29 December 2010

This post first appeared on my website.

It seems a bit late in the year to me, but we are being invaded by migrating birds. The big old fig tree a couple of levels down outside the kitchen door, and the largest olive tree seem to be the favourite resting-points. Presumably because there are still vestiges of olives and figs… so much tastier than the sultanas and nuts and crumbs we put out which simply get ignored.

Some people find themselves with trees full of horribly squawking swallows: they swoop in, select a tree, and stay, covering the ground below with a thick layer of guano and presumably not doing the tree all that much good – though I only say that because I can’t stand the insistent, whinging sound of them, not because I know this for a fact.

We, on the other hand, seem to have tits and finches. Of course my ignorance about birds knows almost no bounds: I can tell a robin in winter though not in summer when, apparently, they’re still around but not red; and our late-spring nightingales and cold-night owls down in the woods are some of my best, most-awaited sounds of the year. But having consulted our bird book, I think I can say that these bobbity little things are tit- and finch-shaped. One day they were all flashing acid greeny-yellow at us; another they had that lovely russetty old-rose colour which to me suggests chaffinches though I’m prepared to be told I’m wrong. They come, they hang about for a couple of days, chirping us awake in the morning (L will insist on sleeping with the window slightly open, even when it’s minus five), then disappear again.

I’ve been trying to discover where they might be coming from, but I’m not having much success. Finches will migrate south in winter, I have read, if their northern homes get too cold. But as most of northern European has been in the grip of icy weather this winter, then that doesn’t narrow it down much. As far as I can see tits don’t migrate at all, so what our visitors are doing here, heaven knows: day tripping, perhaps?

This morning when I opened the front door there must have been about 30 of what I call chaffinches pecking about in the strip of lawn going up towards the carpark. As I opened the door, most of them flew straight off. But one fat fellow just sat there, pecking, and watching me. He was moving so little that I thought he must be hurt. I went inside to get my glasses, and went back out again. He was still there, either paralysed or quite fearless: I was beginning to worry that the cat who sleeps in the chicken house had been playing with him (he ‘nests’ in the kindling box, which now reeks). As I climbed up the front steps he hopped back a bit, still cocking his head towards me. Then he flew off just as the others had – nothing wrong with him at all. I guess he must have been a house-trained finch – one that bobs happily around someone’s garden somewhere in northern Europe, quite used to people.

When I went back out a few minutes later to hang the washing on the line, my carpark robin was flitting about in what I thought was a particularly indignant way. He seems to have moved his nest out of the chicken house: he was clearly getting sick of being scared out of his wits – and scaring me out of mine – every time I went up there in the evening to do something and switched the light on at which point he would skim right past my ear and out into the night. But he’s still around the whole time, flying about just where he can keep an eye on me, waiting to see what worms I turn up for him whenever I go into the garden (not often, alas, in the past few days). Could he possibly have resented the intrusion into his territory of the slow-to-leave chaffinch this morning? Of course he could: robins, as we all know are violently territorial birds. But could he also have resented my talking to this invader in the voice I usually reserve for him? (Somewhat unrealistically) I like to think so.

Through the welter of Christmas food and alcohol I have found time to notice that this winter, so far, has been more acceptable, in its way, than last. Last winter (and the previous one too) was such a non-stop misery of depression-inducing drizzle and downpour. And this winter too we’ve had our fare share, and more, of precipitation. But in between the rain there have been some lovely days of blue sky and bright sun: they have been very very very cold but they have warmed the heart at least. And that, in the depths of winter, is fundamental.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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