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Sounds of spring in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 13:00 18 April 2017

Yellow wagtail at Hardley Marshes (pic by Nick Appleton)

Yellow wagtail at Hardley Marshes (pic by Nick Appleton)


The delightful sounds of April bring a brightness that makes the heart sing, says Nick Acheson of Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Black-headed gulls' courtship ritual atop a pillbox at Cley (pic by Kevin Woolner) Black-headed gulls' courtship ritual atop a pillbox at Cley (pic by Kevin Woolner)

April is the month when sound comes back to the land. Light, warmth and scent come too of course, but often they are meanly taken back by April’s fickleness. Sound, though, stays, grows, crescendos and demands to be heard.

It begins, at the start of the month, with the fat, happy buzz of queen buff-tailed bumblebees, poking at the carmine flowers of currants or the tender tubes of lungwort. Collared doves began to sing in the garden on the first bright days of February. By now your local male’s three-note song, from his perch on the chimney-pot, are constant. The scientific name of the collared dove is Streptopelia decaocto. Its second part, from the Ancient Greek for eighteen, represents the dove’s repetitive song.

There are many versions of a myth around this name. In one, as Christ is bearing the cross to Golgotha he cries out for water. Kind people around him offer 17 denarii but the elderly woman selling water refuses to accept anything less than 18. ‘Decaocto,’ she insists, ‘decaocto.’ For her lack of compassion she is turned into a bird and ever since she has sung the same song, asking always for 18 denarii. Perhaps one day she will relent and be restored to human form. Our Norfolk gardens would be quieter for it, and sadder.

In the wet meadow down the still winter-muddy lane, the fizz of lapwings is the sound of April. Lapwings are sound made movement. As their breathy, exuberant calls tumble from their throats, so too they tumble from the sky, black-white-black as they twist and stall, pulling from their dives exhilarating moments before hitting the ground.

Lapwing showing its colours in the sunshine at NWT Cley (pic: John Assheton) Lapwing showing its colours in the sunshine at NWT Cley (pic: John Assheton)

There are cattle here too, some dun, some black with curly white faces. Theirs is the sound of leathery lips and tongues, grasping and rasping at grass, green anew with the spring. With them is the bright single note of a single bright bird. Among April’s buttercups, about the feet of the cows, trots a buttercup bird: a yellow wagtail, fresh from the dusty feet of African cattle, brightening now a damp Norfolk meadow.

Beyond, the marsh turns to salt and sand. The saltmarsh sky is cut by the sharp wings of black-headed gulls and by their yelps and shrieks of merriment. Like the collared doves the gulls’ scientific name honours the sound they make in April. It reflects their spring appearance too. Chroicocephalus ridibundus: the coloured-headed one who laughs a lot.

The gulls’ heads are coloured indeed in April – chocolate-dipped – and their bills a wine-stain red. Their shrill laugher is heard all along the Norfolk coast this month. A second sound, fuller, more melodious, comes from a muddy creek or from atop a leaning post in the silvery marsh. This is the rocking song of a redshank, staking his claim to a square of marsh, on which, in a secret tussock of sea lavender or purslane, his female will lay four brown-spattered eggs. First one redshank, then another and another, tip their teetering voices into the April day, to your delight.

With all this sound about you, announcing spring’s coming to the land, your senses are drawn out, tasting April’s long-forgotten warmth, din and brightness. But draw them in and you find your own self newly alive, charged again by spring. Listen to your breathing as your lungs drink April’s life and joy.

Buff-tailed bumblebee at Swafield (pic: Julian Thomas) Buff-tailed bumblebee at Swafield (pic: Julian Thomas)

Hear your heart, as wild and happy as the redshank’s, beating in time with the bird’s rhythmic song. Hear the wind play on your lips, still cold with winter but weakening with each gull’s shriek and each bumble’s peaceful buzz. April is the month of sound and the month of life, irrepressible, joyful and strong, stirring the sky and the marsh and your heart. Let the birds’ song and the wind’s song sing in your heart this April.

And keep them there always, for you never know when you may need them.


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