The new Featured Writer is Derek Niemann. His book, Birds in a Cage, is about a group of remarkable WW2 POWs who observed migrating and nesting birds from their prison for years. On release, they established the RSPB as we know it and the famous Shetland Bird Reserve. A poignant and thrilling story it is about the men’s survival and resourcefulness as well as those of the wild birds they watch. Derek is one of my favourite Guardian Country Diary writers for his skilled observation is always coupled with poetic insight.
Last week when walking at Botallack in West Cornwall (where the mine tunnels used to run under the sea) I heard a bird call I’d not heard for some time. There were numbers of gulls and jackdaws and a few ravens on the cliffs and I wondered if I had just tuned in to an off-beat cry. Looking up, some of the ‘crows’ did seem to be flying very acrobatically, an agile and sudden sideways glide, a swoop with wings tucked up like a swallow. And watching harder and closer I suddenly spotted the red legs and beak of a chough. The call sounds like a gleeful shout of CHOUGH! A delight to watch as they are such acrobatic flyers. They were to be found in several other places along that beautiful and rugged coast. I read that these choughs have come across of their own accord (like saints in their coracles) from Ireland to find new territory and the RSPB and the National Trust has been actively encouraging them by creating the right habitat. Derek will know more about this than I do as he is editor of the RSPB magazine.
I can’t leave the subject of West Penwith without mentioning the amazing prehistoric village of Carn Euny. Inhabited for something like 700 years its remains are now a beautiful oasis of calm. You can visit it for free and sit among the old courtyard houses and imagine things to your heart’s content. Whatever you imagine can’t be far wrong nor disproved. Last week a cuckoo and a thrush sang from the trees every evening. Carn Euny also has a fogou! A long-ish tunnel running underground and lined with substantial blocks of granite and which feels like a time capsule. In crevices between stones you can spot, from certain angles, phosphorescent moss.(yes, really)
Nearby is a wishing well and the ancient hawthorn trees are draped in clouties, people’s wishes blowing in the wind. Not far away is the astonishing stone circle of Boscawen Un (marked blandly as ‘stone circle’ on the OS map) where the photos that my camera took came out white! Over exposed you might think (being rational) but the thing is that is the first and only time my camera has ever behaved like that! The next picture I took there was a white-out but, afterwards in Mousehole all pics were normal!
Oh, and I visited the mermaid in the Zennor church of St Senara, another Irish migrant who turned up on the shore in a barrel, and read her the poem I wrote about her, the last one in A Handful of Water.
Flicking through A Handful of Water I realise now I have written quite a few bird poems or poems in which birds flit in or out. Here’s one about choughs when I thought I’d discovered them on the Lleyn Peninsular! And that’s a place where many ‘saints’ from all directions flocked on their pilgrimage to Bardsey Island.
Just as I reach the tip of Pen-y-Cil
where Bardsey appears like a phantom
of rock, a screech pierces the wind.
Three crows are pecking between stones,
their beaks hammering the thin turf.
Not a bird of prey in sight.
In the grey light my eyes are battened
on the narrow path, the drop to the sea.
A gust of crows spirals above,
their wing-tips spread like fingers.
Landing close by, their toes stretch
to clasp the bare ground, legs and beaks
dipped in the blood of their screech.