I love long-tailed tits. Looking like small balls of cream and fawn feather on the end of a black and white stick, they’re constantly restless, moving from tree to tree in their little flocks of six to twelve birds, like a gang a marauding youngsters, calling to each other with their single, tiny, softly shrill cheeps (usually the first sign they’re there)! And yet there is something about them that always lifts my heart and brings a smile of pure joy to my face. I don’t even know why they have this effect on me. Perhaps it’s the suddenness of their unexpected arrival in a nearby willow, or on the fat balls at the feeder. They stay for a few seconds, or even a minute if you’re lucky, and then they’re off again and gone, and who knows when you’ll next see them? There seems to be nothing malicious about them, just a love of life. They stick with each other, always chirping, saying, ‘hey, you still with us? Come on, catch up’, or ‘wow, look what I’ve found here’, or ‘now that was fun.’ Sheer delight!
Late last summer I was out walking up near White Preston in the Bewcastle Fells with the family. My eldest daughter turned and, looking back towards the hill, asked what those birds were making such a noise in the distance. I instinctively said ‘corvids’, but something about them didn’t quite fit, and I decided to have closer look through the binoculars. The rest of the family carried on walking, but as I watched, I saw one was hovering while the other was flying around it, sometimes almost hitting it. ‘Ah’, I thought, ‘it’s crow harrying a kestrel to scare it off, and making a lot of noise about it.’ I was about to turn away when the ‘bombing’ bird turned in the air and I saw the distinctive sharp elbow and pointed wings – it was another kestrel. Kestrels are normally silent and solitary – only the young make much of a noise – so I decided to carry on watching. One bird was clearly hunting. The other was flying off and around, and then charging into the other, calling out all the while. The hunting bird would be knocked from its still point in the air, move a few yards and start again, undeterred. It wasn’t going to have any success hunting with all this disturbance around it, so what was going on? And then it dawned on me – the time of year, the location, the resolute patience of the one, the constant calling of the other – it was a mother trying to teach its fledgling how to hunt! As I watched the drama, it all started to make sense. The young one flying around, trying to work out what it’s mother was doing. The mother, silent, repeatedly and quietly adopting the same poise, the same hover, performing the same routine over and over. Once again, that recognition filled me with a sense of wonder, and a smile. Here was creation gloriously at work – a parent trying to teach its youngster the skills it needed to learn to survive in the world, and the youngster not quite ‘getting it’! And I almost missed it. I turned and ran to catch up with the others.
A few weeks later I was out on another walk one morning. The sky was clear and the sun shining. It was going to be another fine day. As I stood watching in silent prayer, again I became aware of a buzzard ‘miaowing’ close by. Turning, I saw a pair circling over the far corner of the field. Buzzards are the noisiest of all the raptors, so no surprises here. But I love watching all birds of prey, so I continued to gaze. After a while I began to notice that only one bird was being vocal – the other was silent. They were circling on thermals, gradually rising higher, sometimes shifting to a new thermal to continue the rise. But then I noticed that the noisy one was also very ‘flappy’. As I watched, I realised the other buzzard barely flapped at all. In fact, I saw it only do so once. Gradually it climbed higher, always leading the way. The noisy one struggled laboriously to try and keep up, now maybe fifty feet below. Once again, I realised I was watching a parent teaching it youngster how to ride the thermals, passing on its particular skill to enable its offspring to live, and to live well. Once again, the thrill of it ran through me.
There is so much that goes on around us, isn’t there? So many stories and dramas unfolding, usually unnoticed, all the time. Sometimes we just need the patience and the stillness to watch, to observe, to listen, and gradually we can begin to ‘read’ them. Perhaps it’s a discipline we can all practice as a form of prayer as we approach and enter Lent. I’d love to hear some of your stories.
Your friend and priest,