|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Under this heading I had meant to deal with the return of the Plover and Lapwing, having in mind a Galloway rhyme,
But on consideration it was evident that March has so complicated an orchestral prelude that the name could hardly be given to any one group of birds. Does not another rhyme go,
But March brings back so many birds! There is another bird rhyme . . .
Well, the Song-Thrush has been "ready to laugh" a good while back, now: his "laughter" has already whirled the flute-notes of Spring, amid branches swelling to leaf-break, but not yet at the greening. The Chiff-Chaff has been heard on many a common, or on the ridge of a stone-dyke, or calling from the blackthorn thickets. The Wheatear has by this time delighted many a superstitious yokel who has caught his first glimpse of it sitting on a grassy tuft, or on a low spray of gorse or juniper, or depressed him sorely if he has come upon it for the first time when seen perched on a stone. But all three are birds which are with us long before the real Spring is come. With the missel-thrush on the elmbole, the song-thrush in the copses, the blackbird calling from the evergreens, it does not follow, alas! that, as in the fairytale, the north wind has become a feeble old man and the east wind a silly old wife. Frost and snow and sleet, rain and flood, and the dull greyness of returned winter, may only too likely succeed these blithe heralds, have so succeeded, this year, as we know to our cost. There was jubilation in some places at January-end because of the early singing of the larks, which here and there had been heard soon after the New Year; but those who rejoiced untimely at the advent of spring-weather must have forgot the north-country proverb, "As long as the laverock sings before Candlemas it will greet after it."
The lark and the blackbird are, in truth, such irresponsible singers, have such, glad irrepressible hearts, that they will sing in the dead of winter, if only the wind slides through a windless air and the sunshine is unclouded. Tens of thousands have gone overseas but tbousands remain; and these are not to be cbilled into silence if but the least excuse be given for the unsealing of the founts of joy. In green Decembers one may bear the merle's note fluting down the wet alleys.as though Christmas were still a long way off; but the wary will recall another north-country saying akin to that just quoted concerning the laveroch---"When the blackbird sings before Christmas she will cry before Candlemas."
So now I shall leave the Tribe of the Plover to a succeeding article, and, speaking of the skylark and his spring comrades, allude to that Mysterious March wayfaring of the winged people which is so enthralling a problem in the psychology of bird-life.
The whole problem of Migration is still a mystery, but an enhancement of this mystery is in the irregularity and incompleteness of the working out of this all but universal instinct, this inscrutable rhythmic law. Both the skylark and the blackbird, for example, are migratory birds, and yet larks and merles by the thousand remain in our northlands through the winter, and even come to us at that season. The skylark in particular puzzles the ornithologist. While certain birds appear and disappear with an astonishing regularity, as though they heard the pealing of aErial chimes afar off and knew the bells of home---the swallow, for example; or, again, the tiny gold-crested wren, in some parts called "the woodcock-pilot" because in two or at most three days after its appearance the first woodcocks are invariably seen---there are others, like the song-thrush, which will pass away in the great migratory clouds that like withdrawing veils every autumn carry the winged clans oversea; which will pass so absolutely that for a hundred miles not one of its kind will be observed, not even a straggler: and yet, in some other direction, others will be seen weeks later and perhaps even through the winter. We are all familiar with the homestay of the redbreast, and many people believe that it is not a migrant because of its frequency about our garden-ways even in the hardest winter: and yet, in incalculable myriads, the redbreast migrates as far south as the Sahara, and its sweet bome-song of the north may be heard in Greece, by the banks of the Nile, throughout Palestine even, from the cedars of Lebanon to the valleys about Jerusalem.
It is the skylark, however, more than any other bird which so often upsets rules and calculations. Even people who do not observe the ways of birds must be struck by the numbers of larks which may be met with in the course of several midwinter walks, by the occasional outbreak of brief song, even, though snow be upon the wolds and a grey wind blow through the sere leaves of the oak-coppice or among the desolate hedgerows; must be the more struck by this, or by mention of it on the part of others, when they read of the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dead larks found on nights of storm or bitter frost, on the rocks below lighthouses, along the great lines of migration during the season of the vast inscrutable ebb or of the as vast and inscrutable vernal arrival. Incalculable hosts leave out shores every autumn, and along the bleak fen-lands by wave-set lighthouses, on isles such as Ushant or Heligoland, thousands of wings flutter and fail; and the host passes on; and the seawave, the fierce gull, the shore-hawk, all the tribe of the owl, all the innumerable foes which prey upon the helpless, give scant grace to the weaklings and the baffled and weary. But why should all this immense congregation have listened to the ancestral cry, and from meadow and moor and the illimitable dim-sea of the fallowlands come singly and in flocks and in immense herds and in a cloudlike multitude, as sheep at the cry of the herdsman, as hounds at the long ululation of a horn, while thousands of their clan remain deaf to the mysterious Voice, the imperative silent mandate from oversea? Of these, again, countless numbers merely move to another region, and mayhap some cross the salt straits only to return; or as many, it may be, leave not at all the familiar solitudes, and at most show by cloudy flights and wild and fluctuating gyrations the heritage of blind instinct, which, if it cannot be satiated by far pilgrimage, must at. least shake these troubled hearts with sudden inexplicable restlessness. It is calculated again, that myriads of skylarks merely use our coasts as highways on their journey from the far south to the far north-in this, too, exemplifying another strange law or manifestation of the mystery of migration, that the birds which move farthest north in their vernal arrival are those which penetrate farthest south when they turn again upon the autumnal wind of exile. Naturalists have proved, however, that countless hordes of skylarks actually arrive from Northern Europe to winter in our country. Are these birds moved by a different instinct from that which impels the majority of their kind? Have they, through generations following one another in the path of an accident, forgotten the sunlands of the common ancestral remembrance, and, having found Britain less snowbound and frostbound than the wastes of Esthonia and Pomerania, been content, when driven before the icy east wind, to fare no farther than our bleak, and yet, save in the worst winters, relatively habitable inlands? Again, naturalists have observed a like movement hitherward in winter from Central Europe. There may be observed in the early spring as regular an emigration as, on a perhaps not vaster scale, an incalculable immigration. Apparently, most if not all of the myriads of skylarks which are undoubtedly with us throughout the winter are these immigrants from Northern and Central Europe. Those who, come in February and in still greater numbers in March and April (and the later the arrivals the farther north the goal, it is said) are the "strayed revellers" from the South, the homebred birds home again. In our remote Hebrides the nesting season is hardly over before the island-bred skylarks, so late in coming, are on the Great South Road once more. What with the habitual two and the not infrequent three broods raised in a single season, particularly in Southern England, South-West Scotland, and Ireland, and the enormous influx of aliens from Northern and Central Europe, our skylark population is at its highest, not, as most people might think, in May, or even about the season of the autumnal equinox, but at the beginning of November, when already the great tides of migration have ebbed.
