Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Some birds from Mallorca

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be in northern Mallorca for work. It's a great place to go birding, because you've got a huge variety of habitat just a few minutes away from the towns of Port de Pollenca and Alcudia. The former even has a great little urban reserve, La Gola, just back from the seafront – the Common Sandpiper above was there when we arrived, on a drizzly morning.

The Black-winged Stilts above and below were at the famous Albufera reserve – we also saw Kentish Plover, Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Booted Eagle, Green Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Red-knobbed Coot (don't laugh) and Shag (oh, come on!) there, among others. At s'Abufereta, another wetland reserve nearby, we'd already ticked Great White Egret, Cattle Egret, Sardinian Warbler, Marsh Harrier and Whinchat, plus many of the same waders, and a rather odd-looking shorebird that I finally concluded was just a less than typical Dunlin.

Back in Port de Pollenca, Black Redstarts like the one below were plentiful – in fact, there were a lot around pretty much everywhere we went. Also interesting was the number of Robins, more than I've ever seen in one place before. Presumably at least some of them are northern European, and possibly British, birds, that have migrated to warmer climes for the winter.

Finally, northern Mallorca is just about the easiest place in Europe to see Eleonora's Falcon (below), a raptor that delays its breeding until autumn so that it can take advantage of the glut of small songbirds passing through on migration. They nest on sea cliffs and pick the tired migrants off as they come in, sometimes virtually off the surface of the sea. I'm no photographer, so it was hard to get any decent pics of them, but I found it interesting how relatively easy it was to ID them – they immediately look longer-winged than Peregrines, with a much flappier flight style, but they're larger than Hobbies. We were lucky in that on a couple of the occasions we saw them, we had a Peregrine in the air nearby at the time, for instant comparison.

Friday, 21 October 2016

TS Eliot shortlist announced

The shortlist for the TS Eliot Prize has been announced, and there are full details here. Good to see Denise Riley, Ian Duhig and Bernard O'Donoghue on there (I've read and enjoyed all three books), and I look forward to reading a few of the others, too. JO Morgan is an interesting, and refreshing, inclusion too.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Birds on the move

It's that time of year when birds are well and truly on the move. In fact, it's always that time of year, because migration is going pretty much 24/7, 365 days a year, but mid-October is just about the peak of the autumn migration season.

If you're lucky enough to live in Scotland, or along the Solway Firth, or on the coast of East Anglia, that can mean huge flocks of wild geese winging in from their Arctic breeding grounds. Waders, too, from the same direction. At some of Britain's migration (and twitching) hotspots, the last couple of weeks have seen a flurry of rarities, including Britain's first-ever Siberian Accentor. And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.

Inland, an invasion of Yellow-browed Warblers has been taking place. These tiny sprites are regular winter visitors, but scarce, and can be easily overlooked unless you learn their high-pitched call, as they can easily tag along with flocks of Goldcrests and other small birds.

But if you're a casual birdwatcher (and that's what I've been for the last couple of weeks), there's one sure sign that autumn is really with us. Redwings. That's one above. And before an eagle-eyed viewer points it out, that's actually one from the Icelandic subspecies. They're a little darker, and bigger, and can pop up over here, although most that we see in the UK come from Norway and Sweden.

Earlier in the week, I woke in the early hours. Our bedroom is in the loft, and the skylight was slightly open. I could hear a thin, hissing sound, 'tseeep, tseeep', and then I was asleep again.

But the next morning, on the way to work, little flocks of 30-40 birds were skimming over the fields everywhere. They're Starling-sized, but the wings are more swept back, the outline just that bit more streamlined, and they're much more tied to farmland, although you might get a few in the garden if you've got a lot of berry-bearing shrubs and trees, or if you leave some windfall apples around.

As yet, I've seen no Fieldfares, so often the close companions of the Redwings, but they'll be here, no doubt, in the next few days. And the leaves will keep falling, and the birds will keep returning and departing, and it'll be spring again before you know it.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

In conversation with Simon Barnes

Tomorrow (Thursday, October 6th), I'm going to be chatting with Simon Barnes at Daunt Books, Marylebone, as part of their Book Festival.

