It is late February, the fag-end of the year.  The moors are dark, embalmed in mist.  Grey  skeletons of heather bushes hug the blackened earth.  The bracken lies dark brown, flattened by last months snows.  Treacherous sedge fills my boots with icy water.   A collection of blanched bones in a circle of fragments of wool and skin are all that remains of the sheep that stank there in November.   The silence of death is broken only by the mocking cackle of a grouse that has so far survived the season.        

Then, on a morning, seemingly no different from any other, a liquid note, not unlike the swoop of a virtuoso violin announces the arrival of spring.  Flying in overnight  from Morecambe Bay, a flock of Lapwings have transformed the fields on the edge of the moors into their own private concert platform.   Flapping on broad soughing wings, they rotate and tumble, a full forward pike with twist, squealing in ecstacy, their wings brushing the ground before flapping away to repeat the performance.  But for the Lapwings, this is not mere entertainment, it is serious.   There is no time to lose.  There are prime nest sites to claim and mates to attract.  So the male tumbles and sings.  This is Come Dancing, Strictly for the Birds! 

A few days later, while the Lapwings are still locked in competitions over real estate, the moor echoes to another note, the double piping cry of the Curlew.  They have come further, from Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland.  They take longer to get going but by early March,  they too are enacting their own unique choreographed aerial displays, not on the fields but higher up amid the heather and bracken.   The male takes off standing and flaps vigorously upwards to a height of about thirty feet, piping urgently and then he changes tune to an eerie bubbling as he glides back down to earth and lands with wings held high to collect the applause. 

Soon, others join in the morning chorus.  Redshanks fly over dead bracken on whirring wings, their repetitive notes reminiscent of a squeaky bicycle wheel, before landing on a post to show off their white armpits and bright red legs.  Skylarks spiral clockwise up aerial towers, their call an urgent chatter, but at the top of the ascent, the note changes to a more minor key and breaks up into whistles as they return anticlockwise to earth.  Meadow Pipits, by contrast, parachute to earth on repetitive squeaks. 

But, perhaps the strangest of all, on a morning with hardly a breath of wind, a gentle throbbing, more like vibration than sound but descending in scale.  It is the flight display of a Snipe.  And there it is, just a speck in the air, but through the glasses a tiny bird with wildly flapping wings and a disproportionately long bill.  Up it flaps and then it dives to earth, the flow of air vibrating its two outermost tail feathers that it extends at right angles.  Then it flattens out and repeats the performance flying in a wide arc around its intended who sits on the ground squeaking enthusiastically.  

Each bird’s flight display is choreographed to its call.  They cry out, ‘Look at me, look at me, see how good my dance is.  Come on, have a closer look.  If you like the show, maybe you’d like to see the nest I’ve mapped out.’  Within a few weeks, they will be at it,  climbing, gliding, drumming, diving, freewheeling and tumbling over the moors, an ecstatic celebration of the new year and new possibilities, a reaffirmation of life. 

I look forward to the arrival of the birds.  For the last ten years, they have arrived between 24th and 26th February.  This year, they are two weeks early.  This is unsettling.  If they lay their eggs too early, there will be less food, less cover and less to sing about.   

Advertisements