The Island Diary Part 6: a garden of goldfinches

A desolate garden is turned into a birdlife haven as poet Kenneth Steven welcomes a family of spirited goldfinches to his garden to feed on the Isle of Seil, Scotland

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I like to think that we live held in the hands of the hills. They aren’t dramatic, any of them, and yet even a walk to the bottom of the garden early one morning is enough to stop the heart a second. Light playing on hillsides; swept down towards the sea. The hills feel protective, never threatening.

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But the garden that’s held in those hands has a long way to go, that’s for sure. Kristina and I blame it on the rain. The further we walk towards the garden’s end and the gate that would take us out onto the moorland proper, the wetter it gets. When I mow the lawn, I fear sometimes I am about to be swallowed forever by the sump beneath. In fact, lawn would be good estate agent speak for it. The reality is that our garden is a work in progress – at least it will be one day.

We felt the dearth of garden birds, excited as we were by all the harriers and warblers beyond us. It was for that reason we hung up a rather forlorn feeder of niger seeds, rather like a child hoping their stocking will be filled on Christmas morning but lacking the faith to believe it. A self-fulfilling promise: the feeder creaked sadly in the wind and the seed within turned soggy.

And then one morning we came downstairs and there in front of us was nothing less than one hand-painted jewellery box of a goldfinch. We stood with the wide eyes of excited children. A goldfinch had chosen us. And before long its distant relatives had come to join the queue for food: every few minutes we were back at the window, mesmerized by what we had given up all hope of seeing.

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I think there were nine goldfinches one day, in addition to redstarts and siskins. But the real joy came on our return from northern Norway and a lecturing trip: though not right away. The feeder had long since been hacked dry; I went out the morning after we came back and carefully poured a silken rush of niger seeds into the tall feeder. Almost at once our beautiful goldfinches were back; we could hear their quarrelling and watch their dogfights as they hungrily struggled for the best place on the metal frame.

But what were those other birds, wobbling about on the wire for all the world like would-be trapeze artists? These we had not seen before, and it was back to the bird book again, to leaf in frenzy through the pages on the hunt for the answer. Until suddenly Kristina put her hand over mine and shut the book. I looked up and saw the slow edge of smile creep over her face; she was watching them still and I turned back to look with her too.

‘I know what they are,’ she said, ‘they’re young goldfinches!’

Wherever their parents had nested in the thick bushes around our yet-to-be garden, the eggs had hatched and the fledglings had learned to fly. And returned with those parents to become trainee goldfinches: ready for their short lives of struggle against a thousand foes.

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Pictures by Kristina Hayward