Monday, 27 June 2016

The Seasons of Cullen Church, by Bernard O'Donoghue

I've long been a fan of Bernard O'Donoghue's poetry - his The Nuthatch is one of my favourite bird poems ever - so I'm looking forward to getting stuck into this, his latest collection from Faber and Faber.

It's concerned with family histories and mythologies, as well as touching on some of O'Donoghue's other familiar concerns and subjects - emigration and emigrants, and (pleasingly for me), Anglo-Saxon literature. More to follow once I've digested it further...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vision Helmet, by David Briggs

I've enjoyed David Briggs' poetry a great deal in the past (his two Salt collections, The Method Men and Rain Rider, are well worth seeking out) so it was great to receive a copy of his new Maquette pamphlet, Vision Helmet, this week. I've only flicked through so far, but the title poem is terrific, and I'll post a full review in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds at Lowdham Book Festival

I'll be reading from my book, A Sky Full Of Birds, at the Lowdham Book Festival this Saturday (June 25th), at 11am. It takes place at the Methodist Chapel on Main Street, and as well as the reading there'll be time for questions and book signings afterwards.

The full festival programme is here – there's plenty of great events on throughout the week.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Migrant Waders

This rather lovely book arrived at the Bird watching office this week - it's a collection of poetry, prose and reportage from Dunlin Press, following the migration routes of waders and shorebirds from the tropics to the High Arctic, taking in the landscapes they encounter, and the people who encounter them, along the way.

Contributors include Caroline Gill, Martin Harper, Samantha Franks, Gary Budden, Colin Williams and Rebecca Moore, and there are illustrations by Ella Johnston.

It costs £12.99, and is available from the Dunlin Press website above. Watch this space, and a future issue of Bird Watching, for a full review.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Coquet Island's Roseate Terns

When I was at university in Newcastle, we frequently had history field trips, or history society drinking trips, to various castles and other sites along the Northumberland coast. Warkworth Castle, near Amble, was a favourite.

I was in Amble this week, ahead of a trip out to Coquet Island, home to the UK's biggest breeding colony of Roseate Terns. The weather wasn't great, the sea was pretty choppy, but it was a memorable experience, nonetheless. The Roseates were present in numbers, along with Common and Sandwich Terns, Eiders, Puffins and Kittiwakes.

And history came into it, too. St Cuthbert, who lived as a hermit on the Farne Islands a little further north, came to Coquet to meet with Aelfleda, the daughter of the Northumbrian king Oswiu. Aelfleda was the Abbess of Whitby by then, I think. Cuthbert, I suppose, would have kept a close eye on the birdlife – he was particularly fond of Eiders, which are still sometimes known locally as 'Cuddy ducks', and ensured they had some sort of legal protection.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Signed copies of A Sky Full Of Birds

I've got a number of copies of A Sky Full Of Birds at home, for anyone who'd like to buy one direct from me – they're £13 including P&P, and I can sign them or add dedications as required.

With the first three orders, I'll also include a unique, previously unpublished bird poem inspired by the research for the book. 

If you'd like a copy, email me at the link on the right.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Tomas Transtromer on Wallander

It's always good to read or hear Tomas Transtromer's poetry, and last Sunday's concluding episode of Wallander featured a recitation of his The Half-finished Heaven.

It sent me back to his Collected Poems, which I'm picking through this week. If you haven't read anything by the Nobel Prize winner yet, then start now - there are plenty of good translations available.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Bruce Springsteen - Ricoh Arena, Coventry, 3.6.16

It's been 28 years since I last saw Springsteen live. I'm a fan, although I've not been that keen on some of his more recent albums, and far too often I've seen that he's touring and thought "there'll be plenty of time to catch up with him". This year, I decided time might be running out.

Coventry's appalling traffic meant that, although the start of the show had been delayed 20 minutes, we missed the first song, For You, performed solo. Eccentric choice, really, an album track from his debut way back in 1973, but then that's what you get with Bruce - shows tend to wander whichever way the fancy takes him, with the help of a few requests from the audience. He doesn't avoid crowd-pleasers for the sake of it, it's just that, for a superstar, he's had few actual hits, so there’s less commercial indication of what those crowd-pleasers might be. When I saw him in Sheffield all those years ago, I don’t remember being too disappointed that he left out Thunder Road and Rosalita, and slowed Born To Run down to an acoustic ramble, because there was always something else you didn’t expect just around the corner.

