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?
February 3, Dehesa de Abajo, Doñana, Spain
Come St. Blas Day
Storks on their way;
If they don’t show,
Winter of snow.
I’ve taken a few liberties to keep it rhyming as it does in Spanish, but it’s one of several sayings that suggest the 3rd of February, here in Spain, is regarded as the first day of Spring. The literal version is “Come St. Blas Day, you’ll see the stork; if you don’t, it’ll be a snowy year.” Another version is “Frost on St. Blas Day, thirty days more”, echoing the English tradition that rain on St. Swithun’s Day augurs another forty wet days. “Plant one garlic clove on St. Blas Day, gather seven.” And a cloudless sky (a silken sky to use the Spanish term) at dawn on the 3rd February is said to usher in a good year for grapes.
Well, we’ve been seeing storks since we arrived, and the truth is, the saying no longer holds true, with huge numbers of white storks now spending all year in Spain. They have learnt to scavenge on rubbish tips like gulls, and fewer feel the need to head south to sub-Saharan Africa.
Some still do, and a few carry satellite tags with them. The conservation group SEO/BirdLife Spain has tracked dozens of storks, whose movements are followed eagerly by scientists and internet birdwatchers alike. One, named Picopelucho, was hatched here in Dehesa de Abajo, and on 20 June was fitted with a transmitter. A few weeks later it crossed the Strait into Africa, resting a few days in Morocco. Then it carried on to Mali, arriving there in early September. It was last heard of in November. The previous year, “Javier” made an identical journey, but then turned west to Senegal, before beginning the return journey on 10 December. He reached Doñana on 26 January, more than a week before St. Blas Day.
February 1 2016, Monte del Renegado, Ceuta
The Long Spring begins today, here, on Monte del Renegado. Unscrolled to southward is the rest of Africa. From this northern tip of the continent, an enclave of Spain, and with the sun behind me I see across the Strait all the cool colours of Europe. This is instantly the difference between the two continents. Africa white and platinum and etiolated purple, Europe reflecting Africa’s sun in uncut sapphire and emerald.
I look for the first signs of spring among the birds. In their hundreds of millions, they are on their way, and some may have already reached this coast. Such is their metabolism, that while they may be European by breeding, they are by now African in make-up. Every sinew and muscle that will propel them here, all the fat gained as fuel for the journey and most of the feathers of their aero-architecture were replenished in Africa. The ones that end their days in some English field or Finnish aapa will bring a morsel of the rainforest to the northern soils; and their progeny will return it some future autumn.
There are no early swallows today. But as the air warms, we are joined by a handful, then dozens, then hundreds of migrant hawker dragonflies. They are relatively local in origin, but are preparing to cross the Strait into Europe when the time comes, when wind direction and warmth allow.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.