Oliver Balch

The incredible journey

Laurence Rose traces the extraordinarily arduous annual journey made by even the most fragile migratory birds

Sweet lovers, Shakespeare reminds us, love the spring. How can they not? All that wonderfully wanton colour, all that sensual fragrancy, all those budding promises of new life. And, lest we forget, all those yummy insects.

For birds adore spring as well. Every year, regular as clockwork, hundreds of millions of our feathered friends take flight and head north. To hear their happy birdsong is to know that winter’s lugubrious cloak has lifted and that longer, livelier days lie ahead.

No species is more symbolic of the season than the swallow. Before the age of smartphones and calendar apps, we relied on these fork-tailed speedsters to inform us of spring’s arrival. People would stare from their kitchen windows in anticipation. Laurence Rose, a true birder’s birder, still does.

For these harbingers of spring to reach our shores is no mean feat. The winter feeding grounds of British swallows lie far south of the Sahara. That means their six-inch, steel-blue wings have to carry them over most of Africa, across the Mediterranean and mainland Europe, until at last, in one final frenzy of flapping, they cross the English Channel.

The Long Spring picks up the story from Africa’s north coast. What follows is a bird-hut-hopping journey of epic proportions. Rose travels up through Spain and France, and then home to the UK (he is an RSPB staffer, based in Yorkshire), before heading on northwards, to Sweden, Finland and Norway.

For a hungry migratory bird, the journey might take a week. Rose gives it four months. With no nest to build or mate to find, he has time to dawdle. Only dawdling isn’t really his thing. He is forever on the move: jumping on buses, cycling down back-roads, ferrying across fjords, hiking up hills, walking coastal paths, sleeping in forests.

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