Country diary: Winter is loosening its grip as spring takes flight

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Tunstall valley, Weardale: Curlews are returning to the dale, and it is a joyous sight


The first day of meteorological spring has passed, but spring pays little heed to the calendar; it tiptoes in with hesitant steps. Hazel catkins, early this year and battered by February’s storms, have withered already; snowdrops are mud-spattered by heavy rain; lesser celandine flowers open as the sun melts overnight frost. And now, curlews are returning to the dale.

I could hear their plaintive calls well before they appeared over the pines – more than 40 birds, a heartening, joyous sighting of a red-listed species that is becoming scarcer. They wheeled in a wide circle, dangling long legs in their steep descent into the sheep pasture, landing with a few quick running steps before regaining their poise and probing for worms with elegant curved bills.

Soon they will separate into smaller groups and move higher on the fells. Then their courtship flights, long glides trailing the liquid notes of their bubbling calls across the landscape, provide haunting, soul-stirring music in the North Pennine uplands.

But for now they feed in a large flock, perhaps for mutual security. Their cryptic, mottled brown plumage blends well with muddy grass and molehills and I might not have noticed them if I hadn’t seen them land. They are wary. One bird rises, settles again, and the whole flock turns to look towards the pines. Suddenly there are yelping alarm calls and they are all airborne. Two mewing buzzards appear, scavengers that present little threat, especially as they are preoccupied in their own courtship, but the curlews take no chances.

It’s quiet again, with only the sound of wind through the pines, but not for long. I hear loud, exultant, piping calls – a flyby flock of recently returned oystercatchers, immaculate pied plumage sullied a little by mud clinging to their scarlet beaks. They, too, have come to feed in these pastures, before dispersing along the valley.

The Nobel laureate novelist Sinclair Lewis once memorably described countryside in spring as “hysteric with new life”. We haven’t reached that point yet, but today it felt as though winter was loosening its grip and those hesitant steps are gathering unstoppable pace.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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