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Country diary: house martins linger on despite signs of winter

Here there are few clearer winter signs than the arrowheads of geese in rhyming line across the marsh. As if to seal the promise of autumn’s end, there are also redwings, fresh from Scandinavia or Iceland, spearing overhead. I love the way that the redwings’ intense calls – that pressurised tzeep sound which seems compounded of anxiety and cold steam – are instantly spliced back into our soundscape after an absence of six months.

It is odd, however, to reconcile these indicators of a new season with the old familiar sights of house martins. Of all the colony summering in this village just a single pair is left. Even these two look tiny, vulnerable even, buzzing about Holkham’s grey goose skies. Then they fire down to a mud-cup nest at the corner of the eaves. House martins can have three broods and one can infer that these two were sitting on eggs at exactly the moment that Joe Root took a last summer’s catch to win the fifth Ashes test.

We can only guess at the tension now at work in the birds. As all the others submitted to their migrants’ brewing drive to leave, this pair were new parents. When all their neighbours were cruising over the Med, say, or the patchwork semi-desert landscapes of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas, the world for our two had contracted to the buttercup-sized gape in their chicks’ open beaks. The likelihood is that when you read these lines, two house martins will still be at work, but most of their kind will be riding warm bluffs of sub-Saharan air.

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Yet the wonder is, not just that a pair is still here, but also that this tiny bird has the ecological flexibility to adapt to half of our planet’s latitudinal range. Climate chaos means that house martins are certainly arriving in Britain earlier and leaving later (it is astonishing, on this note, to read of 140,000 birds that passed along this coast on one day – 27 September – in 1999). Excessive use of pesticides is now also implicated in the species’ 65% decline in Britain over 40 years. Blessed, therefore, is the Norfolk village that still hosts them.


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