Thursday, 18 April 2013

Personal Phenology

‘One Swallow does not a summer make’ is the one bit of Aristotle that every naturalist knows. It felt as if one Swallow would make a spring though, and bring some promise of summery weather to come. It has been a slow and silent spring, the first ever in which I hadn’t seen a migrant bird by the end of March. When the occasional sunny afternoons were spent walking through the woods, the only sounds were from the crashing Woodpigeons and Blackbirds rustling through the leaf litter.
Everything is two to three weeks late currently. The huge front of cold air that trapped winter here has kept the birds behind too. Swallows are not the first migrants, but they’re not far off. The Chiffchaff has the shortest flight back and is the first to ring spring in, with its joyful two-note song. Then the Sand Martins aren’t far behind. It’s a race between them and Swallows and they usually win, but by a matter of minutes over the last two springs in Stirling. It tends to be a few days back in Suffolk. We greet the arrival of Swallows with more fanfare though, despite both species having made it back from tropical Africa. They’re engrained in our cultural knowledge, whereas Sand Martins are much more of a birder’s bird. I can’t really explain why Swallows remind me so much of a pastoral innocence that never existed, but they do.

Nature always finds a way of confounding expectation. You could feel the gradual shift into spring: the overcast and rainy days weren’t so uncomfortably cold, the swans were building their nests and the insects had hatched in small clouds around the loch. I picked my day according to the forecast – a beautiful day – and walked around the loch, expecting the flash of brilliant, glossy blue and chattering calls that mean the Swallows are back. But no, nothing. Not a hint of a migrant, not even the Chiffchaffs of the previous days were singing. Then the next day it happened as I was leaving the university. A Swallow skimming the grass, flying into the teeth of a particularly aggressive headwind, in a break between showers. No grandeur, no expectation, just the beauty of life.
Thanks to Martin Goodey for letting me use his fantastic photo. See his twitter, Flickr.
I punched the very public air at seeing it. For a species in which we live in relatively close contact with, there is something joyous about the arrival of Swallows. As if they signify spring, as if they will somehow dispel the wintery weather that they seem too fragile, too delicate for.  For me it’s what Edward Thomas was referring to when he wrote:

            ‘Who seeks through Winter’s ruins
            Something to pay Winter’s debt.’
                                    (But These Things Also, Edward Thomas)

And the day after, as I hurried across the bridge over the loch in the wind and rain, for a bus I was late for, Swallows and Sand Martins were in their own large cloud over the loch, like a hatch of Hirundinidae.
From last August

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