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shape is blurred and merges into one, no defined hills, no defined trees, no defined river bed, even the clouds have been replaced by a heavy, all-oppressing  blanket of grey.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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The North Wind Doth Blow…..

The other day I recalled one of the nursery rhymes that my mother used to sing to me when I was a small child sitting on her lap. Goodness knows why, after so very many years, but no sooner had I done so than the words became true:
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“The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow and what will the robin do then, poor thing?”
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Well, the answer is puff up its feathers and stand close to the bird feeding table until it gets fed!

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It isn’t just the robin that demands food in these difficult conditions and there has been a constant stream of activity back and forth to the feeders. The tit family are always welcome – we get many different sorts here: blue, great, coal, willow and long-tailed.
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It is often stated that British birds are rather dull compared to the exotica of warmer climes. We do have our share of ‘little brown jobs’ that aren’t too easy to identify but what can be more spectacular than the Greater Spotted Woodpecker? With it’s red cap and rump and black and white markings, it is a beautiful looking bird. We also have its diminutive cousin, the Lesser Spotted, but these tend to stay out of the garden and feed amongst the willows by the river.
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The only other resident British woodpecker, the Green, never comes to the bird table or feeders but it does have a store of food available in the electricty pole by the house. Normally quite shy, most sightings of it are of it flying rapidly away in the typical undulating movement that is common to all of the woodpeckers – a useful identification aid. Country folk (I include myself here) always call the Green Woodpecker by its traditional name of Yaffle.
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Often cited as the commonest Brititsh bird, the Chaffinch is also another colourful bird. Or, at least, the male is. In the photos below the rich salmon pink breast feathers are clearly visible, as are the wing markings, common to both sexes and making the rather dull female easy to identify. Bramblings come to our bird table as well. A less common winter visitor, they are similar to the male Chaffinch; however, the colour is richer and carried by both the sexes.
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The Thrush family are also well represented: here a cock Blackbird waits for food. its yellow bill contrasting with its black plumage (the hens are chocolate brown but still have a yellowish bill). In many birds, the Magpie for example, black becomes iridescent green when seen in certain lights. The Blackbird is jet black and all the more handsome for it.
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Only coming into the garden to raid the shrubs of berries or fruit from trees, the winter visiting Redwings and Fieldfares (close relatives of the Blackbird) feed in large flocks throughout the secret valley. I managed to catch this photo of a Fieldfare eating our apples before it flew off.
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The sheep almost disappeared in the blizzard yesterday. Today the weather is calmer and this crow is taking advantage of searching for food in one of the ewe’s fleeces.
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The snow – which is very unusual around here before Christmas – looks to hang around for a while, with more forecast next week. I cannot remember the last time we had one but, perhaps, a white Christmas may be a reality rather than just a picture on a card. If so, I shall have to write a post quoting Bing Crosby…..

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