RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Band of buccaneers brings epic battle to a tranquil land

Thistles were firing off their last seeds like puffs from cannons. The seeds rode away on a wave of wind over the wood.

This was the adventure they had waited for all summer. They wanted to explore the ocean of air and let it carry them to terra nova. They were travelling alongside tiny spiders which had spun silver rigging into the sky. Globes and gossamer journeyed together.

It was a pleasant scene to watch in the warm autumnal sunshine of October. Then quite suddenly, over the trees, came a band of buccaneers bouncing like little boats on rough seas. They had spotted the travellers from some way off in the forest and came to see what they could steal.

They hovered and landed upon the old gaunt tatters of thistles whose Trafalgan leaves and stems had been shot away by rain and winds and the fatigue of storm and time. The thistles had almost fired their last. Their days were done and their rigging gone.

The pirates plundered, landing on the bare masts, and dug furiously with their daggers into the last treasures of seed and purple robes of flowers. The goldfinches had blood on their brows and chins. They flashed semaphore signals to one another with their gold arms.

This news was picked up by others far away in the band and they too rushed in to finish the flotilla off for good. Like a painting of Trafalgar there was no pain for the bystander watching the battle end.

Yearly the battle rages, the thistles rise and threaten any passer-by with their chainmail of sharp bristles. Their robes of flowers, adorned as brilliantly as bishops in purple pomp, are an angry invitation to other travellers that carry weaponry, the bumblebees and honeybees and wasps.

The pollination done, the thistles close their portholes and prepare their seed for firing. They hope their enemy the goldfinches will not take all.

As I watched this end of story, I wondered why the birds were called, en masse, a charm of goldfinches. Pirates intent on plunder charming? Oh no.

The word is from another time, 2,000 years ago. It came from the Latin word carmen, which meant song. Hence the opera of that name, also the medieval play which became the scenic cantata Carmina Burana.

The song of the goldfinch was its undoing, for people wanted to capture for themselves that sweet twittering famous across the northern hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands of them were caught in traps and caged for life, so that their song would charm and entertain their captors.

No wonder they are so violent when they have the freedom of the wild places.