New novel explores the autumn migration of birds
Writer and ornithologist Antonio Sandoval Rey, whose book What Good are Birds? (original title ¿Para qué sirven las aves?) appeared in English earlier this year, has published a novel – BirdFlyway. Currently available only in Spanish, it is the story of a family who decide to go on a special holiday: following the autumn migration of birds from the Arctic to southern Spain.
Naturally, this reverse version of the journey I have just undertaken caught my attention, and Sandoval’s fictional family visits five of the sites that will feature my book The Long Spring: Doñana (Spain), Loch Garten (UK), Hornborga and Getterön (Sweden) and Liminganlahti (Finland). BirdFlyway is one of the most extraordinary routes in Europe, travelled each autumn by millions of migrating birds. Together with a very special guide, the members of the family in this novel travel through its natural scenic beauty, replete with life and history; but they also discover surprising things about themselves through the landscapes and birds they find.
Launched in Spain in May this year, the BirdFlyway project, is not just a work of fiction. Participating sites, including the ones mentioned, and several others in France, Belgium and Denmark, are encouraging people to experience the places visited by millions of migratory birds, which together form a vital network.
For Spanish readers, the first chapter of BirdFlyway is available to dip into here. It sets the scene – introducing the teenage narrator, his older sister, parents and grandmother, whose idea it was, as they prepare for their unique adventure. Click on the cover image for details of the book, published this month by Lynx Ediciones.
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.
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.