A blackbird sings as I write this. Its evensong – to use Richard Smyth’s word – is surely the defining sound of early spring. A sweet, wild note, to borrow his title, which quotes Gilbert White’s description of the song of another bird, Smyth’s favourite, the blackcap.
Like blackbird song, A Sweet, Wild Note flows in a stream of consciousness. It eddies around subjects such as poetry and music, connecting the science with the lore and meandering into philosophical backwaters. It is a subject about which countless volumes have been written before, and in exploring the cultural history of birdsong, including some less clichéd subjects, Smyth has found a niche. So, alongside the necessary but predictable subjects of Beethoven and Delius, there is plenty of space for composers like Jonathan Harvey and Evan Parker. Smyth’s writing on poetry is insightful but less wide-ranging, with a preponderance of well-studied Romantics. Still, there is room for a Rumi or a Ciardi.
Humans' desire to possess birdsong in caged form is given an unflinching treatment, as is the impact we are having on the very future of birdsong. The impoverishment of natural soundscapes is an unsurprising consequence of the impact we have had on bird populations, but the fact that birds have retimetabled the dawn chorus to fit around flight schedules at Berlin airport was an eye-opener, and a shock.
From two fields away, I hear a blackcap’s free-form jumble of notes that just reach me in the gaps in the blackbird’s phrasing. Smyth loves blackcap song. “I love it so much,” he says, “that I can give you a list of my top three singing blackcaps.” Which he does, in ascending order. He does not explain what made those moments special, and one small fault I could find in this book is Smyth’s relative silence about his own direct responses to the experience bird song. Occasionally he comes out from behind the scenes: at one point he re-imagines his (presumably successful) marriage proposal with birdsong added in, having failed to notice any at the time. It is a quirky moment among many, a feature of an entertaining style that manages to avoid becoming a distraction from a subject that is itself, perhaps, the most ancient and enduring form of entertainment.
A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott and Thompson on 13 April.
I am delighted that Richard Allen, the artist and illustrator, has been signed up to illustrate The Long Spring, including the cover and seven pictorial maps.
Richard, whose work can currently be seen at Birdscapes Gallery, Norfolk, Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve, Aldeburgh Contemporary Arts and SeaPictures, Clare, Suffolk, specialises in birds, other wildlife and landscapes. He lives amid the creeks and marshes of the Essex coast. “My great passion is the natural world, particularly birds, and I enjoy the challenge of sketching and painting them directly from life in the field in all weathers. The Colne estuary near my home in Wivenhoe provides plenty of inspiration, especially in winter when large flocks of waders and wildfowl flock to the coast”, he says.
A freelance illustrator with over 30 years experience, Richard has worked in publishing, newspapers, stamp design, and on interpretation illustrations for many conservation bodies, including the RSPB and National Trust.
I was particularly keen to use lino cuts in The Long Spring, and seeing Richard’s Coastal Birds collection of prints, which was published by Jardine Press in 2014, convinced me he was the man to illustrate the book! The Long Spring will be published by Bloomsbury early in 2018.
Marsh harrier by Richard Allen. Linocut.
To mark Sámi National Day (February 6) here are some pictures of the rock carvings at Jiepmaluokta, the Sámi name, which means Bay of Seals, for the place near Alta, north west Norway. The images (recently dyed with harmless red pigment to make them easier to see) were probably produced by stone age and early metal age people whose successors went on to identify themselves with the Sámi. Some of the images are almost identical to symbols found on Sámi artefacts in the period immediately before Christianisation.
I visited Jiepmaluokta the day after The Long Spring journeys came to an end, and saw seven thousand year-old images of reindeer husbandry, the earliest known images documenting the reindeer herding that is the defining tradition of the modern Sámi. A herd of wild reindeer is being corralled: there are thirty inside the fence, where a man wields a stick to keep them under control. Six more are at the entrance to the palisade, walking in, and thirty others are browsing freely, scattered throughout the landscape. Four bears, a male, a female and two cubs, have walked across the scene from their den, leaving their footprints in the snow. On the far side of a miniature mountain, seven moose roam. In the distance, eight people form a line, I imagine them hollering to drive the reindeer towards the corral; nearby, others wield clubs and sticks to keep the bears from the deer.
