‘April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’
So begins The Waste Land by Thomas Stearns Eliot. I first read this great poem when I was a sixth-former. I didn’t understand quite a lot of it then (and probably still don’t), but I liked its imagery and mystery, and much of it is lodged permanently in my head. As we struggle with the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances arising from the Coronavirus pandemic, those first five words of The Waste Land keep surfacing. April in 2020 is proving to be a cruel month indeed.
For most birders April is a favourite month, when migrant birds return to Britain or pass through it, and when nesting begins to peak. But this year it is vital to our safety that we must stay at home, and access is necessarily denied to many places. So in the spring of 2020, I will not be regularly visiting Looe Island to count Cormorant, Great Blackback, Fulmar and Oystercatcher nests as I have for the last seven years, or frequently patrolling the estuary.
In these troubled times keeping in touch with the natural world is inevitably more difficult, but is still vital to our mental well-being. So what can we do? Many of us are going to be spending most of our time at home, and peering out of our windows will be perforce a major component of our birding. Even small gardens are a boon. From where I sit at my computer, I can see a Blue Tit sizing up the nest box in my neighbour’s garden. A Dunnock keeps appearing and disappearing. Has it a nest somewhere? A Woodpigeon and a Collared Dove take turns to sing from the top of the telegraph pole. I keep looking up, hoping that first Swallow will swoop by. It is due. I’m writing this on March 31st and I haven’t seen one yet. North-easterly winds of course don’t help.
Beyond the home and garden, local walks are permitted for exercise, and they are a vital opportunity to keep in touch with nature. I am lucky enough to live within ten minutes of the sea. I have been hearing Chiffchaffs over the last few days along the coast path, beating out their insistent chiff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff song; they are always one of the first summer migrants to arrive.
Along the shore there are some interesting changes taking place. Those numerous Eiders that I wrote about in March have mostly gone. There are other winter visitors that are leaving. Many of the Oystercatchers that we see in Looe in the winter are continental birds, visitors to Britain, and the Looe flock begins to thin out in the spring as these birds leave. Local residents will be establishing their territories, particularly on Looe Island. The small flocks of Turnstones that were still around in late March will soon move on. These charming little shorebirds are easily approached while they are feeding on invertebrates in the seaweed along the strandline, or simply resting on the rocks waiting for the tide to recede. They are building up their strength for the big journey. In April they leave Hannafore and East Looe’s Second Beach to cross the North Atlantic and return to breeding grounds in Greenland and Eastern Canada. I am constantly amazed by the enormous distances many small migrant birds cover.
On my brief visits to the beach I am not only looking out for sea and shore birds. This is a great time for spotting species that are passing through. I have one particular favourite, which crosses the Cornish coast on its way from tropical Africa to mountains and moorlands in upland Britain. It is usually one of the earliest spring arrivals.
A few years ago one morning in early April I was on Looe’s Second Beach at low tide, and my eye was caught by a small flock of passerine birds flying across the exposed rocks of the Limmicks, heading for terra firma. Many birds migrate at night and they had clearly just arrived from across the sea. They flew a few metres, perched, looked, and flew again. From time to time there was a flash of white, and I realised that this was the prominent white rump of a Wheatear. After a short rest on the beach they disappeared over the cliff top, heading inland.
There have been many similar sightings, but there is one encounter with a migrating Wheatear that I particularly remember. I know from my diary that it was on May 2nd, 2006. When I got out of bed that morning and pulled back the bedroom curtains, I was astonished to find a Wheatear sitting just a few feet away on the conservatory roof. It was a female. It did not move. It was exhausted, having presumably just flown across the sea from Europe. Our house is in a suburban street a few hundred metres from the beach. Somehow it had chosen my roof to alight on! The bird rested in the morning sunshine for a couple of hours and then was gone. It was an encounter to relish, and like many with wild creatures, is indelibly imprinted in my memory. Since that day I have never again seen a Wheatear in my garden, but live in hope!
The earliest date I have seen a Wheatear in the Looe area is March 22nd. The majority of sightings are in April, with late stragglers in some years in the first half of May. By early June some birds are already feeding young at nest sites on Bodmin Moor.
Male Wheatears are striking birds, with a black face mask, an ash-grey crown and upper parts, black wings, a pinkish-buff throat and breast, and a black and white tail. The females are a browner grey, and the face markings are more subdued. Both males and females have that flashing white rump, which is an easy guide to identification when the bird flies. The bird’s name reflects this feature, and is thought to derive from a Middle English word meaning ‘white arse’. Hwit was a word for ‘white’ and aers for ‘rump’ or ‘backside’. Polperro’s eminent nineteenth-century naturalist Dr Jonathan Couch noted that the local boys called it ‘knacker’, presumably a corruption of its familiar ‘chack’ call. There is an endearing perkiness and bounce about Wheatears. Their stance is almost military.
