2: Poet of the marshes
During The Long Spring I visited Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, in Catalonia, where I discovered not just a wealth of wildlife, but also a poet, Maria Àngels Anglada. Born in 1930, she grew up speaking an illegal language, and when the Franco-era repression was finally lifted, her poetry and novels helped cement the modern Catalan literary heritage. The words she chose to use were those of nature: wildlife symbolised freedom and identity, and her works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, something she had in common with other artists in this series.
Aiguamolls is a series of wetlands, once covering nearly 12,000 acres, formed by the rivers Muga and Fluvià where they flow into the Bay of Roses of the Costa Brava. Ten plaques, each a poem or an excerpt from Anglada’s prose, form a literary trail around this Parc Natural.
The first poem on the trail is called Al Grup de Defensa dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà; the last, Aiguamolls 1985. The two poems are almost identical. The first was written in 1976 at the height of the transformation of the Costa Brava from a remote, rugged and picturesque landscape to the world’s first and most notorious mass-market resort. It foretells the cataclysm of the lost marshes: “Will they invade this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar?” …. Lines dedicated to the local campaigners who were fighting against overwhelming odds.
Then in 1983, victory was declared with the designation of the area, first as an Area of National Interest, and later as a fully protected Parc Natural. Anglada rewrote her poem in celebration: “They have not destroyed this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar.” …. “Flamingoes, our friends the mallards, return, return, Kentish plover and lapwing, colourful princess of winter.”
The earlier poem’s prediction that “walls of cement, debris, dust alone will be the nests where once pulsated life” became, in 1985, “walls of cement and iron have retreated before nests all pulsating life”.
Anglada’s 1981 short story Flors per a Isabel - Flowers for Isabel – is set in 1810 and relates how in “the first half of March…with the war we had neglected cleaning ditches and a large pool of shallow water lay under trees that broke into bud with their feet soaked.” These words are on a gate at the edge of a flooded field which I leaned on to watch two angular great white egrets making geometric reflections in the still water.
Maria Àngels Anglada i d’Abadal was born in 1930 in Vic, 65 miles from Aiguamolls, and died in 1999 having moved into the Empordà, which reminded her of the ancient and modern Greek literary landscapes she studied at the University of Barcelona and whose idioms she blended into her own works. She visited Mytilene whose “wild flowers, silvery olive trees and intensely blue sea reminds me of the Costa Brava, before they destroyed it.”
I am grateful to the poet's daughters Mariona and Rosa, and sister Enriqueta, for their help in improving my translations.
Next in the series: Olivier Messiaen’s Blue Rock Thrush
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
Fire ravages lynx habitat
During The Long Spring, my first port of call in Europe, once I’d crossed the Mediterranean, was Doñana. It is Spain’s most celebrated natural space, and one of Europe’s most important wetlands. It was probably my thirtieth visit, at least, a place I have been drawn to since the 1980s, when I was first sent there by the RSPB. My task was to work with what was then a small organisation, now the mighty SEO/BirdLife, to help build support for conservation in Spain. They were battling against Costa Doñana, a plan to double the size of the already huge resort at Matalascañas, threatening to destroy internationally-important sand dunes, home to the world’s most threatened cat, the Iberian lynx.
After a five-year fight, the plans were cancelled and instead, in 1992 a €344 million investment was announced: El Plan de Desarrollo Sostenible de Doñana – the sustainable development plan for Doñana.
Ten years later, on the night of 26 April 1998, I tuned in to the BBC World Service at the tail end of a news story about an environmental disaster in Spain. A reservoir containing waste from the Los Frailes pyrite mine at Aznalcóllar had collapsed, spilling five million cubic metres of lead, arsenic and cadmium-laden mud and acid water. A tsunami of poison flowed into the River Guadiamar, one of the main sources of water into Doñana, thirty miles downstream. The wave killed everything in the river, and spread over 5,000 hectares of farmland, which will never again produce food. The RSPB and SEO/BirdLife mobilised again. SEO would focus on supporting recovery efforts and pushing for long-term solutions, while the Government’s clean-up was under way. I again coordinated international support.
Three years ago, I went back to make a programme for the BBC radio series Costing the Earth. As reporter Julian Rush and I stood on the banks of the Guadiamar, close to where the wave of toxic waste had flowed sixteen years earlier, we could see poplars and willows had thrived in the humidity of the river and the warmth of Andalucía. The contaminated farmland has been allowed to rewild and has become a green corridor linking Doñana with the Sierra Morena to the north, hopefully reconnecting the fragmented and brink-teetering Iberian lynx population.
So news this weekend of fire raging through the pine and juniper forests to the west of Doñana brought back the same sense of doom I felt in 1998. As the flames spread uncontrollably, whipped by hot, dry gusts of wind, it became clear that the Iberian lynx captive breeding centre in El Achebuche was in their path. The animals and officers were evacuated: nine adult and five young lynx were gathered together for relocation; one sadly died during the operation, and with little time available, another thirteen had to be released to fend for themselves; eleven were eventually relocated and appeared in good health, with no immediate news of the whereabouts and safety of the other two.
Over four days, the fire gutted more than 10,000 hectares of pine and marine juniper forest and matorral scrub. SEO’s preliminary assessment was published on Monday: protected areas important for lynx - including the territories of three wild females -, chameleon, stone curlew, short-toed and booted eagles have been badly affected.
This morning efeverde.com reports that tracks of the remaining two lynx have been seen, and experts have set camera traps and cage traps in the area. The fourteen evacuated lynx have arrived back in the breeding centre at El Acebuche. The fire is under control, but 45 firefighters, equipped with five fire engines and a bulldozer, will stay in the area until the risk of re-ignition is over.
Live action from Alcalá de Henares
A year ago today, the journeys that made up The Long Spring came to an end. I was in Arctic Norway, having reached my final destination via North Africa, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden and Finland. Birds were my constant companions, and some species - cranes, ravens, even bluethroats - seemed to be acting as guides on my path, so constant were they.
For the first half of The Long Spring, right up to the Channel coast, white storks were like emblems of travel. I visited one of the towns laying claim to the title "Stork Capital", Alfaro in La Rioja, Spain. Another is Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid Region, where pride in the local storks is almost universal. Now SEO/BirdLife offer the chance for everyone to enjoy the not-so-private lives of this much-loved bird, live by webcam. The show has attracted over a quarter of a million hits so far.
One of many abiding memories of my encounters with storks last year is of their own special sound at the nest, which you should be able to hear from time to time if you tune in to the Alcalá family. My notes from Alfaro say:
"Each bird’s return is marked by a duet of bill-clattering, a sound like deep castanets, amplified by a resonating chamber in the birds’ throats. This gular pouch under the chin, is turned skywards as the birds draw their heads back to lay their long necks along their backs. It is a sound that in Spain is familiar and distinctive enough to have acquired its own word – crotoreo."
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.
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.