This jaunt had been billed, in the States, as The River Tour, with the entirety of that 1980 double album being performed. I can't say it's a favourite of mine, but here things were scaled back. It, along with Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The USA, were well represented, but he left enough room to pull plenty of surprises.

One of the things I love is that he's so good at investing new meaning and spirit into songs that, on record, you're really not that bothered about. So, Sherry Darling became the perfect party singalong on a balmy night, and Crush On You, the slightest song on the original album, was a thoroughly raucous, garage-band stomp. No Surrender, all shiny 80s production on record, rose above its sometimes corny lyrics (the last verse is great, though) to become genuinely moving, and Drive All Night sounded better than it ever has before. Hungry Heart and Two Hearts were in there too, of course, with Steve Van Zandt joining Bruce on vocals for the latter, as ever – hard not to picture him with Silvio Dante’s alarming bouffant hair, if you’re a Sopranos fan like me, but he remains a great sideman, as does Nils Lofrgen.

It wasn’t all good-time rock n’ roll, either – Murder Incorporated, Death To My Hometown and Youngstown (from the underrated Ghost of Tom Joad album), crackled with as much anger as energy, and The River itself, perhaps his best song of broken and misplaced dreams, was delivered with a heartbreaking intensity.

That carried over into the second half of the evening. The Promised Land, Badlands and Born In The USA (not played that often these days) were positively spat out, and there was a searing version of Because The Night, with Lofgren’s guitar work outstanding. The lengthy between-song chats seem to be a thing of the past, although there was as much bonhomie and good-natured showmanship as ever, and there were fewer cover versions, too, just the Isley Brothers’ Shout, mid-50s rockabilly number Seven Nights To Rock, and Creedence’s Travelin’ Band (a fixture on the original River tour, I seem to remember from my old Teardrops On The City bootleg).

He saved his anthem, Born To Run, and his best pop song, Dancing In The Dark, for the encores, plus Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, as a tribute to the late Clarence Clemons. Jake Clemons, given the near-impossible task of replacing the Big Man on saxophone, managed to do just that throughout the evening.

That, all three hours and more of it, would have been enough on its own, for all that some personal favourites were missing – I can’t think of anyone else who I’d put up with the vagaries of stadium acoustics and visuals for. But then he was back, centre stage, on his own, with guitar and harmonica and the song that, for me, remains his finest moment. Thunder Road was delivered with the same fragility and uncertainty that marks the version on the live box set, and I don't mind admitting choking back a few tears. Next time he's over here, I'll be there.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Ten Poems About Cricket

My poem, Two Orthodox Left-Armers, is included in this splendid chapbook anthology from Candlestick Press. Edited by John Lucas, whose own poem Still Going Strong is one of the highlights of the book for me, it includes work from Adrian Buckner, Joan Downar, Philip Hodgins, Brian Jones, Hubert Moore, Norman Nicholson, Kit Wright and John Arlott. Yes, that John Arlott. I couldn't be more delighted to be in such company.

The two-part poem concerns Yorkshire spin bowlers Wilfrid Rhodes, whose Test career incredibly spanned the years 1899-1930, and Hedley Verity, whose own international career was ended by World War Two.

Oh, and lovely to see that Adrian Buckner's contribution is Cricket At Thrumpton, not only because it's a fine poem, but because it's a ground I've played on a few times myself. It's a typical English village ground, with the added advantage (for me), of being just across the Trent from Attenborough Nature Reserve, so you could always scan the sky for passing raptors, terns and waders while you were standing at deep midwicket, waiting for something to happen.

Liek all Candlestick's chapbooks, it comes with an envelope and bookmark, and is designed to be sent instead of a greetings card. Buy it for the cricket-lover in your life.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Seeing double

This rather intriguing book (the above are the front and back covers, not two different volumes), arrived yesterday from Faber and Faber. It's a dual-authored poetry collection by American twin brothers, and the work deals with the loss of an elder sibling, through suicide.