There is another favourite migrant and much larger bird that I look for that passes through Looe in April and May, and this is one that betrays its presence by its call as it passes overhead, either by day or night. It is sometimes called the Seven Whistler. I often hear this bird before I see it. It is a beautiful wader, the Whimbrel, a smaller relative of the Curlew, with which it shares a distinctive down-curved or crescent-shaped bill. The genus name for both Curlew and Whimbrel is Numenius, meaning ‘new moon’, referring to this crescent shape.
In the UK the Whimbrel is a rare breeding bird, with around 500 pairs in Shetland, Orkney and northern mainland Scotland, and its numbers and breeding range are showing some decline. This compares with 58,500 pairs of Curlew in the UK. Curlew numbers are declining fast. Both Curlew and Whimbrel are Red-listed species of Conservation Concern in the UK because of the decline of breeding populations.
However the migrating Whimbrel that I love to see on Looe Island or the Limmicks in Looe in the spring, or hear flying over the Wooldown or my street, are probably not en route to Shetland or Orkney. They are more likely to be on passage to Iceland, where they nest on the tundra. Iceland in summer is home to over 600,000 Whimbrel, more than 40% of the world population. These birds winter in West Africa south of the Sahara. Many birds even fly direct between West Africa and Iceland, maximising their chances of breeding success by a longer stay on the breeding grounds.
Sometimes the Whimbrel appear on the Cornish coast in sizeable flocks. On 26th April in 2014 I counted 65 on Looe’s Second Beach. More usually there are between 10 and 40 in a flock. Sadly the bigger flocks seem to be occurring less frequently. Looe Island is probably the best location to find them, and in recent years one or two birds have over-wintered there. Sometimes they consort in small groups with other waders, notably the Bar-tailed Godwit.
Separating Curlew and Whimbrel in the field is sometimes tricky. Both species’ plumage is a streaked and barred grey-brown, and both have white rumps seen easily in flight. But the Curlew is distinctly bigger and its bill is longer and a more genuine crescent shape. The bill of the Whimbrel is straighter with a bent end. If the birds are on the ground, a great aid to identification are the brown stripes on the head of the Whimbrel, separated by a paler median stripe on the crown. The Whimbrel has a more definite dark eye-stripe than the Curlew.
But the biggest aid to identification is the distinctive call. The Curlew’s evocative , far-carrying fluty whistle, ‘cur-lee’ or ‘cour-lii’ is one of the most beautiful of bird calls, and its bubbling trilling song is wonderful. The Whimbrel does have a song not dissimilar in parts to the Curlew’s, but this is only heard usually on their breeding grounds. The Whimbrel call that we hear is a six or seven note titter. Hence its old name the Seven Whistler. The call is fast-paced and has a level pitch – usually described as ‘pupupupupupupu’ or ‘whit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit-tit’…. . This is the call I am hoping to hear sometime in the next month or so as the birds fly over.
Fortunately I am not superstitious! This distinctive call is often associated with varieties of a Celtic superstition of the ‘Seven Whistlers’, supposedly a group of six birds looking for a seventh. Hearing their call was said to augur death or other disaster. According to Patrick Barkham, in a lovely essay in the recently published collection about the UK’s Red-listed birds Red Sixty Seven, in 1862 locals in Hartley, Northumberland, claimed they heard the Seven Whistlers the night before a pumping engine fell down a coal mine, killing 204 miners. A few years later miners refused to go underground at Bedworth colliery in the Midlands because local people had heard the Seven Whistlers flying over the night before. There are suggestions that the Seven Whistlers of the legend may be some other species, perhaps Curlew or Golden Plover, but to my mind the nature of the Whimbrel’s tittering seven-note call makes it the most likely.
So this month I am hoping for another surprise visit from a White Arse, and listening for the Seven Whistlers. And if I miss them, perhaps in late summer I will have the chance to see these extraordinary travellers on their return journey. Whimbrel do not stay long in their breeding grounds. They head south in July and August. Wheatears flying south pass through Looe in August or September or even October. The next two pictures were taken in 2016 on Looe Island on the same day, 24th August. The young wheatears in the picture would be making their first big journey.
Postscript. April 1st, 8 a.m. I am taking my permitted quota of daily exercise on Looe’s rocky shore. It is sunny and the wind has dropped. The Turnstones are still here. And then in the rocks at the back of beach I see that flash of white! A small grey bird bounces up on to a rocky perch. It is a male Wheatear, just arrived from across the sea! Right on cue. I hastily take some photos and tiptoe away elated.
As Ted Hughes once wrote about the returning Swifts, ‘They’ve made it again,/ Which means the globe’s still working…’. Comfort in difficult times.