February 17th

There’s a thrilling freshness to the air. Spring’s first tantalising secrets are being revealed, flooding the world with colour. I started the morning scraping ice on the car, and air temperatures are still on the low side. But the earth has turned since midwinter, and it’s tangible in the warmth of the sun on your back. By summer I’ll be shy of it, but for now I delight in the sun, squinting into the light and basking like a self-satisfied cat. In February one can almost feel drunk on sunlight.

This gentle stirring of air molecules is all it took to rouse chironomid midges from their hiding place. On the bright side of an ornamental pine, a column of impossibly tiny black flies with exuberant bottlebrush antennae were busy with their ritual dance. It’s a kind of lek – for, as with birds, it is the male chironomids that dance – but operating at the kind of scale we don’t usually suspect of harbouring wildlife spectacles.

Each competing fly accelerates towards the blue sky before turning back, just as abruptly, and plummeting earthwards, occasionally spiraling into the tree for a well-earned break. I intercepted one or two with my hand and watched them rest on my fingertip, wings folded back, gently ruffled by an imperceptible breeze. A perfectly poised, wonderfully formed animal, yet one considered good for nothing but bird food by some people. Too many would simply squash one without a second’s thought.

Better known signs of the season were also in evidence. Crocuses cheering up roadsides, a carpet of snowdrops in the orchard, a few early hoverflies using rhododendron leaves as sunbeds. A blackbird in full song at the apex of the afternoon, and a March moth perched daringly in the open, as if inviting me to set the light trap out and see what else has emerged. The black-headed gulls that winter on Whiteknights Lake are out to see who can grow back their summer headgear the fastest, and it’s a cheering sight, a reminder that in not too many weeks I’ll be dusting off mine.

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