If you see me at this time of year, I am usually not walking very fast – I am scanning the fields and bushes on my regular walks looking for the common whitethroat. From spring and through the summer there are quite a few of them scattered around Reading, skulking in bushes or patches of bramble, and singing their curious scratchy little song.
They are nondescript (except of course for their white throat!) and their song is hardly going to inspire anyone; they are an obscure little brown bird.
When I moved into my home in 1988, I took the dogs for a walk along a lane at the end of my road and the whitethroat was one of the birds I spotted there on my very first walk. Over the years I have walked down that lane countless times; eventually it was surfaced and speed bumps were installed as cars were using it.
When my son was three or so, we used to ride down there with him in a crossbar-mounted seat. As we passed each speed bump he would say bump bump as each wheel went over and the lane became know to us as the bump bumps. The bump bumps is where the whitethroats came every year. In 1989 I noted their arrival date; 22 April. Every year they arrived on the same date. When my children started school, we used to walk down the bump bumps to get there. We always waited through April for the little scratchy song that gave away the bird’s presence.
We used to go there the week before, to see if they were about, but the birds were never early nor late. As they grew older, my children went to secondary school, and the last April we walked to school that way we found one singing on 19 April. Every year since they have been a little bit earlier, now they may be as much as ten days earlier. I still walk down that lane a lot, and in April I am on the look-out. Come September and they have all gone, even from August they are hard to find. Once they have raised their families they leave and head south.
I found some research being carried out in the Kalahari desert of Namibia and Botswana, as that is where they spend the winter. These little brown birds make an incredible journey. First it is the adults, the young leaving a while after their parents and following them, who knows how, over this vast distance.
During the winter the bump bumps are quiet; I still walk there a few times a week and there are always a few birds to see. Sometime in midwinter the whitethroats leave their wintering grounds among the bushmen of the Kalahari. They head north passing through Angola and Zambia and then through the vast forest of the Congo. This bird, slenderer than a sparrow, carries on over the vast arid plains of Chad and then into the baking sands of the Sahara. They arrive at the coast of North Africa and make their way over the Mediterranean sea. If they chose a narrow point they would arrive in southern Spain and continue north through France, quite likely to the Cherbourg peninsula. I imagine they would take off for the 45 mile journey over the English channel from the rocky coastline of Nez Bayard, their tiny wings taking them to the English coast, maybe via the Isle of Wight or Dorset; Portland is a famous place to find them after the sea crossing.
After landing they pass Poole and Bournemouth; they could flit through quaint English villages like Sixpenny Handley and onwards through meadows of Salisbury and on over the Berkshire downs, before finding somewhere to nest.
A few scattered bushes in the rough grasslands around Waterloo meadows, Rose Kiln Lane or the bump bumps is then their home, where they sing, pair up, mate and rear young. They might raise two broods, and then they leave, simply vanishing from the landscape for another year to go all that way back to Africa.
The bump bumps fall quiet and I am left living in hope that they’ll be back next April. Bird migration is an astonishing thing. The whitethroats will repeat that incredible journey just to come to Reading.