The rain is falling with a delicate persistence, soaking into the greedy marsh, and every so often there is a quick burst of song. I love the song of willow warbler more than most. When they first raise their voices you know that spring has come: and wherever they do so you know that the tide of destruction has been held up a bit. They like a touch of wild, these birds.
Not a great song, as songs go, but special to me. I’ve heard it at home and I’ve heard it in Zambia: the bird neatly joins two parts of my life, and in that soft, lisping burst of song the wanderer and the home-lover are for once in tune.
The song also ties in past and present in the neatest way: for it was the moment when I finally managed to separate willow warbler from the rest of the springtime chorus that I knew I had now properly got birdsong: that I was now properly tuned into the wild world. So the bird that is singing his song of new life to the marsh is of the same species that brought new life to me.
The feeling of really belonging to the wild world began with willow warbler. This bird was the immigration official who cancelled my tourist visa and gave me resident status.
I’ve heard willow warblers sing out with bitterns and nightingales in England, and I’ve heard them in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, among the elephants and the lions, with the sound of hadeda ibis and orange-breasted bush-shrike and red-chested cuckoos all around: the same trickle of liquid notes – a song as homely as it is exotic – and every time I have rejoiced.
Years ago when I stayed out in the Valley for a couple of months, every so often a day would be lit up by a letter from home, cranked out by the fax-machine at the old croc farm. The song of the willow warbler has the same effect: a joyful union of disparate forms of love.
And today when I hear the willow warbler on the marsh, I feel the joys of home united with that old itchiness in the soles of my feet – and I can savour the sweet thought that in October I’ll be going back to the beloved valley.
Here’s a bit of willow warbler song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjiV8et8C34
If you fancy joining me in Zambia there’s still a couple of places left on the trip I’m co-leading this year, and a few more available for 2017 http://www.wildlifeworldwide.com/group-tours/sacred-combe-safari
Apology: Sorry I’ve been quiet of late: there’ve been technical problems with the website and the associated email address. But here I am again, in the middle of this glorious spring — and I’ve just seen the handsomest bird in Europe if not the world. More on him later…