That’s as many as I saw in 2014. Turtle doves are disappearing fast from Britain and the trend seems to be accelerating, but they have been uncommon here in central southern England for my entire birding life. Even as a mildly bird-interested child I don’t recall seeing or hearing them, although it is possible I did. Turtle dove’s song is so familiar and so evocative of midsummer that it’s hard to tell whether I remember it first hand or from an absorbed folk memory.
Its gentle, pulsing purr is the pure distilled sound of an old-fashioned sleepy English summer, of mild sunny days with a gentle breeze, the sort you’re not sure exists anymore. When I hear a turtle dove it’s as though I or the dove stepped into a time anomaly. We’re not supposed to exist in the same timeframe any more, and my heart races as though something extraordinary is happening.
I want to believe that this is all wrong, that turtle doves do have a future here, but I find it hard to be optimistic. There are certainly people in the RSPB and elsewhere working hard to help them cling on. For now every time I encounter one I can’t help but hear its song as elegiac. If anything gives me hope it’s that the last two I’ve seen have been entirely unexpected. I hope I live to see a day when turtle doves are less surprising. They’ll still seem every bit as special.