I've only had a flick through it so far, but what comes across even in the first few poems from each is that they're very different poets, at times almost diametrically opposite in style, in fact. That should offer all sorts of contrasts and oppositions, even though they're dealing with the same subject matter.

I'll be posting a full review in due course - for now I'm just enjoying getting to know the work of two poets who I hadn't previously come across.

Monday, 23 May 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed in NFU Countryside

Here's the latest review of A Sky Full Of Birds, in the NFU's Countryside magazine. You can find out more about it, and how to buy it, if you're interested, here.

Friday, 20 May 2016

And back to Alderney

Taking a break from birds for a moment, these furry critters were everywhere along the clifftops in Alderney a couple of weeks back. They're the caterpillars of the Glanville Fritillary, a very rare butterfly in the UK (found only on the Isle of Wight), but which is doing well in Alderney. Those startlingly red eyes stay with you, don't they?

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Sanderlings sur la plage

Another brief bulletin from Normandy – when we were there a couple of weeks back, there were good numbers of Sanderlings, Turnstones and Whimbrels passing through on the way to their northern breeding grounds. This little group were very approachable, taking a break from their frantic, clockwork wave-chasing.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

A piece of England in Normandy

Well, not exactly. The above bird is a Kentish Plover, which despite its name is nowhere to be found in the garden of England. On the beaches of the Cotentin Peninsula, though, they're present in good numbers, scurrying among the shingle and making their nests there too (although one pair we were shown had sensibly tucked theirs under a grassy bank at the top of the beach, not only keeping it well out of sight but also protecting it from the elements).

As always when I see ground-nesting birds, I marvelled at how they could ever successfully raise a brood, out there in the open, but they seem to do OK, helped by the fact that the beaches are nothing like as busy as they would be in the UK.

Kentish Plovers are one of three species which have names relating to that particular county. Spotter's badge to the first person to correctly name the other two.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Readings from A Sky Full Of Birds

I’ve got a few readings from A Sky Full Of Birds coming up over the next few months. You’ll probably get heartily sick of me plugging them as time goes on, but here’s the programme as it stands:

May 21st-22nd: Norfolk Bird Fair, Mannington Hall – readings/signings on both days.
June 2nd: Kenilworth Bookshop – I’m leading a nature walk, followed by a reading/signing.
June 25th: Lowdham Book Festival, Nottingham – reading and signing.
July 13th: Jazz and Prose, Nottingham – signing.
August 19th-21st: British Birdwatching Fair – reading and signing session in the main authors’ marquee.
August 27th: Bournemouth Natural Science Society and Museum – reading and talk.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Amazon review of A Sky Full Of Birds

A customer has posted this lovely review of A Sky Full Of Birds on Amazon – you can of course by the book there in print or electronic editions.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

An island of Wheatears

Wheatears are among my favourite British birds, but until my visit to Alderney, I'd seen relatively few this spring. I'm not sure if that's because passage has been slow because of the cool weather, or just that I haven't been in the right places at the right time. But anyway, Alderney more than made up for it. Longis Common regularly had 10 or more, including Greenland-race birds, while we kept coming across them elsewhere on the island.

Birders are always delighted to hear that the name has nothing to do with wheat, and actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'hvit oers', literally 'white arse'. They were nothing if not observant, those Anglo-Saxons, and they didn't like to mince their words.

There's more on Wheatears (and one individual Wheatear in particular) in my book, A Sky Full Of Birds, available now.

Monday, 9 May 2016

More from Alderney


Alderney isn't just about Gannets and other birds. In the spring, it's just a very pleasant place to be, walking along the cliffs or beaches. The spot above, on the south coast of the island, is typical – if Peregrines drift over, that's a great bonus, and you can always watch the seabirds, but the scenery's worth it in its own right.

Throughout our stay, we were at the Braye Beach Hotel (below), which as well as being very comfortable and geared to birders and other wildlife-watchers, is nicely placed for early morning birding. Ringed Plovers and Whimbrels drop in on the beach itself.

