For over a week now, the male blackcap that wintered in our garden has been warming up his vocal chords. Seemingly oblivious to the still cold mornings, all it takes is a bit of sun for him to let slip little bursts of liquid song. ‘Our’ blackcap will most likely leave us soon, and head to Germany to breed. Some years ago now a population of blackcaps began to find that what is known as reverse migration – heading in the wrong direction, if you like – was a successful strategy, since they wound up wintering in mild, food-rich English gardens, and they’re now becoming increasingly familiar as winter denizens of suburbia.

So as welcome as it is to have blackcap song drifting through the living room window during breakfast, we may yet find ourselves devoid of it for a couple of weeks whilst we await the arrival of breeding blackcaps. Even then, our garden might not look as favourable a place for raising young as it was for seeing out the winter. I’m enjoying these little command performances while I can.

Meanwhile, chiffchaffs are performing their own complex crossover. The divide between wintering and breeding populations for chiffchaff is less clear. It is certainly possible that some stay put year round, but on the whole the next fortnight or so will see a complete changing of the guard. Whether the two or three birds chiffchaffing away at Hosehill Lake on Saturday were departing overwinterers or newly arrived migrants is difficult to say, for chiffchaffs arrive on average a fortnight earlier than blackcaps.

A few ringing stations have already seen some definite returning migrant chiffchaffs, with pollen matted into the feathers on their face. I was fortunate enough to handle, and wonder at, a bird like this last spring. They must reach stop-off points on the Mediterranean exhausted, and be in need of a quick glucose hit. Dipping deep into spring blooms for nectar, they unwittingly end up plastered in sticky pollen and then literally carry these little grains of the advancing spring north with them as they fly on.

Chiffchaff from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

March 10th

After lunch, I meandered for a while from daffodil patch to daffodil patch, hoping to catch an early glimpse of the daffodil fly. Only a few daffs have opened on campus to date, but even a limited supply was seemingly enough to attract the noisy buzz of a buff-tailed bumblebee queen, following much the same path as me. I watched her careen between 20 or 30 unopened buds before vanishing into the depths of a single bright-yellow trumpet. Ten or so seconds later she emerged and took flight at a startling pace towards the meadows. Taking her advice, I followed after.

Somewhere in the top of one of the nearest trees a mistle thrush sang at full pelt, almost ear-splittingly loud. Their voice carries further than most of our other native birds, a wild swirling reel that combines something of the repetition of a song thrush with the piping musicality of a blackbird. A heartbreaking touch of melancholy completes the recipe. Mistle thrushes used to be known as ‘storm-cocks’ for their habit of singing in gloomy weather, but it might just as well be because the song of the mistle thrush would make a fine elegy for those lost to wild weather.

As it happens, today was fine. Very fine indeed, with a glorious early spring warmth to the sun. A warmth that stirred the leaf litter, far below the thrush’s song-post, and the small creatures emerging from it for the first time this year. Two wolf spiders lurked on either side of a twig, shaggy and menacing. A little herbivorous fly was using the twig like a gymnast’s beam, either unheeding or unafraid of the spiders. It tottered along, raising one spotted wing after another for balance before dropping back into the leaves.

As I watched the fly retreat the buzz returned, swiftly followed by the responsible bee, now quartering the ground for nest sites. She evidently found something she liked – or had already chosen a spot – for she retreated underground for quite a few minutes, taking with her the fine coating of daffodil pollen that was just noticeable on her hind legs.

I left her to spring cleaning, and walked further down towards the lake. The air was busier today with sizeable flying insects than on any day since November last year. I took an idle swipe at one with a small net, and opened it to reveal a small dome-shaped dung beetle, one from the varied genus Aphodius. Precious little livestock on campus – perhaps it was after rabbit droppings – but with a flight that direct and industrious I’d probably be surprised how far it could go in search of a generous field of horses or cattle.

At the lakeside, spring clearly meant business. A chiffchaff began to sing, somewhere near the middle lake, whilst on the upper lake on the fringe of the Wilderness a clump of colt’s foot played host to my first comma of the year, with a honey bee for company. Like the pollen load on the hind leg of the buff-tailed bumblebee, the year now carries a delicate dusting of yellow warmth. A hint of the exuberance that is to come.


Nodding off over Darwin's  Voyage of the Beagle

Nodding off over Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle

I’m never usually one to arbitrarily jump on a feast or festival in order to grind out an idea for a blog.

That’s a lie, of course; I’m all over them from Christmas to St David’s Day to Dickens’s birthday. No bad thing, though, I would contend, for it is the high days and holidays punctuating the year that keep cultural life charmingly varied. At least they would if so many hadn’t been forgotten, which is why I’m also all in favour of inventing modern ones, and I recommend self-created festivals too. Some friends of ours celebrate a different anniversary meal for what seems to be every kind of tasty food under the sun, and who can blame them?

Without further space-filling (and speaking of invented festivals), I am catching up with the news that yesterday was World Book Day. Over on the Facebook page for A Focus On Nature, a few people have been talking about which wildlife-themed books were inspirational during their childhood, and among those discussed are a number that I recall fondly myself.

Not least among them is Gerald Durrell’s timeless classic, My Family And Other Animals, which seems to me much more likely to instill a love of real nature than any number of series about imperiled talking animals, however beloved. Durrell’s writing about people in My Family and his many other books is at least as delightful as his writing about animals, making his work all the more relevant to a conservation landscape in which people and wildlife are both indispensable. There’s a certain joie-de-vivre that carries through his books but is sometimes lacking in today’s conservation movement.

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I would like to be ‘a writer’, though whether that means I stop at this blog or ever end up writing a book remains to be seen. In the meantime I find the best way to inform my own writing is to keep reading. I don’t do so nearly as voraciously as I could as a child, tending too often to relegate reading to times when I am likely to nod off after just a page or two. When I do concentrate enough to think about it all a little more, I have tried to collect some thoughts in a few pieces for the A Focus On Nature blog, which you can catch up with here:

Nature Reading Roundup (February 2014)

Nature Reading Roundup: Walking

Nature Reading Roundup: Solitude

You can also spy on what I’m reading (and have read) over on Goodreads, where I intend to start posting short reviews of any nature-themed books I happen to read.

Happy reading!