FROM the folk lore perspective, a lot happens during the month of April and that is probably due to the fact that by ancient tradition, April was often regarded as the opening of the year. In fact, the word april is widely thought to mean “to open” although I am not sure from which language that name derives. It may come via an old form of English based on the Latin aprilis.
It is certainly true that this “opening” of the natural year produces many changes in our countryside even if it is the fourth month of our calendar – leaves adorn our trees, flowers burst into bloom, birds are nesting and baby animals may appear on the scene. The nights are also getting lighter and the weather can be sunny and bright, albeit with some wintery reminders that summer has not yet arrived. An all- embracing piece of weather wisdom is “Never trust April sunshine.”
Easter is one of the major festivals in the Christian Church and yet its name has pagan origins. In Anglo-Saxon times, the month containing Easter was known as Easturmonath in honour of the goddess Eastre; she was goddess of the rising sun but also of the east. Curiously, the very Christian festival of Easter is named in her honour.
Easter is a week away but there is no doubt many of us are excited as we await this call of the seasons and already our wild life is growing impatient as they await the prospect of warm sunshine, long days, ample food and a new face of nature as winter fades in our memories.
One migrant bird that we always associate with spring and the arrival of Easter is the cuckoo. It is unmistakeable due to its call that echoes its name, but few of us are privileged to see a cuckoo during its short visit to our region. Last year, in this region, there were very few reports of its distinctive call of “cuckoo” but even fewer sightings. If some cuckoos do arrive in our region, this time of year is when we might hear them – and subsequently see them!
So what does a cuckoo look like? When I was a child exploring the moors and woodlands around our village, I never saw a cuckoo even though their calls were plentiful. I must admit I thought it was small bird about the size of a chaffinch or house sparrow and was considerably surprised when I first saw one. I discovered it looked like a hawk of some kind, and it was about the size and colour of a sparrow hawk.
Cuckoos arrive around this time of year and may remain until August although numbers have fallen in recent years due to a loss of their habitat such as hedgerows but also to the extensive use of pesticides. In other words, they are much more rare than they were, say, fifty or sixty years ago.
However, some people welcome that reduction because of the cuckoo’s destruction of smaller birds.
The traditional time for the cuckoos’ arrival in this country is the feast day of St Tiburtius, April 14, next Friday which, this year, also happens to be Good Friday. There is an old verse that says “The cuckoo sings from St Tiburtius’ Day until St John’s Day” which is June 24, Midsummer Day. I am sure many of us will be listening for that familiar sound, especially Yorkshire folk who believe that when you hear the cuckoo shout, it’s time to plant your taties out.
WHILST awaiting the cuckoos’ annual visitation, we can lose sight of the fact that many other species will also be arriving in this country for their summer visit. Fortunately, I have a book “The Countryside Companion” edited by Tom Stephenson and published by Odhams in 1948. It lists those arrivals in the order they reached this country.
The book was given to me as a Christmas present by my Aunt Muriel in 1948 when I was 12 years old, so clearly I was already showing signs of interest in both books and wild life at that time. It is one of several books she gave me as presents.
The following is the published list of migrant birds’ arrivals in the UK in the order of their arrival during the month of April. The favourite haunts of those arrivals are also shown.
Clearly I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this list as it was compiled some 70 years ago and some species may no longer be joining us, but this work may provide a basis for further research. Remember, these are the migrating birds that arrive (or arrived) in the month of April.
Wryneck – woodlands, orchards and timbered gardens; ring ouzel – moorlands, mountains and wild hills; willow warbler – open country; sand martins – river banks, sand pits and sea cliffs; tree pipit – always in the vicinity of trees; blackcap – woodlands and bramble lanes; whinchat – railway embankments, rough pastures, marshes and gorse commons; redstart – ruins, rocks, downland valleys and thickets; house-martin – caves, bridges and inland cliffs; sedge warbler – waterside reeds and rushes; whitethroat – hedgerows; swallows – meadow land and waterways; sandpiper – rocky streams; nightingale - woodlands and quiet gardens; cuckoo – river meadows, downs and woods; corncrake – grasslands; turtle dove – woods, spinneys and thickets; nightjar – woodlands, heaths and common ground; swift – open villages and spotted flycatcher – quiet gardens.
As I write in 2017, our garden is full of bird life ranging from blue tits, great tits, coal tits, marsh tits and long-tailed tits. There is a pair of carrion crows who seem to have adopted us, along with robins, wrens, chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes not to mention of pair of buzzards who circle overhead, and flocks of rooks leaving their feeding grounds.
We have visits from the occasional magpies, wood pigeons, linnets, tree-creepers, goldcrests, siskins, goldfinches and even a heron. Perhaps our most unusual bird visitor was a goshawk who spent time preening himself right before our eyes as we relaxed in our conservatory. Then soon afterwards, a raven flew overhead and a day or two later, I spotted a peregrine in a field near our house – I think it came from Sutton Bank where they have been spotted on the cliff face.
And I must add that we seem to get birds of passage dropping in for a rest and a drink before continuing to their next destination. Most of the time, I cannot identify them!
ON the topic of names, I have always thought that the cliff top village of Ravenscar between Whitby and Scarborough was named after those big black birds that frequented the nearby cliffs. This may be reinforced by Raven Hill nearby and also Ravensworth near Richmond. But this does not appear to be the case.
The word raven is from Hrafen, an Old Norse personal name. Treat the H as a silent letter and this produces rafen or raven. Scar refers to the rock face of the cliffs, hence Rafenscar means the cliff belonging to Rafen.
The same applies to the Dales. Rafen appears in Ravensworth where the “worth” means a ford, hence Rafen’s ford.