most years, I've probably not visited likely sites until the 20th has rolled around and jogged my memory. Still, it's a habit I can't kick.

So, when my colleague Mike Weedon found one at Ferry Meadows Country Park, just along the road from the office, this morning, I had to go to take a look. And there it was, a gloriously sharply-marked male, flitting up and down a hedgerow, and occasionally dropping down to the ground to eat a tasty morsel. A couple of Whitethroats were frequenting the same hedge, and a bit further along, a Lesser Whitethroat showed up, too. Evidence that, after the long winter and cold spring, migration is in full flow.

I wrote about this, and the miracle of migration more generally, in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, which is available online, at most bookshops, or direct from me (if you want a signed copy).

But I also talked about them for BBC Radio 4's Tweet of the Day, recently – you can listen to it here.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Aunt Margaret's Pudding by Alison Brackenbury


This arrived yesterday – Alison Brackenbury's new collection for HappenStance Press. Looking forward to getting stuck into it like I would any good dessert!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Shibboleths

Here's a straightforward question. What do you understand by the word 'shibboleth'?

I ask because, in the reporting of the Barry Gardiner story, two different versions have been given as the standard, contemporary definition, and one of them surprises me. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference to the story, I'm just interested.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (4)


Finally, another pic from Hopeman harbour, on the Moray Firth. These Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers returned to these rocks to feed the second the tide turned, having roosted on the harbour walls while it was at its highest point. Purple Sands are always a pleasure to see, because as probably the most maritime of all our waders, they very rarely turn up anywhere even slightly inland.

There's a lot more about waders, birding in Scotland, and all of Britain's best birdwatching spectacles, in A Sky Full Of Birds. It's now a couple of years since it came out, but you can buy it using that link.

If you'd prefer a signed copy, drop me a line through the email link on the right, or through the comments, and I can sort one out. Paperbacks only, at the moment, sorry.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (3)



More waders – this time the Ringed Plover and a Redshank together, and Turnstones on the harbour wall. The latter were all at various stages of moulting into their summer plumages.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Scotland in Spring (2)



A couple more shots from last week – a Redshank on the harbour wall at Hopeman, and a Ringed Plover testing out its camouflage there.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Scotland in spring (1)



I was up on Speyside for a couple of days last week, with a Bird Watching Magazine/Heatherlea Birding readers' holiday. We saw around 90 species of bird in just two days, including White-tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Velvet Scoter, Black Grouse, Iceland Gull and Purple Sandpiper. But I'm not a good enough photographer to have snapped most of them, so here's a lovely male Bullfinch on the feeders, and a Red Squirrel doing its best to hide.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Ball tampering

If you have no interest in cricket at all, or if you're an Australian, you may want to look away now. It's taken me a few days to digest exactly what went on in the Newlands Test, but I've finally pieced together a few thoughts.

1 The statements made by Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft at the press conference were insulting to the intelligence of any cricket fan. They talked about it as if it were something that had happened to them, as if they had no control over it whatsoever. Do they really expect us to believe that, had they not got caught, they'd have been wracked by guilt?

2 Still, at least they made it to the press conference. Where was Warner, who was certainly part of the 'leadership group'? And Lehmann?

3 If Lehmann knew nothing about it, as they claimed, then what exactly is he doing as coach? If he did (and his utterly shifty reaction once he realised Bancroft had been caught on camera suggests that's the case), he needs to be sacked.

4 So do Smith and Warner, and both they and Bancroft need lengthy bans. I've some sympathy for the latter, because I suspect he was pressured into doing the dirty work because he's the youngest member of the side, and the one whose place is in most jeopardy. But if he isn't willing to break ranks and say so, then I'm afraid he has to cop the same punishment as the others.

5 A lot is made of the centrality of 'mateship' to Australian sport, and culture in general. And yet the worst thing about this is how willing Smith and Warner have been to throw Bancroft under the train. By talking about the leadership group, too, they've potentially implicated Starc and Hazlewood, and by all accounts neither are happy about it, saying they didn't take part in the lunchtime discussions. When Mike Atherton was caught mucking about with the ball in 1994 (and he should have been sacked as England captain at the time), he did at least have the guts to do it himself.

6 The ICC could have acted sooner. Warner has been wearing tape on his fingers while fielding for the last two years. He should have been told to remove it, or that he also had to wear it for batting. Its presence looks very suspicious.

