Monday, 30 April 2012

A Time of Change

Spring, like autumn, is a time of change, of transition, of movement. For birdwatchers in temperate or arctic lands, it's a time of looking out for new summer visitors and passage migrants. By contrast the last of some wintering species goes hardly noticed - after all, you never know for sure it's the last, whereas that Swallow is definitely your first for six months. In Finland, the arrival of the Cranes is eagerly awaited by people with only the most casual interest in wildlife. They are spectacular birds, of course, and can be seen flying over urban areas. In Britain the nearest equivalents are the Swallow and the Cuckoo. The former is nearly always seen long before it's heard and the latter is heard easily but seen rarely. The Swallow, a small bird feeding by catching flying insects, is a brilliant flier. It's in a group called Hirundines, the other British members of which are House Martin and Sand Martin. The fluttering and swooping of a Hirundine, fast and manoeuvrable, is distinctive. The moment when a birdwatcher sees the first of the year, distant in the sky, the WHAT'S THAT? IS IT? YES! is a great pleasure. The Cuckoo is much declined (no-one quite knows why and young birds are now being tagged with radio-transmitters to try to find out)and its song is hardly beautiful (Cuck-coo early in the season changing to Bock-coo later) but perhaps the very facts that it's so distinctive and the bird is so often heard but not seen explain its big role in myth and the marking of spring. This Sunday I set out for a long walk along my local estuary, the Stour (forming the Essex/Suffolk border). Usually I do this sort of thing on a Saturday, but I'd been out with the local CAMRA (pro-real-ale) group accompanying Morris dancers round several pubs on the Saturday, so Sunday it was. I had two birds in mind. I'd missed Cuckoo earlier in the week when I expected it. Would I hear one on Sunday? And the Stour is particularly attractive for some reason to the Whimbrel, a wading bird with a beautiful call. They breed near the arctic, in Britain only in the far north of Scotland, but turn up on migration elsewhere. Would I get my first Whimbrel of the year? For most of the trip it poured with rain and the wind was quite high. This didn't stop many impatient summer visitors and resident birds singing, but there was no sound of Cuckoo. I did, though, hear and see two Whimbrels. I reached the Red Lion pub in Manningtree, had a pint and set off back. After a while the rain stopped and I could actually see blue sky! What's more, I heard two Cuckoos. Birding isn't usually that simple.

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