Another puzzling problem is the rhythmic regularity of the arrivals and departures of the incomers and the outgoers. For, while the latter will not take the high-road of the upper air till nightfall or at least until dusk, the former travel by day: and the goings and comings are so timed, or to observation appear so timed, that about four o'clock on a late October day the first cohort of the invaders may in the wide lonely desert overhead pass the first caravans of exiles. In March, again, the two currents may once more meet: the homebred birds are on their return, the aliens are on the wing for the hill-pastures and the vales and uplands of their native countries. This will account for how, say in the Hebrides, one observer will chronicle the departure of the skylarks before Summer-end, at the early close there of the nesting season, and how another, not less accurate, will note the presence weeks later of larks in apparently as great a number as ever. The islanders have gone, to seek the south: the newcomers from Scandinavia have taken their place. But here also, as elsewhere, the conditions of the weather will be more potent than even the summons of the spirit of migration a severe frost will for a time clear a whole region of the tufted birdeens, a prolonged frost will drive them away from that region for the winter.
The Lark, then, so often apostrophised as the first voice of Spring, is by no means specifically the Herald of March. When we see his brown body breasting the air-waves of the March wind, it may not be the welcome migrant from the South we see, with greenness in his high aErial note and the smell of hay and wild roses in the o'er-come of his song, but a winter-exile from a far mountain-vale in Scandinavia or from the snowbound wastes of Courland or Westphalia.
The Woodlark, the Chiff-Chaff, and the rest, all are heralds of March. But as we identify certain birds with certain seasons and certain qualities---as the Swallow with April, and the Cuckoo with May, and the Dove with peace---so we have come to think of the Mavis and the Merle, but, above all, of the Skylark as the true heralds of March, the month when the Flutes of Pan sound from land's end to land's end, for all that tempest and flood, sleet and the polar blast and the bitter wind of the east, may ravage the coverts of the winged clans.
To write of all the birds who come back to us in the Spring, even so early as the front of March, would be, here, a mere catalogue, and then be incomplete. For the hidden places in the woods, in the meadows, in the hedgerows, on the moors, in the sandy dunes, in the hollowed rocks, on the ledges over green water and on the wind-scooped foreheads of cliffs and precipices; everywhere, from the heather-wilderness on the unsnowed hills to the tangled bent on the little wind-swept eyot set in the swing of the tides, the secret homes are waiting, or are already filled, and glad with that everlasting and unchanging business of the weaving anew of life which has the constancy of sunrise, the rhythmic certitude of day and night.
The spiritual secret of our delight in the joyousness of the lark's song, or in that of mavis or merle, is because the swift music is a rapture transcending human utterance. There is not less joy in the screech of the jay, in the hoarse cry of the cormorant, in the scream of the gannet poised like a snowflake two thousand feet above the turbulent surge of blue and white, or green and grey, to its vision but a vast obscurity of calm filled with phantom life, a calm moveless seen from that great height, wrinkled only with perplexing interplay of wave and shadow, These have their joy, and to the open ear are joy; not less than the merle singing among wet lilac, the mavis calling from the swaying poplar, the lark flinging the largesse of his golden music along the high devious azure roads. Can one doubt that this is so ---that, listening with the inward ear, we must hold as dear the wail of the curlew, the mournful cry of the lapwing, when on the hill-slope or in the wild grass these call rejoicingly in life and love and the mute ecstasy of implicit duity?
As long, however, as we impose our own needs and our own desires on the indifferent tribes of the earth and air, so long shall we take this or that comrade of the elements and say it is the voice of Peace, or War, or Love, or joy. March, we say, is the month of gladness. A new spirit is awake, is abroad. The thrush and the blackbird are our clarions of rejoicing. The lark, supremely, is our lyric of joy.
Joy, the poet tells us, is the Mother of Spring, and of joy has it not been said that there is no more ancient God? What fitter symbol for this divine uplift of the year than this bird whose ecstasy in song makes the very word Spring an intoxication in our ears?
We have a Gaelic legend that the first word of God spoken to the world became a lark . . . the eternal joy translated into a moment's ecstasy. But farther back has not Aristophanes told us that the lark existed, not only before the green grass where it nests or the blue lift into which it soars, but before Zeus and Kronos themselves, before the Creation, before Time. It is but a symbol of the divine joy which is Life: that most ancient Breath, that Spirit whose least thought is Creation, whose least motion is Beauty, whose least glance is that eternal miracle which we, seeing dimly and in the rhythmic rise of the long cadence of the hours, call by a word of outwelling, of measureless effluence, the Spring.