The following essay was written by the late Basil Kybird in 2010.
These days, at the age of eighty plus, I spend a lot of time ‘just sittun’. On a good day ‘just sittun’ and lookun’, and on a bad day ‘just sittun’ and sleepun’. Through continued use my armchair fits my body comfortably! I now have frequent bouts of infections, more so when the air is colder in winter months and these problems are getting more frequent. Each time my friendly and helpful doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics and steroids, which after three or four days begin to clear up the problem. It is when I have these bouts that I sleep day and night in my reclining armchair. Sitting with my shoulders raised assists my breathing. Hence ‘just sittun’ and sleepun’! Admittedly sleep comes in short spells, maybe one or two hours at a time but I have a low light on and a small table within reach which holds a drink, tissues, and of course the t.v. remote control. It is surprising what is broadcast during the night and it helps to pass the long hours!
Our cat, Miss Bella (of Bellomonte) is more than pleased when I spend a few nights in my chair. She is quite happy to wake me for a fuss with a loud squawk and rubbing her cold wet nose over my face. I wrote ‘she is happy’ but not always it is me who is happy, when I have managed to get into a deep sleep for a little while. She then manoeuvres onto my lap and goes through the motions of making a bed. This isn’t too bad until her sharp claws penetrate my clothing! So today I huff and puff doing little or nothing which calls for physical exertion. Fortunately I have a gardener to look after the lawns – one hundred and fifty foot frontage – and do odd jobs which I can do no more. A friendly man and wife team come twice a year to trim our trees and shrubs.
This all leads up to me ‘just sittun’, ‘just sittun’ and lookun’, or ‘just sittun’ and sleepun’. Of these alternatives ‘just sittun’ and lookun’ is the best. Our bungalow sits on a hill and we have a very large picture window facing south giving a virtually uninterrupted 180° vista. The window sill is only twenty inches from the floor so I am able to sit comfortably in my recliner armchair and observe all, basking in the sun when it condescends to shine. Also we are periodically visited by perhaps a dozen long tailed tits who flutter busily among the shrubs for a few minutes and then off again. Another rare visitor is a song thrush which will drop in from time to time, probably when snails are available.
The nearest area under my observation is our smallish back garden. Right under the window is a line of rose bushes and a lavender bush. There are various shrubs such as a large honeysuckle over an archway onto the lawn and a Himalayan Honeysuckle nearby. Further over is a sycamore tree, apple tree and Buddleia bush. Behind that is a large Dog Rose. The Buddleia is also known as the Butterfly Bush which is pollinated by them and also the many bees that visit. All have been allowed to grow freely providing cover for the many bird visitors who come to feed from the two bird tables and fat balls hanging from them. On the ground is a large bowl for our hedgehogs. This year, even in November, I noticed their droppings on the lawn, indicating a mild spell.
As a result of supplying the tables and baths we are graced with visits from a wide variety of bird species, from greedy wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies, jays, jackdaws, song thrush down to small flocks of starlings, a whole range of tits including blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, gold & greenfinches. There are also dunnocks (Hedge sparrow), blackbirds, sparrows, a pair of robins, wren and the occasional pied wagtail. They obviously do not all come at once. When we first moved here an owl used to visit at night, sitting in the sycamore tree, but no more.
It is said that in the winter months small birds spend 90 % of daylight hours in feeding to build up their fat intake to get through the long cold nights. Some years ago it was estimated that over two hundred species of birds live, visit to breed or winter in the British Isles. Some are migrants arriving after journeys of thousands of miles while others stay the year round to battle for existence through the hard winter months. I am not too keen on the pigeons but if I don’t put food out, which they guzzle, the smaller birds won’t have any either. The pigeons enjoy the bird baths, first having a good drink followed by a bath which is fair enough but they then turn round to deposit their droppings in the water before flying off!
The blackbirds also enjoy a bath, flying low from one side to the other just skimming the water. I have even seen one of our robins do this, flapping his wings furiously as he splashes his way across the water surface. For over a year we had a pair of robins in the rear garden. This I found surprising as I always understood they were very territorial and protected their area from intruders but this pair just got along. One would peck away at a hanging fat ball and the other would feed off the pieces which fell to the ground. Jays are partial to the fat balls also. They peck and tug away at the plastic netting to get the fat ball onto the ground and then usually fly off with it. They are almost as good at thieving as the magpies. In flight I think the magpies look rather like the W.W. II German Dornier bombers! On the ground their long thin legs look so dainty strutting or hopping about.
From May until August a frequent sight are swallows, martins and swifts. I believe some of these summer visitors sleep and eat in flight. They make incredibly long journeys from and to countries afar. During the summer months on a couple of occasions each year we are invaded by flying ants. Without being aware of them indoors, the frantic flights of screaming swifts outside in the evening light give the game away and there to behold are numerous flying ants indoors. How they get in or if they are already inside I know not but a few quick sprays of insect killer does the trick.
