Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

Hoo’s Looking for Birds?

At a recent party, I heard three separate conversations about Barn Owls. “Oh, we have one living in our shed.” “I have a Barn Owl roosting in my stables. ”  “You know, we’ve got a pair mating in our barn.”  And to each of these, I gave an acknowledging smile and grudgingly contributed, “Roger and I have spotted one once or twice on a standing stone along our track.”  Doesn’t compare, does it?

I love owls and spotting them is different from other types of birds.  Most are fairly elusive during the day, enjoying the nocturnal and crepuscular way of life.  This definitely doesn’t correspond with my behaviour.  I’m up with the sun, busy during the day and then ready to hunker down when the sun sets, particularly in winter when it is colder. Nothing beats sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night, good book and glass of wine to hand.

Our wet and rainy December has given way to a less wet, but certainly colder January and February.  We had our first snow flurries the other week, but not much accumulation.  Then these past few days, the temperatures dropped to an angry cold, the clouds moved in and we have a proper eight or so inches of snow.  Currently, when the news isn’t about Brexit, it is all about the Polar Vortex gripping the Mid-West in America.  Less newsworthy, we’re having our own wild winter on Dartmoor.   The dogs go crazy in the snow, following the fresh scents and animal tracks on the surface.  They love nothing more than diving into a snow drift to chase a snow ball.  While Millie and Brock are busy sniffing newly laid scents, I am moved by the pure resonance of the dawn chorus.  This layer of snow dampens ambient sounds leaving a still backdrop for the songbirds.  Because of this and the play of morning light, I enjoy getting outside first thing.  Likely, right after any owls have decided to call it a night.

With this much snow, we presently have the moors to ourselves, except for a brave few photographers. This solitude won’t last long as no doubt, the weekend will bring all the madness of people coming to go sledding.  They will leave their cars parked all over, block gates, and leave behind a trail of litter.  This is the part of the snow fall I do not enjoy.   But the roads are not fully passable at the moment, so they haven’t arrived yet. This gives us a chance to fully embrace our own little winter wonderland and the thrill of laying our own fresh tracks in the snow.

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Roger andI head out onto the moors with Millie and Brock, the ashy coloured sky reveals an occasional patch of blue.  The sun has tentatively peeked out, lighting the clouds in a pleasing combination of pink, purple, and grey.  The tors look especially brooding on top of the hills in this light and with their dusting of snow.  With the wind to our backs, we march up past Crockern Tor, and then north along the ridge.

Trudging through virgin snow, we pass sheep who keep a watchful eye on Brock.  We do too as he is still working through his instinct to herd them.   After about forty-five minutes, we clamber to the top of some rocks, pause, and take in the views.  The sun is now casting our shadows across the gorse, reeds and granite boulders.  We catch sight of a bird of prey quartering low over the moors beneath our vantage point.  We watch it either hunting or waiting for a clear moment to feed on something already lying dead below.  Roger is certain it is a Hen Harrier, which we don’t often see.

It’s thrilling to spot a bird of prey.   They are spectacular and spellbinding examples of power and grace.  Possessing top predator status can’t be easy and that means they will never be as numerous as other birds, so there is a certain novelty and happy surprise to seeing these elusive creatures.  Since moving to Dartmoor, we have spotted Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels, Sparrow Hawks, Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, and Hobby.   Roger has spotted a Merlin, too. He once observed a pair of Peregrine Falcons in this very spot we are standing now.

Owls are part of this elite top bird group of predators.  And like all birds of prey, they are powerful, fast, graceful and nimble.  And yet, despite appearing ferocious, they are fragile.  I suppose that is what being a bird of prey ultimately means.   They sit on the top of the food chain and their numbers are essentially controlled by the amount of prey available to them, an amount so easily disrupted by climate and people.  With curiosity and admiration, we happily watch the Hen Harrier.

As we move on, I bring up the conversations at that recent party.  “Roger, why is it almost everyone seems to have a nesting Barn Owl?” “Roger, why don’t we seem to have nesting Barn Owls?”  “Roger, did you believe everyone’s comments about the nesting Barn Owls at the party?” “Roger, could there be that many nesting Barn Owls living in such close proximity?”  Clearly, my envy was getting the better of me because while many of our friends and neighbours are able to report Barn Owls living in their out buildings, all we can confirm are Jackdaws, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, toads, and a million spiders.  In the spring, Swallows and House Martins will join the crew.  And, Pied Wag-Tails will make nests in the cracks in the mortar of the building’s walls.

In the meantime, if I can’t see a Barn Owl, I’ll darn well listen out for one.  Unlike the hooting sound of the Tawny Owls living in the stand of Pines across the river, I will need to listen carefully for an eerie screeching and hissing sound.  I’ll also have to keep Millie inside as she enjoys nothing more than conducting a night time perimeter bark to warn off foxes and badgers, in order to keep our chickens safe.   I doubt we’ll get a resident Barn Owl anytime soon, though I may sign up for a Nest Box workshop at the local Barn Owl Trust.  It’s important to encourage new critters to Crockern.

