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