Those who struggle with the theory of evolution, the idea that over millions of years gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) changes add up to the creation of something entirely new, should take a walk through the woods in early spring. Then, a few weeks later, they should go back. It takes aeons for biological species to change beyond all recognition, but habitats change almost overnight. Three and a half weeks after survey round one, and the woods’ progress from spring to summer is indeed coming on, like the mad March hare, in leaps and bounds. Seeing that kind of transformation happen in 24 days certainly makes the transition from, say, small deer-like creature to blue whale in a few million years somewhat more fathomable.
Put it down to the power of plants. We don’t give them enough credit – imagine if we could grow ourselves a cloak of such rare, radical and practical beauty as a new set of leaves in the time it takes me to write an email, or do the washing up.
Or so it seems.
Take this morning as an example: dry, woody, year-old bramble stems which snared my ankles in March have since thrown out bright citrus-green hydra-headed fresh shoots, and are rapidly gaining on my waist. What were bare, twig-like hazel and oak saplings are now clothed in their own greens of impossible freshness, the hazel leaves unwinding from their bud cocoons into a sharp point, oaks into broad rain-catching, sun-gathering umbrellas. I’d say the spring is hitting its sweet-spot: beneath the trees the greater part of the bluebells are now coming into bloom, scattered round about with wood sorrel, the last of the anemones, celandine, violets and yellow archangel. Friday I knelt to photograph an early purple orchid between rain showers, perhaps the first I had ever knowingly seen. This was to have been the year of moths, veering via wasps and bees for a brief spell, but currently it’s the year I finally begin to get to grips with wildflowers.
And for somebody in my ‘industry’, I think it’s an advisable move. Botanising is a craft worth learning, for without flower-power I’d not have many birds to survey. Plant communities support insects, abundances of which attract migrant bird species to our shores this time each year to take advantage of the twin bounties of a higher latitude summer, namely, long hours of daylight and bugs galore: a veritable paradise for a small insectivorous bird, or at least it should be. The annual green miracle is not just thrilling and beautiful, but vital, to bees, birds and birders alike.
As for those birds, they’re still making their arrivals, still trickling in, though currently struggling against the showers and strong breezes of the past week. Many woods still await a full warbler quota or the first regular cuckoo of spring, but it’s just a matter of time now. All they need is for the weather to cheer up just a little. A quick cross comparison of my first sighting spreadsheets (geek alert!) suggests that quite a few species might indeed be behind schedule compared to last year, that or it’s me with some catching up to do. Probably both.*We’d best start keeping up, or before turtle doves, whitethroats and hat-birders know it the world will have tilted far enough on its axis to send the whole parade whirling back the other way, and the endless process of change, decay, and new life will have started over.
*The BTO’s bird migration blog is a good place to keep up, for those who can’t get out often enough to welcome them back in person.