In 2017 Finland celebrates the centenary of its independence from Russia. Artist and broadcaster Minna Pyykkö, and her husband the writer Juha Laaksonen have launched a campaign “to give Finland a centenary gift of birdsong” by installing a million new nestboxes in the country’s gardens, parks and forests, in time for spring 2017.
“We launched the idea in the autumn to give ourselves two springs to reach our target. Already we have 750,000 boxes installed” Minna told me during an exhibition of her paintings at Liminganlahti nature reserve.
The public are encouraged to make or buy a nestbox, and take selfies showing the box in place. There is a website for uploading the pictures, which is how Minna and Juha are able to monitor progress.
The campaign may have popular appeal, but there is a serious side to it. “Finland has more forest cover than most other countries, but it is almost all commercial, and we have lost vast numbers of old trees. Birds like pied flycatchers and redstarts, not to mention Arctic specialities like the Siberian tit, have fewer natural holes in which to make their nests.”
During The Long Spring I arrived in Finland from Sweden, by ferry across the Gulf of Bothnia. Liminganlahti, on the Bothnian coast, was my first stop en route through Finland and into Norway. It is a 12,000 ha. protected area, part of the European Natura 2000 network, comprising shallow brackish sea, saltmarsh and wet forest. 150 species of bird breed there, and it is an internationally-important staging post for waterfowl and waders. Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Areena anchor Minna was there exhibiting a series of watercolours, all native species of owls. The paintings ranged from sensitively-observed portraits to studies of light and landscape in which owls are a semi-fantastical presence.
Minna Pyykkö’s previous exhibitions include a collection of birds portrayed in Finland’s national epic poem, Kalevala. They include the Swan of Tuonela, famously depicted in the Sibelius tone poem, and the long-tailed duck, regarded in Finland as the bringer of spring. Our discussion of Minna’s art, and Kalevala and its birds will be the subject the latest in the Conversations series on our sister website NATURAL LIGHT, and will be posted by 19 June.
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.
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.
Birdwatchers’ real-time news website BirdGuides reports that the first UK spring migrants arrived at the end of February. For many people the Northern Wheatear is the first African arrival of the year, and one appeared at an unusually early date at Dengie Marshes, Essex, on 26th and there was a Little Ringed Plover at Sandwell Valley, West Midlands, from 22–28th. Garganey arrived in Dorset, Lincolnshire and Perthshire, and a few White Wagtails have appeared.
Anthologies that celebrate the seasons, and spring in particular, are things to be wary of. There must have been hundreds of compilations of popular favourite writings, differing mainly in the order in which they are presented, and nowadays sold cheaply in garden centres on Mothers’ Day morning. They usually come packaged with stalks of chewing-hay and cowpat scratch and sniff cards.
An anthology edited by Melissa Harrison was never going to stick to that beaten track, though. Harrison is a fiction writer whose two novels, Clay and At Hawthorn Time, “foreground nature”, and a Times Nature Notebook columnist. Spring: An anthology for the changing seasons is the first of four seasonal anthologies published by the Wildlife Trusts, all with Harrison as editor. Apart from the introduction, an excerpt from Clay is her sole contribution to the anthology itself, sadly. But more important is her imaginative commissioning of new works and choice of previously published pieces to accompany them.
There are several refreshing novelties in this book, gender balance being one. Another is the high number of specially-written pieces including from several newish and/or youngish writers whose – mainly prose – contributions make up about half the book. This serves to remind us both that the future of nature writing – if we must use the label – is under no threat, at least not from the writers themselves, and that nature writing is not all false reminiscence and idyll-mongering. The range of styles and approaches includes some fine wordsmithing (Darlington, Battson, Foster, to name three) and some novel angles (Medtia), alongside polished examples of a more timeless kind (Hunter). Understandably, and tolerably, a few pieces are mainly promotional.
Alongside these new works is a wealth of variety fairly representing the period 1780-2014, with a couple of Old and Middle English texts for good measure. Excerpts from classic novels like Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone and Wind in the Willows sit alongside poets from Chaucer to Larkin to several writing today. There are unexpected contributions from writers better known in other contexts (Orwell, Lawrence) and expected inclusions from diarists White, Kilvert and Dorothy Wordsworth. All of which means that occasional appearances of garden centre favourites by Housman, Hopkins, Thomas (E), Thomas (D) and Browning seem as well-chosen as the rest, and properly complete the survey.
Mystery moth and even more mysterious dwelling
I'd like to be able to write about two creatures that fascinated me last week in La Serena. The trouble is, I don't know what they are!
On the left is a caterpillar, one of thousands that were crossing the track between two fields of autumn-sown barley. They were not processing nose-to-tail, but moving in loose herds, each group covering about ten to thirty metres of ground, separated from the next group by a hundred metres or so.
On the right is a hole about a centimetre in diameter. In front of it the ground has been cleared, either deliberately, or by frequent passage of tiny feet. You can just make out a horseshoe shaped collection of seeds around this bare area and behind the hole. It is on the shaded side of a large stone, part of a line of rocks in an area of unploughed grassland.
Any help would be gratefully received and acknowledged!
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.
Yorkshire, 18 February: house martins on their way?
These house martins were gathering mud to build their nests on 5 February, nearly two weeks ago. They were in the far south of Europe, in the village of El Rocío at the edge of the Doñana marshes.
I wondered if they had overwintered. Some field guides show a resident population of swallows in the area, but overwintering house martins would be unexpected. And it seemed unlikely - there were several hundred of them. In fact, based on previous visits I was not surprised to see them. Until recently, I was always skeptical about those overwintering swallows, too. Certainly, you can see swallows every day of the year in Doñana. But my hunch was always that there was a long overlap between late southbound migrants and early returners. After all, in Britain we usually get a few late November records, and even December birds are not unknown.
My guess is that the last southbound birds and the first northbound ones overlap around Christmas or New Year. This year, both swallow and house martin numbers started to build up in Doñana from mid-January. Whether climate change is tempting some to stay in southern Spain all year will be difficult to assess, but I may have to change my view about overlapping migrant swallows.
In this part of the UK, it will be difficult this year to work out what is going on with our birds. Although we are now seeing some vague signs of winter at last, in reality, last autumn gave way to spring-like conditions without winter seeing fit to intervene. I've been keeping an eye on BirdTrack, the BTO-hosted app where birdwatchers record their sightings. It is an accumulation of millions of individually insignificant pieces of data, that collectively is giving us new insights into the distribution and migrations of our birds.
I see that a handful of house martins have been hanging around in the west of Britain and in Ireland, with a smattering of December records, and a few in late January. The last was on 1 February, until this week, when the species has again been reported in Cornwall, on February 15. Why not take the optimistic view and imagine that this may be an early arrival, rather than a lingering bird from last year?
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.