Monday, 28 March 2011

Springing out all over

I have no benchmark from last year, but the blossom seems to be putting on a spectacular display. After a mild and bright last week, the blackthorn in particular is dappling the hedgerows with its delicate white flowers. En masse they create splashes of light amongst mostly dormant trees. Spring is apparently early - this website gives information about indicator species.

Of course the classic indicator, as recorded in the letters pages of The Times, is the first cuckoo of the year. I like this from 1951:

"I think we can claim to have heard the first cuckoo of spring." A bold claim this, for the date of hearing was March 29 (at about 10 minutes to 7am) and there are not a few naturalists, in ordinary circumstances  kindly and tolerant persons, to whom the mere suggestion that a cuckoo can be heard before April is as a red rag to a bull.

As per his recent entry, Duncan has heard one already in Somerset, which would indicate that spring down there is progressing apace. No cuckoos here, but the blossom is a delight!

Saturday, 26 March 2011


Cycling the 20 miles at dawn to the train station at Castle Cary and I definitely heard a cuckoo. Shortly after 6am I heard it calling clearly as I stopped at a traffic light. Beautiful early morning sunshine on my way to get the train to London to march against the public spending cuts.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Spring Cleaning

I was accosted, politely, by a woman in a charity shop who announced cautiously 'Excuse me, aren't you the man who collects dead things ?' I explained that yes I was a man who collected dead things and as it turned out, much to my inner excitement, that she had recognised me from the local newspaper, as there had been a number of articles about an exhibition of my work. She asked if I would be interested in some badger skulls she had seen and of course I said that I would be. She explained that whilst on a walk she had seen three badger skulls in a heap of soil cleared out of a badger set and she would pick them up for me if she saw them again. In cycling home from work in the weeks since I have also seen heaps of soil outside badger sets and rabbit warrens in what seems to be evidence of a spring clearing of the underground rooms in preparation for the coming of new families. As I later covered my own garden, in the tatt and rubbish I was clearing out of my sheds as I dismantle them to make way for a possible house extension, I reflect on just how similar us mammals are in so many subtle unspoken ways.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Avalon Marshes

A really nice afternoon at the Avalon Marshes open day on the Somerset levels. Pond dipping, bird mask making and tractor rides. Took the children on a tractor and trailer ride through the Shapwick Heath nature reserve looking at wildlife. The guide said that although the tractor was loud, birds don't 'see' it in the same way that they see a person on foot and are actually quite used to the vehicle and just get on with their business. Saw a toad cross the path and several white egrets working their way along the peat diggings, bright white against the black. Saw a male kestrel noisily seeing off another male in an attempt to apparently defend it's nest which the guide explained was in the barn-owl nest box at the side of the old railway line. Also saw a number of painted lady butterflies flying fast and low among the reeds to the side of the path in the bright spring sunshine.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Since I first made my count...

I visited the reserve at Wymondham again last weekend to see if the newts had left their hibernation and moved to the ponds. It is a place that holds a special place in my heart for the memory of the first time I went. I grew up with an active interest in birds and other wildlife, indeed one of my earliest memories is looking for newts with my uncle and aunt in the ponds in woods on the Framingham Pigot estate. But by my early twenties, diverted by life’s pleasures (though always with an eye on the skies and a general delight in being outside) I no longer actively sought opportunities to observe nature. 

One university Easter holiday, and in a slough of my own making, I by chance heard about the reserve established to compensate for the new Wymondham bypass intersecting a significant amphibian breeding site. On a whim I headed down there one bright spring day.  I finally found the reserve tucked away down a cul-de-sac beyond the railway line and parked up by the newly constructed footbridge linking the ponds on either side of the A11, with its special fencing to prevent amphibian road-crossing.  As I approached the large pond on the west side, the surface seemed to bubble and move. Closer still, I could see the multitude of toads that clambered and grappled in their breeding frenzy. The sheer vitality within meters of rumbling traffic amazed me, and I walked around the pond delighted by this fecund spectacle.

Knowing that the official reserve was over the bridge, I expected that this was simply the appetiser and that a newt spectacular lay ahead. When I found the smaller set of sandy-bottomed ponds that lie to the east of the road I was initially disappointed to see them devoid of writhing limbs. Standing for a few minutes, looking into their clear waters, my eyes started to adjust and focus beyond the surface-reflected glare, and I discerned dark shapes outlined against the sand. After a time I realised that amongst the leaves and twigs, hanging spread-eagled in the water as if set in a display cabinet, was the unmistakeable shape of a newt. Once I had seen one, they became easier to spot and I realised that the water was thick with them. I experienced for the first time in years the joy of finding what I had sought, and the realisation that this natural phenomenon was both ancient and new each year, and ran along regardless of my preoccupations. And though threatened by humanity’s actions, there was a vigour to these little creatures that gave me hope that this annual moot would continue long after the road and I were gone.

I have returned several times over the years, though my timing is never quite right. I have never again seen the multitude of amphibians that I did on that first visit, and that enchanted and moved me so. Beautiful, and strangely tranquil as it is, I doubt I shall ever again be transported and gently healed as I was on that April morning in the dying days of the last millennium.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Daffs & chaffs...

We seem to have reached the tipping point where the momentum of spring has pulled free of the stasis of winter. The snowdrops are now largely done, and daffodils are bursting forth by the day. The soundtrack to this phase is the loud and persistent singing of the chaffinch advertising his wares. Here's a recording I made in our garden this weekend:

He will sit at the top of a tree and deliver this song so tirelessly, that it was (according to 'Birds Britannia') a Victorian pastime to catch and compete chaffinches against each other as singers, betting on the outcome, such that good singers were highly prized assets.

The song is a difficult one to describe musically, but it has three distinct phases when delivered complete; an opening phrase of accelerating single notes, before a longer slurred note, and finally a rising, almost interrogative sign-off. Sometimes the latter two phrases are incomplete or absent but the opening is umistakeable. It is not a beautiful song, but as one of the first songs I learnt, with its place in the year of birdsong, it is one of my favourites.

We are honoured to have our own alarm chaffinch who wakes us in the morning by tapping on our window and delivering a couple of loud 'spinks', and the occasional burst of his song.

Another milestone of spring is the first chiff-chaff, and we heard one yesterday as we worked in the garden, delighted that this migrant has returned to our shores.

Specimen Show & Cuckoo

My exhibition 'Specimen,' of natural history related artworks is going well at Wells Museum.

Lucy is also sure that she heard a cuckoo yesterday. She said that she heard it consistently for half an hour and it was definitely a cuckoo and not a wood pigeon. Frogs still all croaking at night and the frogspawn is slowly developing. Frosts have been replaced by consistent rain so everything will be growing fast over the next week.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Hard Frost & Dead Rook

Spring still racing on. Frogspawn seems to have survived although the hard frosts this week froze the spawn exposed to the air and I expect this may have died off but will watch to see if the eggs survive and divide, still perfect little black circles at the moment. Fruit trees budding and garden birds singing their heads off. Saw several herons on the drive home across the levels this evening on the way back from my art exhibition in Wells, also saw a kestrel and a buzzard walking in the fields amongst the lambs and sheep. 'Rook Box' artwork completed in time for the exhibition although concrete still drying.