The Earliest Signs of Spring

As I write this the rain is lashing against the window panes and beating down upon the glass roof of the conservatory; unrelenting, its endless patter has been sounding since before dawn.  In the last hour the wind has risen and the silver birch, its downward hanging branches blowing first this direction and then the other, sheds its brittle twigs, nature’s way of pruning out the dead wood.
The silver birch silvered by frost

There is no way of casting yourself free from the weather on a day like this.  From every room of the house the rain calls, the views of the secret valley are as montone as the sky; all shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.  It is as if the life-force has been drained from the landscape.

Siskins are exotic looking winter visitors
A flash of colour reminds us that this is not the case.  The colder air travelling towards us from the north has driven before it birds desperate to find slightly better conditions.  Far too exotic looking with their bright yellow bodies and sooty black head and bib to be outside the tropics, siskins have arrived to feed on the nut feeders.  They prefer the tiny, black niger seeds but the goldfinches are having none of it; they want to keep those for themselves.  Flurries of feathers, a mix of yellows, golds and reds fall as they scrap – the delicate lttle goldfinch is obviously tougher than it looks.  From time to time, flocks of long-tailed tits descend too to take their place in the food queue; they usually prefer to feed high up in the trees, their search given way by the soft, contact calls they make to keep together.
Siskin vie with Goldfinch for the niger seeds
Long-tailed Tits only visit the feeders in bad weather
It is the birds that tell us that spring is really not so far away.  First it is the robins, their sweet, melodic song sounding as if it should come from a bird twice their size, perhaps a blackbird.  Then it is the turn of the giant sized birds, the raven and the red kite, not with song but with the aerial acrobatics of their courtship displays.  Buzzards follow too but they are more content to circle ever higher, mewing to one another, attraction enough it seems.  All three birds have been rarities for most of the twentieth century but the reintroduction of the red kite in the 1980’s helped protect the buzzards from persecution.  The ravens followed later, arriving in the secret valley with the dawn of the new century – now all three are seen daily.
The forked tail is the easiest way to recognise the red kite
Winter aconites are the first of the flowers to appear, their yellow button flowerheads opening on fine days to prove that they are closely related to  wild buttercups both in flower shape and colour.  Nothing will hold them back and if they become covered in snow or rimed in frost it is of little consequence to them: they are back as pert as ever once the thaw comes.  Snowdrops quickly follow, also uncaring of the weather although they do bow their heads as if allowing their shoulders to take the brunt of it.
Winter aconites flower early whatever the weather
Every tree and shrub show signs of life too.  The hazel, its catkins stubby, hard and green for many weeks begin to lengthen, to grow brighter and looser until they live up to their old and descriptive country name of lamb’s tails.  Knocked back and discoloured by frost they soon restore or are replaced by others threefold.  Others are less precocious and prefer to show the signs of spring more discreetly.  The hawthorn leaf buds show signs of swelling and take on a brighter hue; the blackthorn and cherry flower buds also are clearly visible promising snowstorms of white and pink petals in a month or two.
Buds start to swell slowly at first

In the flower borders, life is stirring.  The hellebores lift their heads in shades of mournful maroons and creamy whites; the daffodils show their buds too almost as soon as they push through the soil waiting to open once they have reached their full height.  The day lilies are the earliest of the herbaceous plants to send out their leaves, their bright lime green shoots creating an attractive foil to the showier spring bulbs weeks before they send out spray after spray of exotic looking flowers.  Spring is just around the corner…

Hellebores flower early in the year

The day lilies won’t flower for some months but their leaves are amongst the first to show

In the meantime, the rain has turned to snow.  The countryside is turning white and still the wind howls.  Another day of winter to be crossed off the calender before we can relax and say “Spring has come”.

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What a Difference a Day Makes….

…..Or a night, to be more accurate. We had been spared the snow that had covered most of the UK until now but it has finally arrived – and in force. We went to bed with none of the snow forecast but by dawn, it was another story. Over a foot of snow in just a few, dark hours is not the norm for this part of England, 1983 being the last time I can recall.