Exactly when these first images were made is a matter of debate: six thousand years ago based on the rate of isostatic rebound (land rising after being released from the downward pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap during the Ice Age), but recent thinking suggests they may be a thousand years older. There were times when the ice-melt caused the sea level to rise so much that it cancelled out the land-rise and the coastline may have changed little for more than a thousand years. At other times, relative land-rise was so rapid it would be noticed during a person’s lifetime.
Yesterday I sent off the manuscript for The Long Spring to Bloomsbury, bang on schedule. A year ago today I began the series of journeys that the book describes. I stood at 35° 54’N, on Monte del Renegado, looking south from the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, to the Rif mountains beyond Tétouan thirty miles away. I tried to imagine the whole continent of Africa before me, and two billion birds beginning their journeys to the lands to the north. The first sign of spring was a gathering of migrant hawker dragonflies preparing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe when the time was right, when wind direction and warmth allowed.
The next day I crossed the Mediterranean myself. From the ship I noticed a line of dark brown birds flying in parallel to us, effortless in their stiff-winged air-skiing, inches above the waves. Thirteen of the critically endangered Balearic shearwater. It is a species with a tiny breeding range and a small population, numbering around three thousand pairs and undergoing an extremely rapid decline. At their breeding colonies on islets off the main Balearic Islands, they are eaten by introduced mammals. At sea, they are killed as, to use a rather lame euphemism, fisheries by-catch.
With the book 99% finished, and the manuscript due to be sent off to Bloombsbury in a fortnight's time, I've returned to the website after a few months with my head down...
Look out for a series of photo-essays over the coming weeks, and in the meantime, I've created a new page, where my forthcoming talks are listed. I've had to reschedule a couple - many thanks to Barry and David, two speakers who have been able to swap or step in.
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.
At Jiepmaluokta, near Alta in north Norway, each step down the path to the sea represents a decade or two along a timeline of changes that began about 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. The land there was lifted from the sea by isostatic rebound, the rising of the land freed from the pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap. I went there at the end of May, on the last day of The Long Spring. I stopped at a group of massive, sea-smoothed rocks that emerged from the waters about 6000 years ago, and now lie eighty-five feet above the shore. When people first arrived there, they discovered a place imbued with a magic or a utility we cannot perceive today. They gathered here from distant settlements, and the shoreline rocks became their message-boards. They chiselled images into the fine-grained, grey-green sandstone using quartzite nibs: reindeer, moose, whales, bears and people. In all, about 3,000 known petroglyphs were made over a period of about four thousand years.
To walk the path from Alta Museum to the sea is to travel in time, downhill to the present. One rock, lying about sixty feet above the shore, emerged from the sea between 4200 and 5300 years ago. There are ghosts on this rock, hieroglyphs of gone birds, with messages to the future. It is a small rock, with a handful of reindeer, and three high-sided boats with moose-heads at the prow. And there are great auks, four of them. I was not expecting to come face to face with great auks, a bird that became extinct when the last pair were killed in Iceland in 1844. The guidebook has a photograph of the auk-glyphs, describing them as “probably geese”. But they have thick bills, shorter necks, legs positioned towards the rear, giving them an upright posture; one is flapping its paddle-wings, quite unadapted for flight, and has a man’s hand round its neck. It is either a very bad drawing of a goose, or a pretty good one of the extinct great auk.
A USA-based research institute, Revive & Restore, which attempts “genetic rescue” for endangered and extinct species, want to recreate the species and gradually restore it to the wild coasts of the north Atlantic. The scientists believe they can extract great auk DNA from museum specimens and sequence the animal’s entire genetic code, or genome. Those genes that distinguish the great auk from other species would then be edited into the cells of its nearest living relative, the razorbill. Fertilised embryos would be implanted into a bird big enough to lay a great auk egg, such as a goose.
In 2017 Finland celebrates the centenary of its independence from Russia. Artist and broadcaster Minna Pyykkö, and her husband the writer Juha Laaksonen have launched a campaign “to give Finland a centenary gift of birdsong” by installing a million new nestboxes in the country’s gardens, parks and forests, in time for spring 2017.
“We launched the idea in the autumn to give ourselves two springs to reach our target. Already we have 750,000 boxes installed” Minna told me during an exhibition of her paintings at Liminganlahti nature reserve.
The public are encouraged to make or buy a nestbox, and take selfies showing the box in place. There is a website for uploading the pictures, which is how Minna and Juha are able to monitor progress.