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A (Red)Start of Spring

Roger and I were recently in the States, joining family and friends, to celebrate my Dad’s 90th birthday. It was a grand old time filled with endless laughter, stories told a hundred times before, and the addition of new tales which will soon be worked into the tapestry of family lore. Before we made our way to the airport to head to this auspicious gathering, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to Crockern. Sure, we have had a few signs, but what we wanted was something greater and more profound than brave daffodils and hopeful snowdrops popping up through the grass. And yet as we left, the leaf buds on the trees teased and taunted us, displaying no more than tight buds of much anticipated foliage unfurling.

My Dad is 90 and loving it.  We are a big family and don't all fit well in this photo.

My Dad is 90 and loving it. We are a big family and don’t all fit well in this photo.

But what a difference a week makes: spring has finally sprung at Crockern. Everything is verdant with those previously mocking trees finally showing their full and proper leaf along with the rhododendron in a showy bloom. The Swallows and House Martins are busy competing for nest materials, while the Jackdaws seem to be applying the finishing decorating touches to their nests. Recently we saw a pair carry in their beaks some fleece along with flowers to accent their homes. We’ve also spotted nest-building activity between stones around the property: in the dry stone wall fences and the side of the barn and sheds. These well-hidden and newly built nests are home to future broods of Pied Wag-tails and Great Tits. It’s all happening!

While all this activity is exciting, it sadly cannot offset the fatigue brought on by a long trans-Atlantic trip. The best way forward is to indulge in a little nap as nothing else surpasses this effortless way to maintain health and well-being. But as I slipped into my noble and restorative siesta, I heard a “tap, tap, tap” on the window. Roger had warned me about this sound. He and Sam had heard it earlier and thought at first it was a bird or small animal trapped in the house. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tale Tell Heart, the sound grew and grew. I am not suffering “an over-acuteness of the senses” because Roger and Sam had earlier staked out the window and watched a Redstart fly from one of our sheds to the window and commence its tapping. Presumably for insects, but possibly warning off its own reflection assuming it to be a rival male.

Naively, I thought I could sleep through it all, but that wretched Redstart is persistent. He awakens Roger at about 5:30 in the morning. He interrupts my return-from-travels-nap. And he is still tapping as I write!

Redstarts are easily identifiable especially when they shake their bright orange-red tails. The males look dressed up for a night out with their slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings, and an orange chest and bottom. Very smart, indeed. It’s exciting to see a pair at Crockern and know they are nesting so close as they are in decline across much of Europe.

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

Redstart image from RSPB (found on the Internet)

The Redstart also has a beautiful song, joining the amplified dawn chorus that greets me each day comprising, among others, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Stonechats, Great Tits and Blue Tits. I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type. Yet there are a few calls I can distinguish. In and amongst the reeds in the meadow along the river a ratchet-y sound, not dissimilar to a fishing reel spooling out its line, can be heard. A quick assessment confirms there are no anglers making their way in search of trout in the river, so it can only be the most impossible of birds to spot, the Grasshopper Warbler. And there is the call of the Cuckoo, who has returned for the summer to its ancestral home in our valley. Last year, Dartmoor National Park, along with Devon Birds, participated in a national satellite-tagging project conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology. This project tagged four Cuckoos in Dartmoor to study the migratory patterns of these birds and gain an understanding behind their alarming decline. Hearing its call among all the bird song adds to the wonder and privilege of bearing witness to so much singing!

But seeing is believing and Roger spotted the cuckoo in the pine tree near our barn. With its sleek body and long tail, this dove-sized bird is often elusive to spot, despite knowing it is near due to its easily identifiable call. If you visit the Devon Birds Cuckoo Watch Map, you’ll see our blue dot denoting a recent sighting.

Yes, we're the blue dots between the road and Wistman's Wood.

Yes, we’re the blue dots between the road and Wistman’s Wood.

With this arrival of spring and the longer days and longer grass, the chickens are all happy. The asparagus crowns are showing, though we must wait another year before we can harvest. The rhubarb is up. The blueberry bushes are looking healthy and the strawberries are kicking out berries. Our potatoes are in the ground and in a few weeks we’ll plant out the rest of the summer vegetables. Oddly, for the first time ever, I’m excited about the nettles growing all over as it is now time to make some nettle ravioli. It’s somewhat labour intensive, but the payoff in flavour is oh-so-yummy!

Still to come, harkening the arrival of spring will be the return of the newly born lambs and their mothers to the upland moors for a summer of grazing. Their James Brown call and respond sounds will fill the air, not in a melodic dawn chorus I hasten to add, but more likely as an effective means to drown out even the most persistent tapping of our resident Redstart.

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