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The first thing that greets my eyes upon waking is our beautiful silver birch tree – how different it looks today, with its branches crusted in snow, compared to the photo on my last post (here). No blue sky and gleaming bark, just that flat, leaden cloud, and the colour almost drained from the tree, that warns of worse weather to come.
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The view across the secret valley is also very different from the frosted look of Christmas Day (here). Clearing the car of snow – a task we don’t normally do many times in a winter – is almost a novelty and we are thankful that we have a four wheel drive, for it takes us over an hour to drive to the horses, instead of the usual seven minutes but at least we got there.

The UK has ground to a halt: airports closed, people trapped in their cars overnight, lorries jack-knifed, cars abandoned where they have slid and the councils running out of grit and salt. The latter doesn’t make any difference to the secret valley for the gritters don’t venture down here anyway. It is good to see the horses are safe, warm and well fed and enjoying the sensation of snow under their feet. And like us, they have beautiful views to look at from their barn during quiet moments. I wonder if they are aware how lucky they are! Or ourselves, for that matter – for in Scotland there is a report of a woman leaving home on Christmas Eve to collect the festive turkey and still unable to reach home, the road being blocked by snow. Apparantly, it is the first time in 36 years she and her husband have been apart.


Down by the river, as the carol says, the snow is “crisp and deep and even”. The water is high, almost to the top of the banks and, if we get a sudden thaw, will almost certainlly flood. However, the forecast is for another ten days of this cold spell with more snow at times – the weather is coming from Siberia so temperatures are likely to plummet further. And we do, in theory at least, still have the remnants of the weather systems from America to arrive yet which reach us about six weeks after they wreak havoc in the States.


A Great Start to 2010……

The sun is shining, the frost is crisp and the sky is blue – a perfect January day. And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve seen a lot of interesting wildlife, some rare, some common and even some ‘old friends’. winter sunshine on silver birch

Our hare is back and as unconcerned by our presence as before, such a privilege for what is normally a nervous, flighty animal. For those of you that don’t know the story of ‘our’ hare, earlier last summer we had a family of two young and an adult and, as we were in the garden most days, they became oblivious to the threat we might pose. The story of this can be found on an earlier post. In fact, they became so tame that I was able to take all the photos of them by just walking up to them.

Fallow Deer – one of the larger species of deer to be found in England and quite common throughout the country. But like all deer, despite their size, they are remarkably difficult to see and watch. When I lived in the Chiltern Hills, 50 miles to the east of the secret valley, they grazed the field close to my windows, making watching easy. Here, we see them occasionally from the cottage – yesterday was one of those days. In winter, their coats lose their lovely dappled spots and become quite dark – the two pictures below show this, the lower one being taken last summer.
The Red Kite is one of the great conservation success stories of recent times. Once so common they scavenged in the streets of London (and had a reputation for stealing hats off people’s heads to decorate their nests with. These days they often use plastic instead – the Kites, not the people, I mean, of course). By the 1970’s numbers were down to just a few pairs living in the remotest parts of Wales. A breeding and reintroduction programme started in the 1980’s centered on the village in the Chilterns where I lived. Soon they were a relatively common sight in that area but they have been slow to extend their range. Now we are seeing them much more frequently in the secret valley and they never fail to thrill. The full story of the Red Kite can be found on the Chilterns website here.


And now, the real rarity! Little Egrets extended their distribution from Europe to southern England several years ago and for a while were found just on the warmer coastline. Three years ago, a pair wintered in the secret valley. When I saw a white bird on New Year’s Day, I first thought it was another egret but then realised it was much bigger – more the size of a heron. And unlike the hunched neck flight of the egrets, this bird flew with its neck outstretched: it was a Spoonbill. Although not unheard of in the UK, they are very irregular visitors and it was the first one I’ve ever seen, or ever likely too, I should think.

This photo is most definitely poor quality – I only have a small ‘aim and fire’ camera and took this from an upstairs window. I am hoping to buy a more sophisticated camera with telephoto lenses very soon: another unexpected side effect of blogging has been a rekindled interest in photography. Who knows what will show up on this blog then?

[The spoonbill has moved on southwards – I think this cold, snowy weather has proved too much for it. Still, we were lucky to have it around for a few days. 9th January 2009]

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