The campaign may have popular appeal, but there is a serious side to it. “Finland has more forest cover than most other countries, but it is almost all commercial, and we have lost vast numbers of old trees. Birds like pied flycatchers and redstarts, not to mention Arctic specialities like the Siberian tit, have fewer natural holes in which to make their nests.”
During The Long Spring I arrived in Finland from Sweden, by ferry across the Gulf of Bothnia. Liminganlahti, on the Bothnian coast, was my first stop en route through Finland and into Norway. It is a 12,000 ha. protected area, part of the European Natura 2000 network, comprising shallow brackish sea, saltmarsh and wet forest. 150 species of bird breed there, and it is an internationally-important staging post for waterfowl and waders. Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Areena anchor Minna was there exhibiting a series of watercolours, all native species of owls. The paintings ranged from sensitively-observed portraits to studies of light and landscape in which owls are a semi-fantastical presence.
Minna Pyykkö’s previous exhibitions include a collection of birds portrayed in Finland’s national epic poem, Kalevala. They include the Swan of Tuonela, famously depicted in the Sibelius tone poem, and the long-tailed duck, regarded in Finland as the bringer of spring. Our discussion of Minna’s art, and Kalevala and its birds will be the subject the latest in the Conversations series on our sister website NATURAL LIGHT, and will be posted by 19 June.
Spring hots up in the last half of April, and www.thelongspring.com has been on the road during this vital time, covering four countries (three of them in the UK!) between 20 April and 1 May. This series of journeys has taken me from 52° 18’N (Wicken Fen) to 58° 18’N (Hornborgasjön, Sweden). I return to Sweden, then Finland and Norway on the final journey later this month.
At Wicken Fen, I had the privilege of meeting Ralph Sargeant, a life-long fenman who spent thirty-five years working at this beautiful National Trust reserve, and who continued to help out there long after retirement in 2007. As I come from a long line of fen folk, including from Wicken, it was great to hear Ralph’s tales of life and work there in the middle decades of last century.
Sadly, Ralph died last week, a few days after our conversation. Although I hadn’t met him before then, I could tell straight away he was an old-time enthusiast for nature, and totally committed to the wildlife of the Fen.
I spent the next day with a former RSPB colleague Siôn Dafis in the hills above his home on the edge of Snowdonia. Siôn is an all-round naturalist, who combines the disciplines of the scientist with the enthusiasm of the amateur (in the literal sense of the word). He is also passionate about the poets and writers who have been inspired by those same hills, from Kate Roberts to R. Williams Parry. Our walk took in the peculiar rocks of Barclodiad y Cawr, examined by Darwin as evidence for the glacial origins of such formations (and against the diluvianist explanation for hilltop marine fossils). We explored the slate quarries that are today the home of choughs and wheatears. Conversation ranged even more widely, and included our shared passion for the language(s) of nature. Siôn translated the various place-names as we explored the landscape: barclodiad y cawr is a giant’s smockful – for the rocks seemingly dumped at random where Darwin was to find them. His studies of the Celtic names given to birds in different parts of Britain and Ireland, along with the Norse and Norman versions, give striking insights into patterns of settlement in these islands.
My one day at home in Yorkshire was mainly spent searching for more than the one singing willow warbler that had arrived thus far: were they late, or would it be a bad year? Then north to Scotland where at the RSPB seabird reserve at Fowlsheugh there seemed to be plenty of birds on the sea, but few if any birds claiming their nest-sites. Local reports had suggested breeding had got off to a faltering start this year, after a good breeding season at Fowlsheugh in 2015. Given the catastrophic decline in seabird breeding success in Scotland over the last few years, it is a nervy time. I’ll update this blog as the seabird season progresses. These bird cliffs, fowls heugh in Gaelic, have been so-called since at least the 18th century, and remain one of the densest seabird gatherings in the UK, for now at least.
Cranes in Sweden
In Sweden, I was reunited with cranes, which appear to have become the totem species for The Long Spring. In Spain, at the end of March, I witnessed what were probably the last of the wintering birds settling for their final night in that country. In Fenland last week, I heard one calling at nightfall, just as I settled into my sleeping bag to listen to the all-night chorus of birds at the Ouse Washes. And then at Getterön on Sweden’s west coast, I watched as a flock of 150 arrived, many of them unable to resist beginning their spring courtship dance.
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.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.