Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The return of Shirley Bassey

Shirley Bassey has probably never been away, but to most people, particularly anyone under 35, she may have seemed like a name from the past, because she hasn't been the star she once was since perhaps the late 70s.

Well all that mght be about to change, since Dame Shirley, aged almost 70 years old, took to a chilly stage at Glastonbury, wearing a spectacular pink dress and feather boa and looking impossibly glamorous.

She proceeded to belt out a selection of her hits of yesteryear, to a surprisingly big crowd, of all ages, who danced in the mud and sang along to the likes of 'Hey Big Spender' and 'The Lady is a Tramp'.

All good fun, and it was great to see la Bassey in good vocal form, but it was pure cabaret (if only she'd played at Lost Vagueness at 2am eh?)

However, little did anybody suspect just what vocal form she was about to unleash. Shirl hasn't been content to rest on her laurels and has engaged some hip young songwiters to provide her with some new material.

The first I knew of it was when an altogether moodier musical beast came rolling from the PA, courtesy of her full orchestra, as she launched into the powerful and defiant opening verse of 'The Living Tree', which I've since learned is to be a single released in the next week or so.

I sat up and took notice, just in time to be blown back into my seat by a searing blast of pure vocal power as Bassey hit the chorus. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, which is more than I can say for any of the other performers on the BBC's Glastonbury coverage, Arctic Monkeys included.

Unfortunately, the footage doesn't appear to be available, but I've found the official video and soon-to-be-released single, on the ever dependable YouTube.

Now THIS is singing...

Wow. Number one for sure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Spooky Woods, Glentress. Mountain bike heaven!

Back in 2003, me and Jude went to Glentress, near Peebles, 20 miles or so South of Edinburgh, to meet some mates for some mountain biking fun. Glentress is one of the increasing number of Forestry Commission forests which are being equipped with purpose made mtb trails. We did a brilliant 20 odd mile circuit including some of the best singletrack (narrow track, one bike wide). It included this, the descent through the brilliantly named Spooky Woods, captured wonderfully on helmet cam with some excellent self-composed music to accompany...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Blue tits and woodpeckers

Back in March, our next door neighbour, David, gave me a nestbox. Dave is a long-standing member of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), and has an assortment of variously-sized nestboxes scattered about his large garden.

The box he gave me was one he'd made, from bits of an old pallet probably (Dave's a great one for making quality items from recycled timber), and was designed for a Blue Tit. It's all to do with the size of the hole, apparently.

Now, I've been a sort of half-hearted twitcher since childhood. I love most living things, and birds are interesting, amusing, and occasionally, exciting and spectacular, but I'd never had a nestbox, so I was grateful to David's gift. I knew that birds were nesting so I had to get it up quick if I hoped to catch a pair for this year.

Two days later, I was up a ladder, in the large weeping willow which spraeds like a great umbrella over the central part of our back garden. There was a 4" branch stub projecting from one of the main branches which looked perfect. It was on the North side of the tree, which I figured would be best, as it would be out of the heat of the sun.

I screwed the box securely into place, and left it. Within a day, there were birds visiting. First up, a Great Tit, who obviously liked the property, but found the front entrance a bit tight. He was followed by a Blue Tit, who popped inside, back out, then repeated the in-out movement several times, obviously having a good look around. Then he proceeded to start pecking and tugging industriously at the edge of the hole, presumably tidying up the rough sawn margins, until he was satisfied.

Below: Blue Tit

A few days later, I sat quietly in the garden, and was delighted to see a pair of Blue Tits busily flying to and from the box, carrying bits and pieces of material for the nest. We had tenants!
After a week or so, I began to wonder if the birds had deserted the nest, as I couldn't see them, but then one evening I saw the male fly to the box and go inside, carrying something in his beak, so I knew they were still there.

Below: 'Time for your close-up Mr Tit!'

Two weeks ago, I eased myself into the hanging swing-chair suspended from the weeping willow, directly beneath the nestbox. Once I'd been quiet for a minute or so, I realised that I could hear loud cheeping coming from the box. The eggs had hatched!

On Monday, I was scanning the trees out the back with the binoculars, laid on the Mammoth Bed. I noticed a movement in a Goat Willow two gardens along from ours, and focussing in, I could see it was a young fledgling Blue Tit, sitting plumply on a branch, still with bits of fluffy down clinging to its plumage. The adults visited it every minute or two, bringing it food, as it waited patiently. I don't know if it was one of ours or not, or whether they have yet to fledge. If it was then I wonder where the others are. There was obviously more than one in the box. Fingers crossed they all made it.

Below: baby blue tits: aaaah!

As an addendum, I've heard the drumming of woodpeckers a few times in the woods at the back of the house, but never seen one. Whilst I was scanning the trees with the binocs laid on the bed as already described, I looked up and down the trunk of a huge ash at the foot of the garden, which has only just come into leaf. To my delight, a woodpecker flew directly into my field of view, alighting on the sunlit trunk for a second, then flying off again. I had no time to study it, but got a good impression of its size and markings, leaving me in no doubt that it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. First time I've ever seen one, despite hearing them all my life.

Below: Great Spotted Woodpecker

Next year, I may try and build a box for Long-Tailed Tits, which seem to be common where we live. I'd also love a Tawny Owl box, as these lovely animals call all night in the woods, but are so hard to spot.

Below: Long-tailed Tit

Then there's the Treecreepers, the Wrens, Robins, bats. It's all happening! I had a normally cautious Jay so close I could have touched it, had I dared move, last weekend. Beautiful bird, and bags of intelligence by the way it peered intently at me, as most of the Corvids do.

Below: a Jay

The next bit in the bird saga came last weekend, when we'd been out overnight at a friend's house, after the Peace in the Park festival in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield (see Jude's blog article about it here). Jude was upstairs when I noticed our cat, Towser, peering intently beneath the sofa in our living room. Behind the sofa is a fireplace, boarded over with a sheet of plywood.

As I looked to see what he was after, I heard a distinct scratching, fluttering noise. There was a bird down the chimney! Lucky bird. Of all the chimneys it could have fallen down, it chose one with no gas fire, just a sheet of thin plywood!

I dragged the sofa out of the way, unscrewed the plywood and peered inside. There sat the dirtiest young Starling I've ever seen, covered in sooty dust, but crouched defiantly and gazing up at me with its shiny black eye, as if saying "come on then, if you're 'ard enough!"

I put the board back in place, then closed the curtains, to stop it trying to fly through the window and breaking its neck, then took the board away. Immediately it tried to fly out, and flew to the top of the curtains where a small chink of light shone in. I managed to get hold of it, and carefully prised its claws off the fabric, then took it out the doors at the back. I let it go and it flew a few yards to sit on the fence, where it glared at me, as if it was all my fault, then let out a croaky squawk, before indulging in some serious beak-wiping on top of the fence (classic inter-species bird behaviour indicating displaced aggression, presumably, in this case, at me).


The croak made me think it might be dehydrated and hungry, so I crumbled up some horrible caramel ryvitas, and put them with a bowl of water on the bird table on the opposite side of the decking. The starling watched me and when I returned inside, flew across, hoovering up the crumbs, before taking several long drinks of water.

I watched it until it flew off, and felt smug for the rest of the day.

Below: "it's all your fault!"

Incidentally, there's a Starling in our neighbourhood who does a great impression of a mobile phone ringtone!

I knew living next to the woods would be good. All I need now is to see the badgers which make so much noise when darkness falls...