A visit to my favourite bit of woodland - an old policy wood which long since became a place of wonderful, wild, untamed, sylvan solitude - rewarded me with a dazzling chorus of bird-song. Furthermore, this explosion of music was led by an absolute cornucopia of warbler music. There has clearly been a real influx of summer migrants during the past week for willow warblers are suddenly ten-a-penny, their sweet voices evident almost wherever I have been. Theirs is a simple song which, after an early moment of hesitation, drifts gently down the scale so sweetly ending with a little flourish. Hearing that gentle refrain confirmed that slowly, the spring and summer seasons are beginning to embrace us.
Inevitably the less musical, metronomic chantings of the humble chiff chaffs were to be heard. More pleasing on the ear however, were the mellifluous melodies of garden warblers, their songs mellow and many faceted, rich, warm and musical. There was somewhere too, deep among the trees, the trilling of a wood warbler. This tuneful chorale also inspired a bevy of robins to increase the volume of their bell-like challenges. Among those ancient trees, territories to which we are oblivious are nevertheless as clearly charted for the rival redbreasts, as if barricades had been erected. We may not be able to define exactly which landmarks are crucial in these assertions of sovereignty but the cock robins know them to the millimetre - as if they were clearly marked by white lines! And they know the consequences if they set a single feather across those lines!
The different rhythms of what seemed like a thousand voices, rang out as if what, during the winter, had seemed a dank, dark and silent place, now literally found itself suddenly full of abundant, new vibrant life. The emphatic, two-tone pronouncements of great tits seemed especially resonant, while the reedier, yet equally assertive calls of blue tits came tumbling through the lichen covered branches. As I listened, transfixed, one particular soloist suddenly piped up almost to drown out the other songsters, a wren, one of the smallest but also, without doubt, the loudest member of the choir!
The robins and the wrens are sedentary birds, so too are the titmice but those other songsters have literally just arrived after completing their journeys from Africa, most of them from just south of the vast Sahara Desert. I must confess that I still find the story of bird migration simply amazing. These warblers in general are typical little brownish birds weighing in at less than half an ounce each and their journeys, I might dare to suggest, all 3,000 miles of them, puts even those hardy souls soon to be competing on local roads in the marathon, into the shadows. But of course, the raison d'etre for this feathered invasion is straightforward. It is about the vital production of the next generation, pure and simple.
Despite all that sylvan music, the most pleasing sound of the week as far as I am concerned, has been the throaty twittering of newly arrived swallows. They are perhaps rather more robust than the sweet singing warblers, altogether more brawny in demeanour. And of course, they fly further - six thousand miles or so - for their wintering grounds are generally in the southern part of Africa. Indeed, I well remember alighting from an aircraft in Cape Town one early winter's day a good few years ago, and immediately having my attention drawn to the masses of swallows in the sky, also, like me newly arrived from Europe.
If the willow warbler's little melody confirms in my mind the certainty of spring, the swallow's twittering, assures me of summer to come, for this surely is our true 'summer bird'. If swifts, due here perhaps in the next ten days or so, technically live up to their names by being among the quickest of our birds, the swallows are very evidently the true athletes of our skies, swooping and soaring, jetting and jinking magnificently. It seems to me that in their own way, they are also very confiding. They nest almost exclusively on man-made structures and so are very willing neighbours for us. That charming, twittering song, a curious mixture of really mellow notes interspersed with some scratchy variations, is reminiscent of a cheery little confiding conversation. However, these talkative cock birds are not of course, speaking to us but to their mates or potential mates. This is the conversation of avian love.
Most of us probably associate the swallow with the house martin. Indeed, throughout human history the swallow and the martin have even been regarded literally as mates. In tradition, we are told that 'the martin and the swallow are God Almighty's birds to hallow'. Like swallows, martins too are confiding and neighbourly, choosing, like their cousins to nest almost exclusively on man-made structures. I hold martins very dear for as I have said many times before, these were the birds that lit the flame within the spirit of a seven year old boy eons ago, a flame that still burns brightly in my breast many, many years on!
But, whilst swallows are currently piling in by the day, there is an alarming absence of house martins. I usually find myself watching them skimming low over the loch, feasting upon insects before I have sighted my first swallow. If not quite as athletic as the swallows, martins are nevertheless superb aviators, recognised most easily perhaps by their flashing white rumps. But where are they? The winter whereabouts of house martins has actually been something of a mystery for many years. Whilst swallows, we know fly all the way to South Africa, martins just simply disappear from the radar. Fragmented evidence suggests a presence in West Africa but East Africa too seems to be a possible destination. The severe drought conditions in that part of the Dark Continent may well account for recent declines in house martin numbers
It is also thought that martins may spend much of the winter-time roaming high in the insect filled skies above the great rain forests of Africa. These areas are of course largely uninhabited and in any case, such is the density of the vegetation that what is happening high in the sky above them is unlikely to be seen by anyone. We know that swifts spend their time in Africa exclusively in the air without touching down and it is suggested that martins may behave similarly, eating, drinking and cat-napping on the wing. However such has been the decline of house martins during the past fifty or sixty years that the British Trust for Ornithology has accordingly launched a major research initiative. It will try to determine the range of problems, which might be having deleterious impacts upon these extremely attractive and agile birds.
There may be a simpler explanation of course for it is known that some particularly house-proud people do take action against martins, destroying their nests, even when it is known they have chicks, in an attempt to get rid of the inevitable mess that nesting martians cause. However, with these 'bluebirds' now perhaps in serious trouble, the BTO and several other organisations are appealing to people not to interfere with these nests, an act, which is by the way, an offence. I might add that there is also a conflict between martins and sparrows. The latter show a great liking for old martin nests, especially during the time when the martins are absent during early spring, occupying them and indeed defending them stoutly, to the disadvantage of the martins which year in year out return to their original nests.
So the universal plea goes out, "Please help our disappearing house martins." They are well worth protecting.