And what about that other wildlife? Well, up on the cliffs, Alderney has a good population of Glanville Fritillaries, a butterfly otherwise found only on the Isle of Wight in the British Isles. It was too early for them while we were there, but their caterpillars are great – black, hairy and with vivid red eyes.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Gannets on Alderney

Last week, I was co-leading a Bird Watching Magazine/Avian Adventures readers' holiday to Alderney and Normandy, with Martin Batt, whose work with the Living Islands project on Alderney has done an awful lot to put it on the birding map.

It's a great place to try your first birdwatching outside the UK mainland, because it's small and manageable (you could easily do it all on foot or by bike if you wanted to), but also gets a good variety of birds.

These can include overshooting migrants that would otherwise only be seen on the French mainland, and large numbers of other migrants on their way north to Britain (and beyond).

And then there's the seabirds. Puffins breed on Burhou, just offshore, as do Storm-petrels, and there are good colonies of Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags. But best of all, at Les Etacs, you can view one of the most accessible Gannet colonies in the British Isles.

Thousands of these glorious birds – we have a large proportion of the world's population of them – crowd onto the rocky cliffs, and there's a constant coming and going as they fish the surrounding seas, although they range as far afield as Cornwall and the Thames Estuary.

I'll be posting more from Alderney and northern France over the next few weeks, but you can also read more about the island's Gannets, and those around the coast of Britain, in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, available now.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Quiz time

One for you birders out there - what species is this chap?

I photographed it during a recent trip to Alderney, where a new bird observatory and ringing station has been set up. Among the remarkable ringing records they had even during the few days we were there, this was one of the oddest.

Answer to follow soon, along with more on the trip.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

An announcement

I owe my interest in football, and my love of it, to my dad. He was a cultured midfielder of no mean ability himself, in his youth, and I can't remember a time when I didn't want to either kick a ball around, or watch someone else do the same.

He's a lifelong Grimsby supporter, so the first game I ever went to was Peterborough against the Mariners, in the 1976-77 season. Grimsby lost 3-1, but by that time I was already a confirmed Leicester City fan. If my dad was disappointed, he's never let it show, and he follows Leicester as enthusiastically as I follow Grimsby. In 1998, we even saw the Mariners win twice at Wembley in one season, but that's a story for another day.

At primary school, there were a lot of Man Utd bags (those cheap, rectangular holdalls that you bought on the market) to be seen, and surprisingly few Liverpool, given that they were just entering their golden era. I'd never heard of Forest at that stage (Clough's own miracle was just about to happen), although Derby and Leeds also had their playground adherents. And there was a group of us steadfast in our support of Leicester, although we were just entering one of our frequent low periods, getting relegated under the management of former City playing legend Frank McLintock. The kit at that time, from city firm Admiral, was horrible too, although I didn't think so then.

My first experience of Filbert Street was a 4-1 thrashing by Birmingham City (featuring a young Trevor Francis) in 1977-78, as we went down to the old Second Division. And then followed 37 years of ups and downs, mainly the latter. Oh, there was the pleasure of being Liverpool's early 80s bogey side, of seeing a raw, pacy youngster called Gary Lineker mature into a world-class finisher, of a play-off final win over Derby, and of the Martin O'Neill years of the late 90s, with two League Cup wins and four consecutive top 10 finishes in the Premier League. But it says something about how success-starved we've been at Leicester that we were inordinately proud of our record of never having been outside the top two divisions, until that disappeared in 2008. A few years earlier, we nearly went out of business, with Lineker and other ex-players among those stepping in to save us.

All of which is a long preamble to saying that the events of this season, culminating last night, are beyond my wildest dreams. I mean it. If what's really happened had occurred on-screen while playing Football Manager, I'd have dismissed the game as having become hopelessly unrealistic. I'd have closed it down in embarrassment, and gone and done something more constructive instead. I have, in idle moments, thought we might one day win the FA Cup, but that's about it.

You know the details by now. Jamie Vardy's record-breaking scoring streak. Riyad Mahrez's artistry. Huth and Morgan's rock-solid defending. N'Golo Kante's discovery of the secret of perpetual motion. And of course, Claudio Ranieri's leadership, combining great tactical shrewdness with expert man management, and a charming, media-friendly way of deflecting pressure from his players. If he's not the greatest Italian ever to set foot in Leicester, it's only because the city might not exist had some first century civil servant not suggested building a fort on the boggy banks of the Soar.