Occasionally when it is quiet in the early morning a squirrel visits from the large trees of the rectory across the road at the front of the bungalow. The acrobatics he performs to get at the fat balls are most ingenious. From time to time one of the pigeons will sit on our chimney pot cooing loudly and it echoes down into our lounge. There are always a dozen full notes and then it finishes on a half note keeping us in suspense waiting for the next!
Should I delay in putting out the daily ration of seed and peanuts on the bird tables a couple of pigeons and a blackbird sit on our garage roof just glaring and demanding, making me feel most remiss! This is probably the male blackbird which appears every morning as soon as I open the curtains. He sits on the wall just outside the garden door, putting his head on one side quizzically asking ‘Where is it?’ He and I whistle to each other and then he appears near the kitchen door when I throw out food which Bella has left in her dish from the night before.
From time to time a flock of noisy, quarrelsome starlings descend on the lawn and busily dig with partially opened beaks after insects and other pleasing delicacies. Their black feathers often look purple in sunlight. In the winter months they form large roosts and slowly descend into trees in the middle distance.
Large birds such as ducks, geese, rooks and crows do not visit the rear garden although occasionally there are signs that a sparrow hawk has been and seized one of the smaller birds, by the feathers left on the ground.
When the honeysuckle is in bloom (and it lasts for months) the aroma from it is quite heady but the bees enjoy it, as they do the lavender. The buddleia gets plenty of attention from a mixture of moths and butterflies. The cabbage whites seem to arrive in pairs, almost dancing together. They appear from about May to September. The Red Admirals seem to be with us from May to October, taking their business more seriously. On warm sunny days the perfume from the roses wafts in to add to my pleasure of observing. The Himalayan Honeysuckle after flowering has numerous purple berries which the blackbirds enjoy. Sometimes on a warm sunny day I sit outside on the patio but soon find the honeysuckle aroma rather overpowering and I much prefer that of the mixture of the roses. Way over in the distance, just after dawn, a solitary harnser (Norfolk dialect for heron) regularly flies from the direction of the river and marshes looking for an easy breakfast from an unprotected fish pond in someone’s back garden, and a few minutes later returns from whence it had come, to fish the hard way in the River Wensum. It has an almost stately flight, steady and unwavering, I suppose even fearless, although in spring time I have seen it driven off course by smaller birds protecting their young. Similarly a pair of ducks also fly from the direction of the river. They seem to set a determined, unhurried and unwavering course to somewhere which only they know!
On the middle horizon are some very tall elm trees in which there appears to be a rookery. In the spring the rooks return to their nests of the previous year and repair them ready for the current year’s family. It is interesting to witness about half an hour after dawn the rooks fly out from the rookery to feed off the new crops showing in the fields. Then about half an hour before sunset they return, often in a large flock. When they arrive at the elm trees they circle round and round, taking their turn to drop into their chosen tree until they have all settled to roost.
Similarly about half an hour or so after dawn sea gulls appear from the direction of the coast heading toward a Council land fill site where they seem to spend the day before returning back, perhaps to Breydon Water again, about half an hour or so before sunset. There is a mixture of common, black headed and the larger herring gulls. I think the gulls contend more with strong winds than other birds, making full use of the eddies and gusts no matter how strong the wind. The white of their bodies really shows up in sunlight.
I believe the gulls are as greedy as the pigeons. When I throw out Bella’s left over food in the mornings, to which I have mixed bread crumbs, one of the patrolling gulls spots the food often from high up in the sky. This one swoops down and very soon is followed by a dozen or more, all squawking and squabbling. Observing one flying off with its prize of a piece of crust some of the others give chase foolishly when they could be helping themselves to more food on the ground!
On occasion I see a bird of prey very high up but searching with their marvelous eyesight for small prey on the ground. The bird of prey, probably a kestrel, makes full use of the eddies in the wind, hovering head into the wind with its tail feathers fanned out and then suddenly drop like a stone onto its unsuspecting meal!
The flight pattern of the various species of birds is interesting. Pigeons will sometimes for instance flap their wings as they gain height then perform a slow glide downwards in a display flight. I must give mention to the pigeons when one takes off hurriedly and flies smack into the picture window leaving behind on the glass the pattern of their wings and body.
The swallows, swifts and martins fly at an incredible speed, swooping and turning, making full use of any wind and often hardly using their wings. When in flight they have caught an insect they seem to pause for just a split second to devour their catch before off again for the next morsel. I like to see carrion crows in flight, sometimes one but usually in pairs, flying close together on a determined but faltering course.