He, of course, is both a renowned sports writer and the author of a number of terrific natural history books, perhaps most notably How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher, which I recommend to anyone. It's beautifully written and truly inspirational, as is his new book, The Meaning of Birds, which manages to pack a wealth of scientific information into its pages yet still find the time and space to veer off into the poetic and metaphysical.

Simon Barnes is, above all, the standard-bearer for the sort of birdwatching that I love, the kind that recognises that taking a straightforward delight in the birds in front of you is sometimes just as important as other considerations, such as conservation or acquiring knowledge.

The event starts at 10.30am, and tickets are £8.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed by Shropshire Birder

Bird photographer Jim Almond has reviewed A Sky Full Of Birds on his blog here - I'm very grateful to him for such a generous and full appraisal of the book. 

While you're at it, follow the link on the blog to Jim's main website, for some stunning bird images, I particularly enjoyed the selection of waders.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

'Two ravens flew with them all the way'

Driving to work this morning, just a few miles from home, I saw two Ravens flying over the road at Napton-on-the-Hill.

Their identity was obvious from the wedge-shaped tails, the long, narrow wings, and the size, close to that of a Buzzard. As I got closer, the heavy bills were there, too, and just a hint of the shaggy throat feathers.

A few years ago, to see a Raven in the Midlands was still a pretty big deal. Then pairs started to move into many of the granite quarries around Charnwood Forest (I was living in Leicestershire at the time), where they co-habited with another species that has been making a comeback, the Peregrine. The two species often live in close proximity, and the Ravens seem to delight in annoying the raptors with close approaches and dive-bombing. I've never seen a Peregrine actually have a go at a Raven, though, perhaps because there is usually much easier prey to hand.

Now Ravens are getting reported from all over the place. They breed on the edge of Peterborough, in countryside that you'd never have associated with them just a short time ago, but which they must have inhabited in the past. John Clare, whose home village of Helpston is just a couple of miles from the nest site, mentions them more than once. Near my own home, they're regularly seen around Edgehill, but they've probably spread even further than that.

The pair this morning were flying purposefully and straight, with none of the aerobatics you often see from the species. Once, in Extremadura, I watched four Ravens flying high over the plain that stretched for 20 miles in every direction. As if to relieve the monotony of the journey, all four suddenly flipped onto their backs, then back again, before carrying on their way.

But anyway, Ravens are right up there in my birds top 10, and seeing them always reminds me of this passage from Njal's Saga, greatest of the Icelandic family sagas. The whole historical and mythological aspect of Ravens is, I think, one of the reasons I like them so much.

I didn't intend this post to deteriorate into a bout of shameless self-promotion, but I should also mention that there's a chapter on Ravens in my book A Sky Full Of Birds, which you can read about and order here.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Have blogs had their day?

Or has this blog had its day, more to the point? Visitor numbers have been showing a slow but steady decline over the last year or so. I've not been great at updating it in recent months, and when I have I haven't always been able to write the occasional longer pieces that I'd like to, so I suspect that it's not really doing anything that Facebook and even Twitter couldn't do just as well.

I'd be interested, then, to know if there's anything that people would like to see more of on here. Not that I can guarantee that I can do anything about it, of course! But still, I'll try.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Winter tour selections

Back in my schooldays, the pre-internet information wasteland of the 1980s (Ceefax seemed impossibly hi-tech), I used to look forward to the announcement of the England cricket touring team with great eagerness. It was a landmark – after two or three weeks back at school, on some warm, hazy September day, you'd hear the news on the radio, and you'd always be surprised by one or two of the names.

That wasn't always a good thing. There was a time when a single eye-catching performance in the Gillette Cup (later NatWest Trophy) Final at the start of September could propel you into the winter tour party. Roland Butcher did it in 1980, but there were others, and the players involved rarely went on to have long international careers.

These days, there are far fewer surprises. Consistency of selection has generally been a good thing and has played its part in England's generally better performances since the turn of the century (some good captains and coaches, central contracts, and more competitive county cricket have also helped). But I can't help missing the old days a bit, when a couple of names would always send you scurrying to the bookshelves to dig out the Playfair Cricket Annual and swot up on the players chosen.

