At last the smiling face of spring is emerging from winter's final east-wind fling. Rising temperatures convey a new message and so now, the dancing can begin as birds seize the mood and begin their courtship rituals. When you see those displays it is easy to understand why man has always envied the birds for their powers of flight.
Indeed, every year on England's south coast, intrepid souls equipped with various designs of wings still try to fly by leaping off a pier and generally, very quickly plunging into the sea. However, most of them seem to enjoy marginally more success than Father John Damian who, in the year 1507 and watched by King James IV and his court, leapt from the walls of Stirling Castle only to crash-land on the rocks below.
Many of our birds will respond to the rising temperatures by beginning their courtship dancing, the manner of which must have turned people like Father Damian green with envy. I expect migrant birds to flood in during these genuinely spring days. Already short distance migrants such as lapwings are arriving, unfortunately not in the numbers that we used to see, for their populations, like those of the curlew, have dropped dramatically in recent years.
Indeed, as yet this spring I have only heard a single whaup and only seen meagre flocks of lapwing. Once upon a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lapwing eggs were considered to be a rare delicacy and were therefore eagerly sought, resulting in a decline in numbers of these lovely birds.
Some of the older farming folk will tell you that in the more recent past, the first clutches of lapwing eggs would be harvested in the knowledge that the birds would lay another clutch. However, in those early days, greed overtook reason and until legislation was passed in parliament in 1926 to curb such excesses, lapwing populations continued to fall because of the theft of their eggs.
By the nineteen sixties, lapwing populations appeared to have stabilised but in recent decades, there have been further alarming reductions which, I'm afraid, seem to emanate from the changes in the way we farm the land. Increases in the amount of land now turned over to arable crops are thought to be one of the negative factors effecting lapwings, especially in recent times with the switch to autumn rather than spring-sewn crops which denies them good nesting sites.
And as ever, the heavy use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides seems increasingly to be a major contributory factor. Lapwings feed primarily on invertebrates which also seem to be in serious decline. Ironically lapwings, when they abandon their coastal and estuarine winter homes and head inland in the spring, feast extensively upon two of farming's greatest pests, wireworms and leatherjackets.
Indeed, whether lapwings have learned to dance for their supper from gulls, or is it the other way round, the spectacle of these dainty birds marking time, as a means of encouraging worms to the surface by simulating falling rain, is an example of their ingenuity. Those gulls are also familiar performers of what might be described as a 'rain dance'!
The arrival of lapwings to familiar inland-beats initially takes the form of tightly knit flocks, some of which used to be large enough to 'blacken the sky'. These days those flocks generally appear to be considerably smaller but as they settle in their new inland realms, the flocks begin to split up and as the weather warms, courtship begins and what a spectacle that provides! That admiration for the flying skills of birds which must have been the inspiration so long ago for Father Damian can more easily be understood when the courtship of lapwings is at its height.
Now, those 'bat-shaped' wings, which seem so well controlled as they fly in their orderly flocks, are fully exercised as the male birds swoop and swerve, duck and dive, like dancing dervishes. They absolutely tumble about the sky in ecstatic displays, their wings audibly throbbing, their voices crying 'pee-wit' wildly. They sometimes give the impression of being utterly out of control, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Theirs is a dance of exuberance and utter control, one that should surely encourage all of us to simply watch in sheer admiration.
Such wonderful demonstrations of flying skills however, are as said not as common as they used to be and there may be many factors at play. These days, the 'blame game' seems to be one of humanity's traits. Someone or something is always to blame! Perhaps, in this case we blame those who farm the land but ignore the advice that is constantly being flung at farmers, including that from official sources, to increase productivity by fair means or foul! It is true that the tempo of farming practices has been ramped up considerably in recent times. I suppose that modern man always wants to do things faster and faster. It is the modern way of doing things.
Old Watty used to tell of the times in spring when, if he was ploughing and found in his path a lapwing nest, he would scoop up the eggs and move them, and then move them back when he ploughed the next furrows. He always made the time to do such things. He, I might suggest, was more in touch with the soil he farmed and the wildlife he was always at pains to protect, than many of today's more modern minded family folk.
Today's tractors are so much more powerful and speedy, besides which they are all singing and dancing, insulated against the elements, and therefore, isolating the drivers from the world outside. Thus, the connection between driver and any wildlife is to all intents and purpose broken. And, as I've said on previous occasions, it is my belief that by encouraging the freedom to use the aforesaid herbicides and pesticides with abandon, government indirectly, is putting at risk our very future. We are, according to all the evidence, killing off the vital pollinators of our crops - the insects upon which also so many farmland birds rely.
Lapwings, curlews and skylarks are always in my mind as April progresses for they were the birds I most remember from youthful days when I ventured out to the moors on early hiking expeditions. Few birds enjoy such a list of pseudonyms as the lapwing. Pee-wit, tee-wit, tee-whup, pessie-wheep, teuchit, chewit, flop-wing and bizarrely, 'tieves nacket from Shetland, are among the many curious local names commonly in use in various parts of the country.
Even when they disperse to breed, you will still find a corporate spirit alive in the lapwing population. When youngsters hatch, even though they are upwardly mobile from the word go, they are kept under quite close scrutiny in a kind of creche manned when parent birds are always seeking food for their young, by other members of what is in reality a loose colony.
And isn't that lilting 'pee-wit', together with the romantic whistling of the whaup, so much the real sound of spring?