The swallows that herald spring

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

Sweet lovers, Shakespeare reminds us, love the spring. How can they not? All that wonderfully wanton colour, all that sensual fragrancy, all those budding promises of new life. And, lest we forget, all those yummy insects.

For birds adore spring as well. Every year, regular as clockwork, hundreds of millions of our feathered friends take flight and head north. To hear their happy birdsong is to know that winter’s lugubrious cloak has lifted and that longer, livelier days lie ahead.

No species is more symbolic of the season than the swallow. Before the age of smartphones and calendar apps, we relied on these fork-tailed speedsters to inform us of spring’s arrival. People would stare from their kitchen windows in anticipation. Laurence Rose, a true birder’s birder, still does.

For these harbingers of spring to reach our shores is no mean feat. The winter feeding grounds of British swallows lie far south of the Sahara. That means their six-inch, steel-blue wings have to carry them over most of Africa, across the Mediterranean and mainland Europe, until at last, in one final frenzy of flapping, they cross the English Channel.

The Long Spring picks up the story from Africa’s north coast. What follows is a bird-hut-hopping journey of epic proportions. Rose travels up through Spain and France, and then home to the UK (he is an RSPB staffer, based in Yorkshire), before heading on northwards, to Sweden, Finland and Norway.

For a hungry migratory bird, the journey might take a week. Rose gives it four months. With no nest to build or mate to find, he has time to dawdle. Only dawdling isn’t really his thing. He is forever on the move: jumping on buses, cycling down back-roads, ferrying across fjords, hiking up hills, walking coastal paths, sleeping in forests. As birders go, he exhibits remarkable energy.

More remarkable still, however, is the breadth and depth of his ornithological knowledge. Rose knows his birds. I mean, really knows his birds. And not just swallows. Anything with a beak and two wings does it for him. Jackdaws, peregrines, shags, bustards, woodchats, harriers, eagles, tits, storks, cranes (a particular favourite), whooper swans, godwits. You name it, he’s onto it. Binoculars and notebook always at the ready, he misses little and notices much.

As a detailed primer to the world above our heads, The Long Spring makes for an inspiring, eye-opening read. It’s so busy up there, so teeming with life. And Rose is as affable and informed a guide as you could hope for. If you ever needed someone to explain the territorial spread of egrets or the sexual politics of male ruff sandpipers, then he’s your man. Nor is it just botanical information that fascinates him. Dotted throughout this revelatory, sky-fixed travelogue are cultural references to birds in folk tales and fables, poetry and song.

While Rose generally wears his expertise lightly, he does occasionally stray into twitcher territory. For the average reader, details about the precise frequency of a bittern’s bellow (around 200 hertz) or the springtime changes to a cuckoo’s call (from major third to sharp minor third) feel like more information than may be necessary. Some of the etymological passages begin to weigh heavy too. Keen birders, however, will lap this up.

In many ways, The Long Spring is an old-style nature book. For one, Rose does not impose himself on his subject, as so many contemporary nature writers do. Birds are not a fig-leaf for his own story. We get glimpses of the author, certainly; his conservation work for the RSPB; his encounters with fellow birders and his views on hunting (evil, malo, mauvais). But this is a man who spent his honeymoon guiding a coachload of birdwatchers. In short, birds are what makes Rose tick, not Rose.

Nor does he fall into the new nature writing’s other trap of fetishising the natural world. Rose may be all about the birds, but he is not ignorant of their context. This is not lyrical escapism. His is a real-world journey, through a city-strewn Europe, where industrial plants impinge on bird reserves and gamekeepers poison eagles. So, yes, he shares his joy at hearing the ‘castanet-clattering’ of nesting storks. But, no, he doesn’t hide his horror at having to visit a nature reserve to see lapwings — something that ‘would never have occurred’ to him growing up in 1960s Kent.

Where The Long Spring does seek to mirror modern trends is in the genre’s reputation for controlled, exquisite prose. Here, the bar is frighteningly high. To his credit, Rose gives it a good shot, resulting in some lovely purple passages and colourful descriptors: the ‘velvet-jet’ kites, the ‘loutish’ spotted cuckoos, the angular ibises that ‘look like an alphabet’. But the pressure constantly to enliven and enrich strains the language. His pen, one feels, is struggling against a southerly headwind.

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