April this year, has been smiley! It is a month during which we might expect to tick a lot of boxes, as the waves of migrating birds advance upon us. This year, that seems to have been an even more frantic pastime than ever. The benign nature of the weather has effectively thrown our welcoming door wide open and the summer visitors have accordingly, been flooding in with a real vengeance.
A good two or three weeks earlier than usual for instance, the air was suddenly filled with the strident call of a male cuckoo. His comic call may have traditionally been the cause for optimism on the part of those who wax lyrical about such things. The cuckoo is the ‘classic’ harbinger of spring, lauded by the poets and so his was a voice much welcomed. I don’t suppose it is anything like as welcome a sound however, in the minds of the considerable number of meadow pipits I also saw flitting among the rough grazings over which drifted the cuckoo’s voice.
Cuckoos alone among the avian classes, spurn the quite incredible degree of dedication that will be one of the main features of avian life here over the forthcoming months. They have a job to do – unsentimentally – and that is what they will do and no more, By July, the chaos they will have caused among the ‘hard-working’ avian classes of those pipits along with as many as fifty other species they may well have chosen as un-suspecting foster parents, will be fully manifesting itself. Meanwhile, job done and the adult cuckoos are gone!
There are many signals we look for; the first cheerful chattering melody of the chaffinches is a particular bench-mark; the monotonous two tone song of what is usually one of the first of the migrants to make its presence known, the chiff-chaff, another. Now comes the lyrical, sweet, down the scale song of the willow warbler. Indeed, the other day, their voices were suddenly everywhere in an area dominated by scrub. Willow warblers have always been in my book, my personal, truest harbingers!
Yet, they are by no means, exotic immigrants, more plain little birds of relatively minuscule proportions, tinged with yellow and green, attractive looking with their neat little eye-stripes but more noted for their vocal prowess than for their physical beauty. Indeed its small size is at the root of some of the popular pseudonyms in which it rejoices. ‘Tom Thumb’ is one such sobriquet; whilst ‘oven bird’ is a direct reference to the oven shaped nest built upon the ground. The material used, grass, seems to be at the root of another of the bird’s Scottish nick-names, ‘mumruffin’.
Perhaps more visual in its appearance, especially on our hills, one of the other more obvious immigrants, often like the willow warblers, suddenly descending as one, is the wheatear, a neat little bird with which hill walkers will be especially familiar. If the willow warbler is often to be seen among willows, the wheatear is seldom seen in the vicinity of wheat. Indeed it is an enthusiastic consumer of insects, worms and snails. The association with wheat is entirely artificial and perhaps down to the curious divide between the Victorian bird fanciers and their rather more educated, gentrified counterparts who we may term ‘ornithologists’!
Bird fanciers, were down to earth and therefore, taking the prominent white rump of the wheatear as their guide, bluntly called the bird a ‘white arse’. The more genteel among the fast growing band of people dedicating their lives to the study of nature, regarded this as being beyond the pale of decency and thus re-dubbed the bird ‘wheatear’. At least it sounded similar if … they believed, slightly more decent
And then, came the icing on the cake. I had seen little swarms of sand martins switch-backing, low over the waves of the loch on a breezy morning, seeking out fresh hatches of insects. Now, again in my experience, a wee bit ahead of schedule, they were quickly followed by the first house martins, readily identified, like the wheatears, by their flashing white rumps. And, at last, came the first sighting of a swallow. Of that single sighting, I really don’t need to say that summer is still some distance away, yet somehow there is a special significance about a first swallow!
Certainly our ancient ancestors might have regarded their sightings of the first swallow of the year with even greater significance for to them this was a magical bird, the bringer of fire. This reputation was earned through the beautiful bronzed markings on the swallow’s throat.
And each individual migrant brings its own very distinctive aura to the spring party. Odious I guess in terms of the cuckoo for in order for it to achieve success, the young of those who will be chosen as unwitting foster parents by the female cuckoo, are doomed to die premature deaths. Yet would spring be quite complete without that strange call? As I’ve said before, cuckoos are, above all, pragmatic operators.
The willow warbler choir is certainly in full voice, those silvery cadances, spilling down from the scrubby hillsides in particular, seem like an audio kind of filigree, covering it seems every square inch of ground, settling gently, like gossamer across the landscape, giving us a real sense of re-assurance that spring is truly here, alive and well. Some birds seem able to fulfil vocal ambitions at will. The skylark for instance rising, goodness how many times in a day, reaching for the sky and all the time expressing itself in full voice, states and delivers that ambition.
For some however, such ambition seems to be rooted somewhat insecurely, Tree pipits it always seems to me, set out to conquer the world, briefly soaring before as quickly giving up and returning abruptly to terra firma. And the wheatear too seem to harbour similar ambitions, bursting forth as if to burst it lungs, only to disappoint, job only half done. Yet its jaunty appearance on our hillsides is also one of those benchmarks that truly confirm the arrival of the season of renewal. Now follows a few months of dynamic action!