This year, there's room for a few left-field selections. Alex Hales has opted not to tour Bangladesh, which leaves a spot for a new opener (he's quite possibly have been dropped anyway), and the struggles of England's middle order means there are other batting places up for grabs too. A third spinner will be needed.

So, I turned my mind to selecting my own touring party for Bangladesh, ahead of tomorrow's announcement. I'd keep pretty much the same squad for the India tour too. The first XI would be my starting line-up for the first test.

Alistair Cook
Haseeb Hameed
Ben Duckett
Joe Root
Jonny Bairstow
Ben Stokes
Jos Buttler
Moeen Ali
Adil Rashid
Stuart Broad
Jimmy Anderson
Chris Woakes
Steve Finn
Jack Leach
Stuart Robson

Leach has come through strongly this season, although I think it's unlikely that we'll play three spinners in any one match. Robson looks a better player now than when he was first selected for England, and Duckett will certainly play for England sooner or later.

I wonder how many I'll have got right?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Want to write poetry reviews?

Well, if you do, the Poetry School wants to hear from you ASAP. You'll even get paid £60 a time. The full details are available here, and it'll be interesting to see what comes of it – as they say, there's a real need for thoughtful, honest reviews of poetry out there, especially of some of the writers that otherwise slip below the radar.

It reminds me – I've got a couple of reviews to post myself, when I get a minute, so watch this space. I'll be paying myself the standard fee of a Strawberry Cornetto.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Autumn reviewed by Mark Avery

Autumn: an anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison and sold in aid of the Wildlife Trusts, is reviewed here by Mark Avery, former conservation director at the RSPB and now tireless campaigner on wildlife issues, most notably the persecution of Hen Harriers by the driven grouse-shooting industry.

It's a lovely book (as are the first two in the series), and in a very good cause too, so another one for the Christmas lists for lovers of wildlife and literature alike.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Birdbook IV

This rather splendid volume, the fourth and last in Sidekick's series covering all the birds of Britain, is out today. You can find out how to buy it here.

There are poems inspired by all the species of saltwater and shore (so a lot of my favourites are in there), with superb illustrations to accompany them too. It's every bit as good as the other three books in the series, and perfect for anyone with an interest in birds, or poetry, or both.

Of course, I would say that, because I wrote the foreword, but if you don't believe me, have a look at the Sidekick website.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Martin Stannard at Stride

Martin Stannard's poems for the young at heart (Leafe Press) is reviewed by Steve Spence for Stride here – you can also find out more about it and Leafe's other excellent publications here.

Incidentally, over at Gists & Piths, Simon Turner has his response to Appendix 2: A Test For Poets, from Martin Stannard's book. You might actually need the book to get the full sense of it, but then you were going to buy that anyway, weren't you?

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Poet's Republic

The submissions window at The Poet's Republic is open until the end of September, with issue 4 due out in November. Nell Nelson of HappenStance Press is guest editor this issue, which pretty much sounds like a guarantee of high quality, and if you read the submissions guidelines you'll see that this Scottish mag is casting its net pretty far and wide stylistically and in terms of subject matter.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Mark Goodwin - Along A Line

This is a rather wonderful blog post by poet Mark Goodwin – make sure you watch the video at the end, too. Mark's books include a 2014 collection from Longbarrow Press, Steps, that explores walking, climbing and balancing, among other themes.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

An evening of poetry at Kenilworth Arts Festival

A week on Friday (September 16th), this rather splendid event is taking place as part of the Kenilworth Arts Festival. David Morley will be joined by Sarah Howe, Luke Kennard, Jo Bell, Claire Trevien and Jonathan Edwards at the Talisman Theatre for an evening of poetry. Follow the link for details of how to book tickets.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Peter Hughes at Litter

There are four poems by Peter Hughes, after Giacomo Leopardi, in the latest edition of Litter. Take a look – some other very interesting stuff there too, as always.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Forward Book of Poetry 2017

The 25th annual Forward Prize anthology is out on September 15th – it contains all the poems shortlisted for this year's prizes, plus a selection of those highly commended by the judges. Those featured include Vahni Capildeo, John Clegg, Maura Dooley, Ian Duhig, Leontia Flynn, Kathleen Jamie, Luke Kennard, William Letford, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe, Roy McFarlane, Helen Mort, Alice Oswald, Denise Riley, Carol Rumens, Ian Seed, Julia Webb and Luke Wright.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Magma 65

Issue 65 of the always excellent Magma is out now - you can find further details here.

