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.
Over the next few days, the early candidates for the First Day of Spring line up one after the other:
Imbolc, usually celebrated on 1st February. The Gaelic season whose name is thought to derive from the pregnancy of ewes (“in-belly”), or Old Irish Imb-fholc (“to cleanse oneself”), or from even earlier roots to mean “budding”.
St. Brigid’s Day, originally the Imbolc festival celebrating the original Brigid, a pagan goddess. When the Christian saint Brigid of Kildare came along in the 6th century, the two identities we fused, and the Saint was allocated Imbolc as her feast-day.
German immigrants imported a pre-Christian tradition of early February weather prognostication, to the USA, where Groundhog Day on 2 February is reckoned to be more fun than the Candlemas it has largely replaced. Groundhog Day/Candlemas is also the global celebration of World Wetlands Day, which I also think of as San Blas Eve. The following day, on 3 February, is San Blas when, according to the Spanish saying, la cigüeña verás – you’ll see the stork. “If he don’t show, plenty more snow.” A silken (cloudless) sky on San Blas morning, means a good year for vines, while planting garlic on San Blas Day is guaranteed to yield seven times as much at harvest: Por San Blas, ajete: mete uno, saca siete.
Ecologists recognise six seasons in the temperate zone, including one that bridges winter (hibernal) and spring (vernal). The Prevernal is that time when carolling birds and nebular midges happily delude themselves that winter is over, and we happily collude in the deception. After the wettest and warmest December and January since UK records began, we still await news of winter.
For me, this year I shall be celebrating World Wetlands Day in at least two globally-important Spanish wetlands: Laguna de Medina, near Cádiz, and the Coto Doñana. Then the next day, the first day of my spring, I’ll be looking for storks. I should see a few, I’ll be going to the biggest colony in the world, and they’re already nesting, I’m told.
Thanks for checking in with The Long Spring, a series of journeys I'll be making between now and the end of May that will take me from the coast of North Africa to well above the Arctic Circle. Spring is a time of celebration and anticipation throughout the temperate world. The dramatic changes from season to season have shaped our world and our cultures.
It has been a strange winter in my home country of the UK, with the wettest and warmest December and January since records began. More than 600 species of plant were recorded in flower at the turn of the year in the UK. In a normal cold winter, botanists would expect no more than 20 to 30 species to be in flower on New Year’s Day. From my study window in Yorkshire, a gorse bush is a reliable source of winter brightness, but this year, even this far north and at 200 metres, we have red campion in flower and hawthorn bursting into leaf.
The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) undertakes an annual survey on 1 January, and this year, no fewer than 612 species were recorded in flower. Many are summer flowers that simply haven’t shut down for winter; others are spring flowers already bursting forth.
So it remains to be seen what spring will be like this year, and whether we’ll get much of a winter. What we do know, is that across Africa millions of birds are starting to anticipate the new season, and have already begun to head north. A few early arrivals may be poised at the gates of Europe already, so in two days time, I’m heading out there to find out.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.