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Allotment Thoughts

Debra Williams

9th Feb:
The February sun is bright and there is some welcome warmth in it. My first job is to hand-feed the bold robin, who alights on the shed door, as usual, and watches me crumble the suet into my palm. Down onto my outstretched hand he jumps, feeds for a moment, then is gone, off to sing his territorial spring song.

A dunnock scratches notes in the still air, a continuous jazzy rhythm underneath the sudden bursts of robin song. Goldfinches tinkle from the trees, pew-pewing like video game characters. A wren shouts from the wood pile. Magpies rasp and clatter occasionally, percussively. The crow family “craar” gently to each other from their favourite tree. They wait ‘til I'm otherwise engaged, then come to the cherry tree on my plot where the feeders hang and peanuts have been scattered on the heavy slate slab that acts as a table, stalking along it, collecting one, two, three or more peanuts in their beaks, then fly off, crops bulging, to stash them elsewhere. In this, they are unlike the grey squirrel, who buries them all over the plot – and acorns, too.

11th Feb: The robin is singing from a neighbour’s field maple when I arrive and doesn’t land on the shed door today. After a few minutes, he arrives on the fence. I hold out my hand and he swoops towards it, up then down – a strangely indirect flight path.

The chaffinch calls “plink, plink” as he flies over; unlike the robin, he is not singing yet but when he does it has been likened to a fast bowler running up to bowl: steady, steady, steady, then a wild unleashing (of notes) at the end. The great tit is singing, though. It's a sound that is welcome in the early days of spring when there is not a lot of other song around, but eventually the monotonous “teacher, teacher, teacher” will begin to grate. A quiet “tack” tells me that the long-tailed tits have arrived; sociable little birds, they feed in flocks and “tack” and “tseep” to maintain contact with each other. The nuthatch lands on the slate slab, picks up a peanut piece and leaves, a chestnut and blue-grey streak with a bandit mask. I can hear the great spotted woodpecker drumming but no visit today. Their thoughts turn to mating early in the season, so they will no doubt be engaged in flirting/chasing each other and checking out nest holes in the woods behind the allotment site.

When the robin isn't singing, he is chasing two others from his patch, hurtling towards them, wings tucked in, straight as an arrow. A male blackbird, orange beak glowing, seizes the opportunity to pilfer the suet crumbs left on the fence for the robin. He “chucks” quietly as he hops along, perhaps reassuring himself in this unfamiliar situation.

Walking up to the plot today, there is a chant of “United, United” from the trees on the edge of the football field (appropriately enough). Collared doves are not common on the site, but are a pretty dove with a not very pretty call (especially in Liverpool!). There’s a flock of woodpigeons in the small car park – fat, waddling birds that eat everything from the bird table and leave their unpleasant ‘calling cards’ everywhere. “I don’t want to go,” they say mournfully – I wish they would!

Pushing open the plot’s purple-painted gate, I disturb two ring-necked parakeets on the peanut feeder. They fly off squawking loudly – bringing a touch of the exotic to this urban site, their cries more usually heard in Asian and African forests than over English oaks and football fields. They are beautifully coloured: lime-green backs, heads and tails, with lemon-yellow bellies and under-tails, and a rose-pink beak; and seeing and hearing them always makes me smile (although I also adore our dull little dunnocks – the clue to their colouration is in their name! – and other seemingly drab-coloured species).

And still the goldfinches tinkle. There were two linnets with them the other week, but I’ve not seen them since. Cold weather movement, as the birders call it, which means that birds of different species ‘flock’ together, as it were, when times are hard – more eyes to find the food needed to keep these tiny creatures alive over the coldest nights. Luckily, the weather is warming up – although it’s too early, really – and the birds starting to pair up. The male chaffinch has a female companion – I can’t tell if it’s last year’s bird but I think that the male is, because he has ‘scaly foot’, as did she and their one young. They have survived regardless, but I make a note to clean the slate slab well, to reduce the spread of disease. There’s always something to worry about when you care about wildlife!

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