PUBLISHED: 09:11 31 March 2014
March is a bringer of hope and hope comes in the wings of birds, crossing continents and seas to reach us from Africa. In the middle of March you stand on the beach at Cley, a weakling sun stroking your face and the sea still winter-grey and restless. Last night there was a hard frost and the grass on the lawn this morning was white with rime. Winter, it seems, will never leave.
Then, on this stony beach in March, with the wind rattling the dry stalks of curled dock and chapping the crinkled leaves of sea beet, above the dry chack of winter’s stonechat in a spiky tussock of gorse, you hear the call of spring, of hope, arriving on exhausted wings from an African beach. It’s a scraping call, a slurred, three-note “keeoorick”, and you look to sea where two slim, silver-white birds flap their strappy wings into the wind. The Sandwich terns are back – at least the first of them – the tips of their black bills yellow, as though finely dipped in béarnaise.
Who goes there?
Inland from the beach, where the sea campion and cat’s-ear of the shingle give way to the wild, wind-harried grass of the Eye Field, a small bird bobs on the ground. An upright stance and slim black legs; a serge grey back and a fine black mask; an intense blush of apricot in the throat, fading to Jersey cream below, and a square white rump above a glossy black bar at the end of the tail. A cock wheatear has arrived on the same winds as the terns and has stopped to feed on the north edge of Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes, before continuing his journey north. He’ll go perhaps to a moor in the north of England or in Scotland. But for now he has joined the terns in Norfolk, and your heart leaps in the knowledge that spring has come in the far-flown wings of these birds.
The next day you walk in a wood, on a carpet of sharp-green dog’s mercury, and your ears are called to the pollen-heavy willows at the wood’s edge by another voice from Africa. A lilting two-note song, unheard since the autumn before, announces that springs wings have reached the wood too. After this chiffchaff will come the blackcaps – fluty and fruity and loud – and the willow warblers – languid and liquid – until spring song cascades from every bush and tree.
A red admiral has been woken from its winter sleep on the trunk of an ivy-hugged oak by the first rays of the spring sun, and by the chiffchaff’s song perhaps. A brimstone dives through a clearing, slicing the spring air with its colour. Now the terns have added their calls to the gossip of stones on the beach; now the wheatear has flashed his rump in the Eye; now the chiffchaff has lisped his first note from the wood’s edge and called into the being last autumn’s sleeping butterflies; the spring is here. Frosts will come again, breath-freezing mornings and bud-burning nights, but in these African wings spring has arrived and there is no turning back.