Welcome to Spring!
Thank God! 'We've made it through the night!' as the song goes … and our reward in March and April is an audible, visible gear-change of sound, colour and motion as the 'greatest show on earth' stirs into action.
One of the first signs of spring is the 'first rose', the 'prima rosa’ or primrose. Delicate harbingers of spring they are amongst the first flowers in an undressed countryside. Bare branches are the backdrop to a floral display of celandines, wood anenomes and then bluebells that demand your appreciation and send a tingle down to your toes.
Insects hum new tunes for a new season and the buff-tailed bumblebee is one of the first and largest of our eighteen species to get busy. In the sunny, sheltered patches you'll also see hover flies, like billy-whizz - dashing here and there in a fast-paced join-the-dots pattern of random movement.
While bush-crafters like us are setting up our survival hammocks for a new season of camping, the natural world is full of creatures climbing out of theirs. Many caterpillars emerge now to provide an early food source for the birds. There are also butterflies that over-winter, including the small tortoiseshell, the peacock and the brimstone, the original 'butter' fly.
March sees the early migrants arrive. You should already be hearing Chiff-chaffs from southern Europe and wheatears from Africa are amongst the first to make it to Britain - a desperate marathon race for the best breeding sites with the winners establishing the larger, more productive territories. As spring progresses more voices are added to the song, with each species timing their entry with available food supplies.
It’s all in a precise sequence of course. Tawny owls breed early because their preferred diet of mice and voles is more conspicuous before the vegetation grows thick. Tits wait until April to ensure the caterpillar bloom is in full swing. (These busy birds need over a hundred caterpillars a day to satiate a nestful of hungry mouths). Sparrowhawks bide their time, waiting for the tit fledglings which are easy pickings, like waiting for a fast-food outlet to open.
By the beginning of April the dawn chorus is in full swing - a mad male voice choir designed to both attract and repel. The songs lay down a marker to other males of the same species, enabling the competitors to sort it out without violence … like a modern day poetry slam. The females within earshot are also attuned to the prowess of these posturing males, selecting from the auditions the one with the required 'X factor'.
It’s the time of year to leave the window open at night and let this extraordinary performance feed your early morning dreams. And although there are thirty five million songbirds fewer than thirty years ago, indulge yourself at least once this spring in a different kind of rock concert. You have to put the effort in by getting up early, but it’s a free ticket, and if you go with a friend it will be an exciting, meaningful, musical event you will remember forever.