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