Of the seasons I enjoy Spring the most, seeing almost daily the changes in the greens of the shrubs and trees as the buds slowly open. Probably the best is the sycamore tree in the bottom corner of the rear garden. The buds at first appear almost as hard ‘bullets’ then change colour and shape as they slowly open. In the beginning of their transition they appear an orangy colour before turning into a rich green. The leaves of the roses too start off as a very pale green until they develop more and flower buds begin to appear. The leaves of the apple tree commence life as a very pale lime green slowly developing to a mid green. We also have a large dog rose, better known as a wild rose. This flowers prolifically in June and July, after which there is a good covering of hips. I seem to remember that in W.W.II these were collected and crushed to make a vitamin drink for children. I believe also children in the country were given time off from school to go collecting the hips.
I dislike autumn. It is the first indication that winter is coming, which I dislike even more. As the days get cooler my health problems arrive more frequently resulting in more visits to the surgery and more courses of antibiotics and steroids! However the colour change to the leaves is most beautiful. Looking across into the distance the varying hues are remarkable and a challenge to the most accomplished artist.
We have suffered just two disasters as far as I am aware. The branches were being trimmed off the sycamore tree when a pigeon’s nest was discovered near the top. This was enough to frighten off the mother bird and later three dead young pigeons were found in the nest. The mother bird did return to sit on the nest containing her dead offspring but it was too late.
The only other disaster that I am aware of is that of Bella catching a young robin, much to my disgust and anger, but unfortunately it is in her nature to catch things in the garden. Admittedly from time to time she brings in a mouse or similar creature, usually depositing the chewed up corpse near the door through to our bedroom. This of course is a little ‘gift’, most unwelcome I assure you! Sometimes we become aware of an unpleasant smell in the kitchen in the area of one of the utilities. On moving them and searching we discover the remains of some little creature, with putrefaction well and truly set in!
Winter with the leaves gone, and the trees and shrubs bare makes it rather dull, but on a bright sunny day there is still beauty to be seen, especially when there has been a frost or light covering of snow. The trails left by the birds in their search for food are very evident. Having fed our colony of mixed birds sumptuously through the rest of the year I make sure there is more readily available during the winter, also fresh water. They give me a lot of pleasure so it is the least I can do to help them through the winter months. There is something very comforting about being installed in my armchair with rain bashing against the window and heavy raindrops ‘dancing’ on the surface of the bird baths. To wake up on a winter’s morning and notice a certain silence has fallen and the bedroom ceiling looking whiter than usual tells me there has been a fall of snow. Outside the marks in the snow show me the birds have already been searching for food and it is time for me to attend to my feeding chores.
Often as dawn breaks the sky colour ranges from pink, orange, pale yellow, green into a clear cerulean blue, then, as dawn breaks, the blue becomes more intense. As it brightens up fair weather cumulus form, sort of cotton wool puffs of cloud. If they grow no larger it usually means a dry day but when they grow into large cauliflower shapes they are likely to produce showers. They might go on to form rising mounds into anvil shapes which can bring squalls, heavy rain, thunder and hail.
I am no weather expert, far from it, but some of the traditional weather lore still applies. A halo round the moon means strong winds, a halo close to the moon means far rain and a far halo means near rain. A halo round the sun means rain, red sky in the morning is a shepherds warning and red sky at night is a sailor’s delight. Another, rain before seven fine before eleven seems to run true as does clear moon, frost soon. There are so many like ‘if the ash is out before the oak there will be a soak and if the oak is out before the ash there will be a splash’. One I think is especially true ‘when ditch or pond offends the nose, look out for rain or stormy blows ‘ – enough said! The sunsets I am able to view from my chair often are eye catching and well worth photographing which I frequently do and have accumulated a reasonable collection. Why I have bothered to do so is a good question – I no longer paint!
My last contribution to this epistle are my observations of birds of another sort, no, not what you might think, but aircraft flying in and out of Norwich International Airport. It depends on the direction of the wind which way they fly in and out. We live on the flight path and without moving from my chair can readily observe the approach of aircraft from the west. Their navigation lights are visible from a long way off and there is time to look at BBC Textpage 440, for flight arrivals at Norwich. This gives the flight number and estimated time of arrival. There are regular daily flights from gas platforms, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Manchester, Amsterdam, the occasional ‘private’, Malta on Tuesdays, and in the holiday season from several resorts in the Mediterranean.
To see departures is not so easy as they climb quickly and I can only see those heading west. Some are more slow and noisy, full of fuel for longer journeys. It is interesting though, to see them on a clear day, flying westerly and then at a certain point make a 45° turn left to travel more south-west. Early mornings on a clear day one sees the sky littered with crisscrossing high vapour trails reminiscent of W.W. II days with American aircraft setting off on daylight bombing missions over Germany.
That I think gives a reasonable account of my ‘sittun’ and lookun’.
Bas Kybird, December, 2010