May 8th

Spring arrived this year on a wave of cloudless days and early heat. Sunshine records smashed; lockdown days marked by eerily blue skies and equally unnatural quiet. Most people relish a clear blue day, but as one of my fellow meteorology undergraduates used to complain, they’re quite dull if you are interested in weather. I tend to agree – give me some drama. In a marked improvement, today is one of those warm, humid days with banks of thin cloud aloft and towers of cumulus frothing up from below, giant mimics of the hawthorn blossom heaped beside the canal. The sky is alive and, as if in response, our garden thrums, too. It is verdant, vibrant, but in a hurry to get somewhere – some way from the bedded-in, satisfied but slightly exhausted air of summer.

Kites and buzzards, drifting in on the thermals, are given short notice to vacate by the pair of crows nesting at the far end of the garden. I watched one kite pursued by a crow, itself tailed by a jackdaw – a comic chase by birds of diminishing size. The crows themselves, but more especially the magpies, get plenty of stick in turn from the blackbirds, whose noisy chack of alarm is familiar background noise in the garden. The other constant in our spring soundscape is a cuckoo, which has hardly stopped calling today. The first time each spring it is thrilling – we’re fortunate to live within earshot of cuckoo habitat and I fear one year the magic will wear off. After a few weeks it gets almost monotonous, though I feel moderately heretical for even thinking that.

When banks of heavy cloud roll through on a warm evening like this, swifts can be seen riding the wave, picking off insects that are caught in the rising air. The architectural presence of clouds reminds us that for many animals the world has another dimension; movement and migration can be vertical as well as horizontal. The first swifts I saw this year were feeding on an evening flight of insects; there is also an equivalent but lesser known ‘dawn flight’. Both would show up on vertical radar as a haze of life gracefully ascending and descending, like the breath of the earth.

2 thoughts on “May 8th

  1. All the birds you write about have been a fairly constant presence in our lives this spring – except for the cuckoo, which I feel lucky to have heard just once, in Colsterdale, a remote dale near me in Yorkshire. But once was special enough. It reminded me that a couple of years ago, near there, we saw a young cuckoo being fed by its unwitting foster-mother – a meadow pipit!

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