It was almost as if we had passed from the sublime to the ridiculous. A week or so ago, I was celebrating a sighting of my first osprey of the year - and you surely can't get more exotic than that - and now I have heard my first visiting summer songster. Only the word 'songster' does seem on reflection, to be rather generous. What I heard was the monosyllabic chanting of a newly arrived chiff-chaff. Hardly a song to my ears but doubtless very much music to the ears of another chiff-chaff, especially if it is of the feminine gender! And if there is in the osprey a sense of splendour, that too is missing in the chiff-chaff. Its song is plain in the extreme ... and so is its appearance.
This is the very epitome of 'the anonymous little brown bird' albeit that it does have a tinge of green about it and a nice little eye stripe. Furthermore, it is indeed anonymous in every way, shy and retiring, not easy to spot even if it is easy to identify vocally. Indeed, over the past few days, I have heard a good many chiff-chaffs, even if I have actually yet to lay eyes on any of them! Yet most of these relatively tiny birds have just completed a pretty spectacular journey from somewhere deep in Africa's Sahel region, south - perhaps inclining to the south-west of the massive Sahara desert, a voyage of some three thousand miles plus!
The chiff-chaff is always among the very first of the smaller birds to arrive in the spring. Its almost identical cousin the willow warbler, the possessor of a considerably more musical voice, I anticipate will arrive in a couple of week's time. Its lyrical, sweet, down the scale song I have always regarded as the true voice of spring. Apart from the obvious vocal difference, the only certain way I know of discriminating between these two birds is the colour of the legs, black in the case of the chiff-chaff, flesh coloured in the case of the sweeter singing willow warbler. One other difference is that the willow warbler tends to nest on the ground, whereas chiff-chaffs prefer a little more elevation, usually in a low bush. However they do climb up into the canopy to give voice.
In a sense, the chiff-chaffs represent the vanguard of the millions of birds we can expect to flood into our landscape over forthcoming weeks. The spring migration is a spectacular and indeed a global event, surely one of the great wonders of the natural world, an event about which there is still so much to learn. It is not that long ago - no more than a couple of centuries - that even eminent naturalists such as the famed Gilbert White, had little or no concept of bird migration. Many such experts believed that like bats and hedgehogs, birds actually hibernated during the winter.
Swallows in particular were said to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. The evidence, they said, was provided by the spectacle of migrating swallows being seen roosting in reed beds overnight by disappearing by first light. They were of course continuing their migratory flight and definitely not diving into ponds to hibernate! Another theory conjectured that some even hibernated on the sea-bed, a conclusion reached after fishermen had brought up the bodies of swallows in their nets. The reality was that sadly these rafts of swallows had been downed into the sea by adverse weather and were consequently very dead rather than asleep!
If I have heard but not seen those elusive chiff-chaffs, I have seen but not heard my first wheatear. This too is an early traveller from similar regions to the chiff-chaff and during this Easter weekend, when tradtionally hill walkers come out of their hibernation to explore our hills and glens, I'm sure there will be many sightings of this little bird. It is an unmistakable fellow and relatively bold, often flitting away from almost under one's feet, its most identifiable feature, that bold white flash just above its tail. At one time that flash gave the bird its original name, 'white-arse', not apparently appropriate as far as our prudish Victorian ancestors were concerned, who accordingly re-named it 'wheatear'. It was a curious name to pick for as exclusively an insect eater, it has no connection whatsoever with wheat. Nor does it have noticeable ears! I suppose it just sounded similar!
Mind you, those same Victorian folk used to like wheatears ... to eat! If ever there was an era of contradictions, the second half of the nineteenth century was surely it. It was a time when 'Nature Study' was becoming all the rage in Victorian schools; yet it was also a time when thousands upon thousands of birds were annually trapped to be kept in cages for the amusement and indeed profit of their captors. And this was also a time when a universal interest in all things natural was blooming and books on natural history were being printed in their thousands. At the same time, folks along the South Coast of England trapped and ate wheatears as a delicacy. No wonder wheatears have declined in Lowland Britain and mainly survive nowadays in the uplands of the North and West!
This month is a time when the inner clocks that govern the lives of migratory birds, begin to tick that little bit faster, when the urge to fly northwards seizes literally millions of birds to respond to their instincts to leave Africa and head for the lands of their birth. I have already and unusually early, seen my first swallow but during the next few weeks we will see these supremely athletic birds returning to the nests that in some cases many generations of swallows will have used down the years. But first will come the martins, the relatively anonymous and perhaps less glamorous sand martins, followed by the altogether cuter house martins.
Usually my first sightings of these joyous birds are to be seen as they skim low over the loch, scooping up beaks full of flying insects. If the willow warbler's sweet song is the audible confirmation that spring is indeed with us, then the sight of some white-rumped house martins flying low over the loch is the visible confirmation. What the chiff-chaffs and wheatears started develops into a feathered avalanche as more and more migrants make landfall after their incredible journeys.
You might well wonder why these birds take their lives in their hands and undertake such monstrous journeys, braving stormy tropical rain forests, enduring long desert crossings, navigating their way across seas, oceans and high mountain ranges. It is an in-built part of their psyche, pure instinct, a journey their ancestors begin to make as the Ice retreated thousand of years ago. And the advantages of heading north? Our lengthening hours of daylight which as they begin to nurture the next generations of their kind, afford them the opportunity to feed them long into the evening and from early in the wee sma' hours.
There are those that delay their travels. It will be mid-May before the screaming of swifts begins to echo around village rooftops and May before the comic chanting of cuckoos may be heard. The swifts will hang around long enough - until August - to produce one generation, whereas the cuckoos will linger merely into July, leaving nursery chores to others. They are the undedicated exceptions that defy the strict rule all other birds follow - to dedicate their summer lives to the task of producing and nurturing those next generations.