7 Whenever something like this happens, the Aussies like to imply that there are only two ways to play. You can be hard, aggressive, push the limits and win, or you can do it the soft, 'English' way, and lose. But they're wrong. In recent years, New Zealand under Brendon McCullum showed that you could play aggressive, attractive, winning cricket without disrespecting your opponents, the game, or the cricket-watching public. The Aussies need a new coach in that vein – Jason Gillespie might be the man.

8 Finally, how on earth did they think they'd get away with it? With 30 cameras watching? Was it really worth the risk? At the stage that it happened, they were practically out of the game anyway.

Almost there

I'm just £25 short of my £250 target for Walk All Over Cancer, in aid of Cancer Research, with a few days of March left. If you feel like helping this very important cause, then please give whatever you can afford. Thank you.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Tweet of the Day: Redstart

Here's the last of the Tweets of the Day I did for BBC Radio 4 – it's the Redstart, which is an absolutely wonderful little bird in its own right, but which has also taken on some personal significance for me. I didn't see or hear one at all last year, either on passage or on the breeding grounds, so I'll have to put that right this spring.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Our Old Lady Of The Rain, by Jane Commane

I've only just noticed that The Guardian's Poem of the Week is Our Old Lady Of The Rain, by Jane Commane, from her debut collection Assembly Lines.

Jane, of course, runs Nine Arches Press and has worked absolutely tirelessly for its poets (including me) and many others over the years. It's a really fine debut, and I'll write about it at greater length in the near future, but you can get a taste of it in that Guardian feature.

As always at Poem of the Week, some of the comments are rather baffling, but at least it's people talking about poetry.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Free money!

Well, not quite, but if you're a UK author, you really need to sign up at the ALCS site – once you're registered, and have added all the works that you've written or part-written, then you'll be eligible to receive payments for library borrowings, photocopying for schools, etc. Lifetime membership costs just £36, which is taken from your first payment (so no upfront cost), but you might be eligible for free membership anyway if you're a member of certain unions or other organisations.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

A plea

This month, I'm taking part in Cancer Research UK's Walk All Over Cancer campaign, and trying to raise £250 for the charity by doing at least 10,000 steps a day. That isn't hard at the weekend, or on days when I'm working in the field, but on an office-bound day, it can take a bit of doing at times.

My dad recently underwent major surgery to remove cancer from his bowel – I'm pleased to say it seems to have been entirely successful and he's recovering well at home now. Throughout his long stays at Leicester General Hospital and Coalville Community Hospital, he received wonderful care from the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff, but I'm very aware that the advances that have been made in fighting cancer are at least in part due to the work of charities such as Cancer Research UK.

When my sister, Rebecca, died of cancer in 2004, survival rates for all types of the disease were lower than they are now, so if we want things to keep improving, both the NHS and these charities need help.

Anyway, I'm now only £35 short of my target, with 10 days left, so if there's any way you can donate even a couple of quid to help me reach it, it would be massively appreciated. By me, certainly, not that that matters, but more so by the many people who are currently facing the disease.

Thank you.

Tweet of the Day: Wheatear

I didn't expect my second Tweet of the Day to appear quite so quickly, but the last few days have seen a trickle of Wheatears starting to appear in the UK, so it's good timing.

My only slight disappointment is that they describe it on the website as the 'English Ortolan', which is perfectly correct, but isn't the fact that everybody likes to quote concerning the name of the Wheatear.

That, of course, is that 'wheatear' is a corruption of the original Anglo-Saxon 'hvit oers', or 'white arse'. As I may have mentioned in A Sky Full Of Birds, the Anglo-Saxon's weren't much given to thinking too long or hard about the names of birds, what with so much of their time being taken up with fighting, feasting, feuding, engaging in long and convoluted religious arguments, and writing epic poetry to annoy undergraduates in the centuries to come.

Instead, they just fixed on one very obvious feature of the bird in question, and named it after that. In this case, a white rump. If you're not lucky enough to live in an upland area where they breed, now's the time to look for them as they go through on passage. They favour areas of sheep or rabbit-cropped grass, and have a habit of perching on molehills or cowpats to survey the surrounding area for tasty morsels.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Tweet of the Day: Curlew

Apparently my Tweet of the Day about the Curlew was on Radio 4 yesterday morning at 6.40am. I recorded it and two more (on the Redstart and the Wheatear) last spring, but I wasn't sure exactly when they were going to use them. I think (or hope) that the Redstart one will be on April 20th, for reasons that will become clear when you hear it.

But anyway, if you missed yesterday's episode, and if you have a hankering to hear my dulcet Midland tones rambling about the glorious song of what's pretty much my favourite bird species, you can hear it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09vzn2j