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.
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.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.