The situation in Scotland is changing rapidly as the first phase of lifting restrictions has started. The noise level in neighbour’s gardens and the amount of traffic in the streets around have both increased. There has been the smoke of barbecues in the air, laughter and singing from the nearby park and the occasional burst of music as a car passes by.
This all contrasts with the previous two to three months, when at times the streets have been eerily quiet and the sound of the birds in the garden have sounded almost deafening. So, it seems a good point to reflect on some of the benefits of lockdown. As I wrote in a previous blog “Phases of the Moon” lockdown has provided the opportunity to enjoy nature more, to observe the unfurling of spring and to watch the behaviour of birds and animals from day to day. What was just a fleeting glance can become a series of observations that give us more insight into the wildlife in our cities and parks.
The area where I live is quite rich in birdlife: a series of adjacent back gardens, plenty of trees lining the canal and several parks within a short flying distance. Like most cities there are a large population of gulls, who enjoy the rooftops. Many Edinburgh buildings are three or four stories high and still have chimney pots, a leftover from the coal mining days, when each room would have a fireplace. Nowadays the city is a smokeless zone, so only approved coal can be burnt and many of the chimneys have become a good nesting site for jackdaws. The gulls also like the canal as they can compete for the bread (despite recommendations to feed maize or other more suitable food) thrown by children, who come to feed the ducks.
We have quite a few black birds in the neighbourhood: jackdaws, crows, coal tits and blackbirds. The blackbird we so enjoy in the UK is the Old World/Eurasian blackbird. It is certainly the most numerous breeding bird here and probably also, the best loved bird. Its beautiful mellow, liquid song brings joy to the listener. This is encapsulated in the poem by the Victorian poet, William Ernest Henley.
The nightingale has a lyre of gold;
The lark’s is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a box-wood flute,
But I love him best of all.
For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We too have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together.
It has been fortunate that we have been able to hear this wonderful song, morning and evening, for many weeks, in what is the peak period for their singing. The one in our garden is full of energy and gusto, marking his territory as he moves round his circuit of favourite trees. The other evening, we sat outside in the garden with a friend over a glass of wine for the first time for ages as the first phase of lifting lockdown restrictions in Scotland has just started. After weeks of unusually sunny weather the forecast rain arrived. We moved to shelter but our blackbird continued singing lustily through out even when he was flying across the garden.
Another solace over the last few weeks has been the chance to explore new walks in the area. With Arthurs seat, the Pentland and Braid Hills amongst others we have a good choice of uphill walks and equally in the lower areas where the streams and parks are abundant we have the Water of Leith, Inverleith Park, Princes Street Gardens, The Meadows and many more. Recently we have been exploring the walks in the area around Craiglockhart and Craighouse. The nature reserve at Easter Craiglockhart covers 35 acres with a long pond by the sports centre and pleasant, mainly deciduous, woodland, not far from the Observatory, Braid Hills and its golf courses and adjacent to Craighouse estate, with it’s chequered history. The woods offer a shady stroll with a good variety of trees and plants, including campion, bluebells, long leaf avens and wild garlic
Craighouse mansion was built in 1565. In recent times it has been a hospital, part of Napier University and is now being developed with 145 units of modern housing, despite considerable local opposition.
Craiglockhart pond was built as a curling pond in 1878. During the First World War when the nearby Craiglockhart Campus building was used as a hydropathic hospital. Wilfred Owen built boats for sailing on the pond ( Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson, 2014) .
Today it is part of the nature reserve, frequented by Canada geese, tufted ducks, coots, moorhens, herring gulls and black headed gulls. However, pride of place on the pond goes to the beautiful pair of white mute swans. This year they have had a clutch of nine cygnets, an unusually large number (normally 4-7) born in early May, We were lucky to see them when they were just a week old and to see the contrast between the large sleek icy white adults and the small grey-brown fluffy cygnets with their stubby black beaks.
Over a hundred years ago, incidentally close to the time when Wilfred Owen came to Craiglockhart, William Yeats sought solace in Coole Park in County Galway, Ireland, (then home to Lady Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and now also a nature reserve) and wrote his poem the Wild Swans at Coole , the last three stanzas from which are shown below:
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
The poem expresses for us the admiration in which we hold these magnificent birds. For Yeats the sight of the fifty nine wild swans elicited deep reflections on his life. For all of us, nature can be a source of both inspiration and reflection.
These two birds have given me a lot of joy in different ways over this difficult period: the cheerful little blackbird, protecting his home patch from which he never wanders far with his robust singing and boundless energy; the graceful, regal large white swans, elegant and tranquil on the water, majestic in flight.
Over March, April and May we have had pleasure in watching spring unfurl. While the human world has been in pain and turmoil, the natural world has gone through its normal seasonal progression. For birds territories have been established, nests built and young reared. Plants have responded to the sun and spring flowers appeared in their normal succession: daffodils, bluebells, wild garlic, campion and many more.
As we strive to put our world together again, I hope that we will remember to be grateful for the environment around us and have the strength and vigour to protect it too.