At this time of year my Twitter timeline fills with birds. People are rushing to tweet their first sightings of spring migrants: posting photographs of wheatears on dunes, telling everyone exactly where they saw the year’s first sand martins flying inland from the sea. This urge to record bird arrivals baffled me when I was young. I would roll my eyes at people who wrote to the Times because they had heard a cuckoo, who noted the date and time of their first whitethroat of the year. It seemed more like a trainspotterish game of one-upmanship than something meaningful about the season.
I was wrong. I didn’t know how useful such records could be, nor what spring would turn into in years to come. Back then it just meant newness: blossom and lambs, eggs and ducklings. But the meanings of seasons change as you age, and now these spring migrants tug at my heart partly because their arrival means “the globe’s still working”, as Ted Hughes put it in his poem “Swifts”, and partly because I’m still alive to see them. Across Britain and Europe people are waiting eagerly for birds to return from Africa: cuckoos, nightingales, swallows, pipits, martins, wagtails, flycatchers and more, each first sighting always a surprise, each arrival stitching the season into place. No wonder birders want to share these moments with others. For them, these birds are what spring is made of.
But it’s not just a matter of personal celebration. The sightings have scientific value. Britain pioneered the organised amateur reporting of birds with the founding of the British Trust for Ornithology in Oxford in 1933. Two years later it announced that organised teamwork by field observers had become a normal, everyday feature of birdwatching in Great Britain. Ever since, the trust has collected and analysed records submitted by members of the public on birds’ arrival and departure dates and the size of their breeding populations, a store of ornithological data that grants us awful proof of how our springs are changing.
Birds are arriving earlier. Some are overwintering rather than moving south. And worst of all, their numbers are crashing. Turtle doves, whose low crooning Julian Huxley once considered to be the best possible expression of English midsummer afternoons, are almost extinct. Spotted flycatchers, tree pipits and nightingales are in deep trouble. Habitat degradation in the UK and Africa, pesticides, urban development, climate change, all play their part. Our springs grow emptier and quieter every year.
The furore over the proposed development of ex-Ministry of Defence land at Lodge Hill in Kent, mentioned recently by John Burnside in this magazine, is not a simple battle between houses and breeding nightingales, George Osborne’s “feathered obstacles”. Nor is it just the terrible precedent that will be set for nature conservation in the UK should a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest be destroyed. Seventy years ago nightingales were common across England. They sang from Buckinghamshire woods, Aldershot gardens, from bushes along the Sheringham seafront at night. Now they hang on in the south and east, and their numbers are still declining. So are the numbers of people able to hear them.
Someone once told me that nightingales should be preserved because of their place in western literature. I suppose that is an argument. But not everyone has read Keats and Clare, and nightingales do not speak to me of poetry at all. They are simply astonishing, in and of themselves. I’ve taken many people to hear them. Once they have listened to a nightingale in full voice, they yearn to hear that sound again. Its absence lessens our lives. What will happen if Lodge Hill is destroyed is not just the disappearance of 85 pairs of a migrant bird species, but a thinning of human experience, a shrinking of the available meanings of spring.
I took a friend to look for nightingales on a cold April morning last year. We went to Paxton Pits, a reserve of scrub and lakes sprawling across old gravel-workings in Cambridgeshire. It is renowned for its nightingales: coachloads of people come here to listen to them. We walked under hurrying clouds and fat spots of rain and stopped at a bend in the path. In a mess of angled elder stems, nettles and shadows, I heard a small phrase, half a throatful of song. Then it stopped.
We peered into the undergrowth. There was the nightingale, on a slim twig, side-on. A brown robin with a rusty tail. His beak opened again. Another four or five notes, then silence, his eyes half closed, wings fallen to his sides. He hitched them back into place and they fell to his sides again. I wondered for a moment if this bird was sick. And then I realised that he was simply exhausted. He’d just arrived on his long flight from Guinea, up the west coast of Africa, across Europe, over the English Channel and into this bush he remembered from last year.
Then, as we looked at the small, weary bird, the rain burst through the canopy of leaves, and he shook himself, and started to sing. Properly sing. A huge bowl of notes, a sound that would fill a concert hall, music that filled the leaves and the air around them and the spaces under the trees and rolled out across the darkness of the day, a small bird singing to welcome itself home, and to make this place spring again.
Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” is newly published in paperback by Vintage