Spring hots up in the last half of April, and www.thelongspring.com has been on the road during this vital time, covering four countries (three of them in the UK!) between 20 April and 1 May. This series of journeys has taken me from 52° 18’N (Wicken Fen) to 58° 18’N (Hornborgasjön, Sweden). I return to Sweden, then Finland and Norway on the final journey later this month.
At Wicken Fen, I had the privilege of meeting Ralph Sargeant, a life-long fenman who spent thirty-five years working at this beautiful National Trust reserve, and who continued to help out there long after retirement in 2007. As I come from a long line of fen folk, including from Wicken, it was great to hear Ralph’s tales of life and work there in the middle decades of last century.
Sadly, Ralph died last week, a few days after our conversation. Although I hadn’t met him before then, I could tell straight away he was an old-time enthusiast for nature, and totally committed to the wildlife of the Fen.
I spent the next day with a former RSPB colleague Siôn Dafis in the hills above his home on the edge of Snowdonia. Siôn is an all-round naturalist, who combines the disciplines of the scientist with the enthusiasm of the amateur (in the literal sense of the word). He is also passionate about the poets and writers who have been inspired by those same hills, from Kate Roberts to R. Williams Parry. Our walk took in the peculiar rocks of Barclodiad y Cawr, examined by Darwin as evidence for the glacial origins of such formations (and against the diluvianist explanation for hilltop marine fossils). We explored the slate quarries that are today the home of choughs and wheatears. Conversation ranged even more widely, and included our shared passion for the language(s) of nature. Siôn translated the various place-names as we explored the landscape: barclodiad y cawr is a giant’s smockful – for the rocks seemingly dumped at random where Darwin was to find them. His studies of the Celtic names given to birds in different parts of Britain and Ireland, along with the Norse and Norman versions, give striking insights into patterns of settlement in these islands.
My one day at home in Yorkshire was mainly spent searching for more than the one singing willow warbler that had arrived thus far: were they late, or would it be a bad year? Then north to Scotland where at the RSPB seabird reserve at Fowlsheugh there seemed to be plenty of birds on the sea, but few if any birds claiming their nest-sites. Local reports had suggested breeding had got off to a faltering start this year, after a good breeding season at Fowlsheugh in 2015. Given the catastrophic decline in seabird breeding success in Scotland over the last few years, it is a nervy time. I’ll update this blog as the seabird season progresses. These bird cliffs, fowls heugh in Gaelic, have been so-called since at least the 18th century, and remain one of the densest seabird gatherings in the UK, for now at least.
Cranes in Sweden
In Sweden, I was reunited with cranes, which appear to have become the totem species for The Long Spring. In Spain, at the end of March, I witnessed what were probably the last of the wintering birds settling for their final night in that country. In Fenland last week, I heard one calling at nightfall, just as I settled into my sleeping bag to listen to the all-night chorus of birds at the Ouse Washes. And then at Getterön on Sweden’s west coast, I watched as a flock of 150 arrived, many of them unable to resist beginning their spring courtship dance.
La Serena, Spain 20 February
The second stage of The Long Spring has taken me to La Serena, the vast and almost uninhabited steppe that undulates gently across the eastern part of Extremadura. Today’s dawn chorus was as sparse as the vegetation, and as thin as the chill breeze. Crested larks were the first to utter their simple, three-note, down-slurred song, neither spring-like nor lark-like in its mournful minor key. Corn buntings injected energy into the chorus with a jangle of notes that sound like they are forced through a sieve, pitched at first but resolving into a dry rattle. A distant hoopoe sent its triple-note hoop-hoop-hoop call across the acres, blending perfectly in pitch and timbre with the murmuring sheep-bells.
From the south, from over the sierra that forms La Serena’s border, eight ravens appeared and passed overhead, followed by another twenty over the span of fifteen minutes or so. Their contribution to the chorus was a soft croak, deep pitched but with a high, stony note embedded in it that I could hear only when they were directly overhead. They emerged from their roost in the oak dehesas to spread across La Serena in search of the night’s casualties amongst the merino ewes and their new lambs. Cranes appeared making the reverse journey, from their roost at the reservoirs to the north, into the dehesas where they feed on acorns and beetles. Their rough, brassy reveille signals the end of the dawn, and the start of the day.
Signs of spring
On a ridge of higher ground above Belén, a row of rocks acts as my lookout for the rest of the morning, with panoramic views to northwards and a safe place to leave my hired mountain bike.
A pair of choughs fly almost the whole width of the panorama from my left, to a farm building half a mile away to the east. I see them return a few minutes later, and land behind a slight rise, where there is also a group of ravens. Although I cannot see what has attracted them, the arrival of a griffon vulture confirms it is a carcass of some kind. I am surprised that it has attracted choughs, who specialise in invertebrates. Then I realise they are commuting between the carcass and the barn every ten minutes or so. They are carrying nesting material, probably sheep's wool, and the carcass is such a rich source is pays them to make a 2 mile round trip to gather it.
When I was in Doñana three weeks ago, swallows, house martins and that other early migrant, the great spotted cuckoo, had all arrived. The great spotted cuckoo was first recorded on 26 January, but I have only now caught up with them, and from the Lookout Rocks I see two pairs noisily chasing around a sparse patch of holm oaks in the valley below. Swallows are less abundant here than in the south, but are nonetheless a constant presence, and more songfully so than three weeks ago.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.