It’s the fifth month, which is not quite halfway around the year from Christmas, but close enough. And a song which has long puzzled me. Ironically, it’s not the fact that ten lords keep leaping or the quandary over why French hens are so much better than any other kind, but the two turtle doves. You see the turtle dove is a summer bird, flying here to join us for our summer and then returning to overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa. It is most definitely a lover of warm days, and it would literally only be seen dead in the Uk at Christmas. The origins of the song – it dated from the late 18th century – are lost in the mists of time, and sadly the turtle dove may also end up lost to us as well, because it’s in dire trouble. It’s UK’s fastest-declining bird species, having suffered a 94% loss in population since 1995. Two turtle doves is a rare thing indeed.
So this week saw me at RSPB Otmoor. Although much of the reserve is closed, the footpaths and bridleways are open by law, and so I spent some time looking for these birds. A handful arrive every year, and the staff at the reserve sprinkle seed down in the hope that visitors may see them. I spent the whole of a humid, stinking hot day at Otmoor, without seeing them, but didn’t regret a minute of it. Ahairy dragonfly, a Cetti’s warbler, little egret, lapwing, curlew, cuckoo, red kite, marsh harrier, hobby and even a regular flypast by a bittern kept me more than happy. But all good things must come to an end, so eventually, when I ran out of water to drink, I started to walk back to my car. I halted, purely out of habit, near the area where the turtle doves are most often seen – just as a pair came down. They fed for perhaps two minutes before flying off, and this was their only appearance for the whole day. It felt as though they had waited just for me.
So I’m afraid you can keep your milkmaids and leaping lords. I have my two turtle doves, and I’m a very happy man indeed.