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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Field journal: winter loosens up and spring takes flight

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Tunstall Valley, Weardale: Curlews are returning to the valley, and it’s a joyous sight

The first day of meteorological spring has passed, but spring pays little attention to the calendar; He tiptoes in with hesitant steps. The hazel catkins, earlier this year and battered by February storms, have already withered; snowdrops are splattered with mud from the pouring rain; Lesser celandine flowers open when the sun melts the frost overnight. And now, the curlews are returning to the valley.

I could hear their plaintive calls long before they appeared over the pines: more than 40 birds, an encouraging and joyous sighting of a red-listed species that is becoming rarer. They spun in a wide circle, dangling long legs on their steep descent toward the sheep pasture, landing with a few quick steps before regaining their balance and probing for worms with graceful curved beaks.

They will soon break up into smaller groups and move higher up the hills. Then their courtship flights, long glides that drag the liquid notes of their bubbling calls across the landscape, provide haunting and soulful music in the North Pennine highlands.

But for now they feed in a large herd, perhaps for mutual security. Their cryptic, mottled brown plumage blends well with muddy grass and mounds of sand and I might not have noticed them if I hadn’t seen them land. They are cautious. A bird rises, returns to perch, and the entire flock turns to face the pines. Suddenly, cries of alarm are heard and everyone is airborne. Two mewling vultures appear, scavengers who present little threat, especially as they are preoccupied with their own courtship, but the curlews take no chances.

It’s quiet again, just the sound of the wind through the pines, but not for long. I hear high-pitched, exultant, reedy calls: a flock of oystercatchers just flown back, immaculate pied plumage stained a little by mud clinging to their scarlet beaks. They too have come to feed on these pastures, before dispersing through the valley.

Nobel laureate novelist Sinclair Lewis once memorably described the countryside in spring as “hysterical with new life.” We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but today it felt like winter loosened its grip and those hesitant footsteps picked up an unstoppable pace.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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