Reviews include Kathryn Gray on Ian Duhig, Andy Willoughby and Claire Askew; Ian McEwen on Martin Stannard, Matthew Caley and Barbara Cumbers; Rob A Mackenzie on Judy Brown, Lisa Matthews and Adam Crothers; and Pippa Little on Anne-Marie Fyfe, Martin Figura and Andrew Shields.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Summer sale at Nine Arches Press

There's a summer sale on at Nine Arches Press, with 50% off lots of their poetry books, others available for just £3, and free postage – the offer ends on September 1st, though, so hurry. There are collections from the likes of Daniel Sluman, Tony Williams, Mario Petrucci, Jo Bell, Bobby Parker, Angela France, Richie McCaffrey and many more in there, plus several anthologies.

My own The Elephant Tests is there for £4, while my previous collection, hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, is still available at £8.99.

After a long sojourn in the land of prose these last couple of years, I'm finally getting back to writing some poetry at the moment. Not entirely sure where it's going, but then that's half the fun, isn't it?

Monday, 22 August 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds in Bournemouth

I'll be reading from A Sky Full Of Birds (and who knows, maybe a poem or two), at Bournemouth Natural Science Society and Museum this Saturday (August 27th), at 2.30pm.

The talk takes place in the Lecture Hall of the building at 39 Christchurch Road, and there's a suggested donation of £3. There'll also be the chance to buy copies of the book, and of my poetry collections, at discount prices.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

A Sky Full Of Birds reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement

Very pleased to have been reviewed in the latest Times Literary Supplement, alongside Mike Dilger's Nightingales In November, and very grateful to Richard Smyth for his thoughtful and generous reading of A Sky Full Of Birds.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Birdfair reading

I'll be reading from A Sky Full Of Birds at the British Birdwatching Fair, at the Egelton Reserve, Rutland Water, this Saturday at 9.30am. It takes place in the Author's Forum (next to the main Events Marquee), and I'll be signing books afterwards.

I'll be at Birdfair all three days, as usual – the Bird Watching Magazine stand is in its usual place in Marquee 6, so if you're there, pop by and say hello.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Sky Full of Birds at Wigtown Book Festival

I'm going to be reading from A Sky Full Of Birds at the Wigtown Book Festival, Dumfries and Galloway, on Thursday September 29th. The event takes place at the Main hall of the County Buildings at 1.30pm, and you can find more details, including how to book, here.

Wigtown Bay is a pretty great birdwatching spot itself, especially at that time of year, so it will be great to combine the reading with some time in the field. Might just be too early for the geese to be back on the Solway, but there should be plenty of waders going through.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Autumn anthology

It's not often I get the chance to say that a poem of mine is appearing in an anthology alongside poems and nature writing by the likes of Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Patrick Kavanagh, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Coleridge, John Clare, Ted Hughes, Helen Macdonald and Alison Brackenbury, so you'll have to excuse me being quite excited today.

My poem, about Long-eared Owls, appears in Autumn, the latest "anthology for the changing seasons", edited by Melissa Harrison, published by Elliott & Thompson, and in aid of The Wildlife Trusts, who don't always get the same high profile as some conservation organisations, but who do an incredible amount of vital work at the local level.

It's out on August 25th, so order your copy now - it's a wonderful celebration of the season.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Provenance, by David Belbin

I've been reading David Belbin's superb Provenance: New and Collected Short Stories, which pulls together 18 stories dating back as far as the 1980s.

There's a wide variety of subject matter (one which deals with child abuse is particularly effective), but the style is uniformly realistic, economical and exact – David Belbin's particularly good at dialogue. It all means that the stories' impact rather creeps up on you – there's no heavy-handed signposting of significance, or meaning, and you're left, as the reader, with a little work to do yourself (as you should be). Take the time, though, and you'll certainly come away from the book the better for having read it, so precisely does it capture the uncertainties of contemporary life (generally with an East Midlands flavour, too, refreshingly).

It's from the always-excellent Shoestring Press - you can order a copy here.