I have been looking for signs of spring on both sides of the English Channel this week. I started in the Brière area of Brittany then travelled through the uplands of Lower Normandy, along the Picardy coast, across the Channel and up onto the ridge of the South Downs near Gilbert White’s Selborne. The Brière is an area of wet fenland, some 490 square km in extent, north of Saint-Nazaire. Swallows were there by the handful, not by the thousand as they were in the Mediterranean a week or two ago. Whatever governs their abundance in these early days of spring, it is not journey time. A swallow can be in the Camargue one day and Brière one or two days later. Conversely, lapwings, although few, were there to sky-dance their territories, not to wait out the far northern winter. There were one or two singing willow warblers; I would have expected more on the date (8 April).
Moving north through Normandy, at 320 m. above sea level the forest had the look of winter and the sound of spring. It was mainly the local birds giving voice; apart from the ever-early chiffchaffs and a few voluble blackcaps, the summer birds were few: a single cuckoo, and no willow warblers. I saw a tweet from Mark Cocker:
so at least in Mark’s part of Norfolk, willow warblers were also conspicuous by their absence.
On the woodland edge, and along the hedgebanks, tens of thousands of wild daffodils were the best reminder of spring, along with other early flowers such as primroses, wood anemones and celandines.
It was on the coast, at the famous Marquenterre nature reserve, where I found the strongest evidence that spring had really arrived. There were willow warblers – not in the abundance I might have expected, and greatly outnumbered by sedge warblers and blackcaps – but more than I had seen in the previous four days all told. I was last there in 1988, and the most striking change, and a sure sign of both spring and a changing climate, was the thriving mixed heronry. Grey herons and little egrets were no surprise. But there were over twenty pairs of white storks, the majority, I was told, summer migrants that arrived in late February. Spoonbills arrived around the same time and about half the expected forty pairs were in position and building their nests. Spoonbills only bred there for the first time in 2000. I watched a pair of night herons get straight down to nest building having arrived only three days before, and cattle egrets were there, too, a sign that their worldwide expansion continues.
My last evening in France was spent watching a skein of brent geese heading across the channel to spend the night on some English estuary, and a thousand swallows plying north along the coast at dusk. I spent the next two days on the South Downs, where only two singing willow warblers and one swallow had arrived thus far, along with the usual early blackcaps, chiffchaffs and a wheatear. I am now back in Yorkshire for a while. There have been a few swallows over the fields for the last two days. Ten years ago this would have been a typical arrival date, but they have been earlier every year, arriving on the fourth of April last year. I think this is the first year since we arrived here in 1999 that willow warblers have not been on territory around us by this date.
Stage three: Spain into France
I heard my first, and so far only, cuckoo of the year, on 20 March, in the dehesas of Toledo province, south of Oropesa. Two years and one day ago, a few miles to the west, I heard six in one day, and two or three most days for the rest of the trip. It will be interesting to see whether there will be a pattern of late arrivals across the continent this year, or whether they will be back on schedule when they are due in the UK and northern Europe.
Walking over the Serra de l'Albera into France, I came across another tribute to migrants - 100,000 refugees from Franco's regime, welcomed into France in 1939. I also read that the following year, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) fled France ahead of the Nazis, using the reverse of the route I had walked. Fearing being turned back by Franco, he took his own life a few days later in Portbou, the Spanish town I had started out from.
I was on my way to the Côte Vermeille, on the Roussillon coast, to look for the places Olivier Messiaen visited in 1957, and for the birds whose songs he notated for his Catalogue D'Oiseaux: blue rock thrush, Thekla lark, black-eared wheatear, spectacled warbler among them. There is a fuller account of this part of the trip, on the NATURAL LIGHT website here.
Malta fails Europe's turtle doves again, but other birds getting through
BirdGuides, the UK’s birdwatching news service reports “the first decent sprinkle of migrants of the year”, including sand martins in Kent on 11th March, and reaching my home county of West Yorkshire by 15th. Sand martins are almost always among the first African arrivals, along with northern wheatears which have been seen as far north as Morayshire this week. BirdGuides goes on to list other typical early arrivals: a few white wagtails, ospreys and garganeys as well as the first hoopoe of the spring — typically, not far from Land's End at Trethewey, Cornwall, on 11th.
That good news contrasts today with something almost as predictable a sign of early spring: the Maltese government caving in to their voracious bird-killing lobby, and allowing the spring killing of 5,000 turtle doves. As an EU country Malta is supposed to outlaw shooting any bird during its return to its breeding grounds. But they negotiated a derogation during the bargaining that got them into the EU, when the plight of the turtle dove was supposedly less well known. We look to the European Commission to call time on this scandal, given that this is one of Europe’s most rapidly disappearing species.
The Long Spring reaches North-east Spain and France
Exactly two years ago I came across this extraordinary sight: a vast colony of house martins under the eleven arches of the bridge over the Tajo at El Puente del Arzobispo, Spain. I reckoned there were ten thousand nests, of which at least half were active at that stage of the season. So I have decided that this is where the next leg of The Long Spring starts, this weekend. From there, I shall walk to El Gordo, a village in Extremadura that lays claim to the title of stork capital of the world, for the density of white storks that nest there.
The storks at El Gordo colonised as recently as 1963, but they have been a source of local pride for long enough to feature on the village crest, seen here.
A few days later I will get on the train and head for Alfaro, in La Rioja, which is a much bigger town and rival to El Gordo's title as stork capital. I think it will be worth a detour in a trip that mainly concentrates on the unique desert landscapes around Zaragoza, the wetlands of the far north-east, and then into France.
I shall be based for a few days in Banyuls, Roussillon, to explore the area where Olivier Messiaen wrote some of his most evocative birdsong-inspired music. I love the introductory notes to his Catalogue d'Oiseaux, in which he describes in detail the places I'll be visiting, on the Côte Vermeille.
His introductory notes to Le Merle Bleue, The Blue Rock Thrush, create a mood of place which he recreates musically, and talks of 'the resonance of rock faces', a 'luminescent, iridescent blue halo' and the 'boom of the surf', as well as depicting the song of the blue rock thrush along with the cries of swifts and gulls. It will be interesting to see how much his observations remain valid sixty years on.
Then this third leg ends in the Camargue, with its strong sense of self-identity and cultural complexity.
For technical reasons, real-time blogging from remote places is proving tricky, so keep an eye on my twitter feed and I'll update this blog on my return on 2 April, if not before.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.