But back to my dad. When I was born, he set out to register the birth. My parents had agreed on the first names Matthew and James, just because they liked them, although my mum might have been pleased that James was also her maiden name, and my dad certainly liked the fact that they gave a little nod to two of his football heroes, Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Greaves. When he got to the register office, though, he decided to add a third name, Robert, after his favourite footballer, Bobby Charlton. My mum was not best pleased.

Neither was I, once I was old enough to know. It wasn't that I had anything against the name Robert, really, or the 1966 World Cup winner, more that I didn't like having three first names.

Until now. A few weeks back, when everything was still very much in the balance, I promised that, were we to win the title, I'd change the Robert to Ranieri. Well, I'm a man of my word. I'm filling in the forms, and it's all in motion. You know, just in case I forget what's happened these last nine months.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Second review of A Sky Full Of Birds

A Sky Full Of Birds was reviewed in the Daily Mail today – shame that the sub-editor made the old birdwatcher=twitcher assumption, but a really nice review all the same.

Phil Brown on Hugo Williams

Over at Rogue Strands, Matthew Stewart has posted about Phil Brown's excellent Huffington Post feature on Hugo Williams, a poet whose work I've always enjoyed.

It rang quite a few bells with me. Years ago, 2004 I think, I went to hear him read in the theatre at Uppingham School. It was a weekday evening in late autumn, and I think I was the only person there who wasn't actually a pupil at the school. I'm not sure if the kids there had been dragooned into attending by their teachers, but they were an enthusiastic, appreciative and large audience.

After he'd read, I had a few words with him in the bar, and he very kindly offered to take a look at some of my work (I didn't ask him to, honestly). A few weeks later, I received a charming handwritten letter, in which rather as Phil describes, he pointed out why the poems really weren't very good. He was right and the advice he offered with a view to improving them was taken on board. But he also, by way of illustrating some of his points, enclosed a handwritten copy of his own poem Memory Dogs. At the time, I assumed it was a poem that he'd discarded previously, but it subsequently appeared in his collection Dear Room. I'm glad to hear that his health has improved, and that he's writing again.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

First review of A Sky Full Of Birds

This review of A Sky Full Of Birds appeared on the Fatbirder website earlier today – many thanks to Bo Beolens for his kind words about it, and for reviewing it so soon after release, too.

Incidentally, Fatbirder remains a terrific resource for birdwatchers of all ages and abilities – as well as containing a wealth of reviews and factual material, it's always a good read, especially Bo's own columns.

You can buy the book through the link provided by Bo, in all good bookshops, or at various other online outlets.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Spring migration

April is when the arrival of summer migrants to these islands really gets into full swing, making it (and May) probably the two best birding months of the year. You know what's coming, pretty much (although there are always unexpected vagrants and rarities to spice things up further), you just don't know exactly when, or in what numbers. Every time you pick up you binoculars and step outside the front door, you're in for a surprise or two.

Although March certainly wasn't exceptionally cold, migration seemed to get off to a slow start. Sand Martins and Wheatears trickled in locally, and I've not seen a Little Ringed Plover yet.

But what I enjoy most about this time of year, and it's something that I talked about in that recent Daily Telegraph interview, and that crops up in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, is the way that certain species arrive en masse.

Yesterday, for example, the birding news services were pumping out constant updates about sightings of Little Gulls. These elegant, neat little seabirds, a world away from the popular image of the sandwich-stealing seagull, were crossing the country on their way back north, and it seemed that every reservoir or gravel pit had a few dropping in to refuel.

Chiffchaffs, similarly, suddenly seemed to appear a couple of weeks back. One minute there was no sign of them, even though small numbers now winter here, and the next they were in every tree, with their insistent, two-note calls.

And tomorrow? Well, it's getting near Redstart time, and also around the date I usually hear my first Cuckoo. I'll be in West Wales later in the week, at the wonderful Cors Dyfi and Ynys Hir reserves, so they ought to provide plenty of opportunities to look and listen for both.