April 30th, 2010. 5 miles. It occurs to me that my posts, like the evenings, are getting longer and longer, so this will be brief(er), I promise. I leave at 6 for new ground in the north of my patch, up the no-through road to Longstanton. The sky’s full of cloud, of every hue, shape and species. Late April showers, in the afternoon, yesterday and today, have left the land wet for the first time in over a month. Grass and foliage hang heavy with water. Now that the hedgerow and woodland birds have more or less total concealment they sing more it seems, and are heard more often than seen.
I check out the progress of ash trees and oaks to test the folk wisdom of ‘oak before ash we’re in for a splash – ash before oak we’re in for a soak’, which forecasts a relatively dry (‘splash’) or wet (‘soak’) summer to come. My notes record ash trees in leaf on the 25th April, but I’ve subsequently seen some that aren’t. Also the flowers from a distance can look like newly sprung leaves so I might have been deceived in some cases. Similarly, the veteran oak at Histon Manor was definitely showing leaf on the 27th while the younger tree in my garden, and others today, show no sign of green. Time of leafing of individual trees must depend on a number of variables such as aspect, age, soil, shelter, etc. so it’s not easy to ascertain when trees as a species have started to leaf. According to the Woodland Trust ash leafing before oak has occurred only four times in the last 44 years, the last time being in1986.This year, however, there seems to be no significant difference between the two, so I can confidently predict that we’re in for a sploak.
I walk the signposted footpad that skirts round the western edge of Longstanton. On the map it leads through open fields but I find myself channeled through a new toy-town estate of cheek-by-jowl ‘executive’ homes that looks like the set of a soap. But I do see here a single white or pied wagtail (not easy to tell apart), the first of the season, a bird that seems especially fond of tarmac and car parks. Outside the village, I turn south and head back through a herbicidal ‘golf academy’ comprising weed-free fairways and immaculate greens inhabited by small groups of males in spring plumage. They go in for some interesting rituals and rules of etiquette that I would like to check out but the distant thwack of club against ball sends me running for cover. A cold wind blows up and I have to button my coat. Horses in paddocks have thrown on yellow-checked blankets. In the meadow beside the Detention Centre ancient English longhorn cattle and their calves ruminate on the gathering storm while an even more ancient heron buffets into the headwind. A dark wave of cloud is rolling down from the north.
Nearer home a dozen swallows stitch the high air and a couple of all-dark swifts, devil-birds (Clare calls them develings), scythe through the gloom. They arrived in the village yesterday (my first sighting, at least), after their incredible 7000 mile migration from southern Africa, ahead of their u.t.a. (usual time of arrival) around 10th May. Ten days early! What does that mean? They are astonishing birds, not least because they eat, drink, preen, sleep, court, mate and gather nesting material on the wing, yes, in the air, only stopping to nest, lay and incubate once a year. A young swift, having fledged, may live in the sky for two or three years without perching once. It’s true. If they could lay eggs in the air and catch them, and cradle them till they hatch, they will have broken free of the earth altogether.