After the strange heat of February came stormy March, with windy spell running into windy spell such that it seemed, as I’ve always liked to say, that we were living at sea. A good reminder that, as inhabitants of an island perched on the edge of Atlantic, we pretty much do. Alas that of late it feels like an end-of-era Atlantis, an island that is gradually sinking. The good ship SS Great Britain is holed below the waterline and foundering, not so iron-hulled and sturdy as her more noisy cheerleaders would have us believe.
Just as the political storm gathers full strength, the real winds have died down and given way to a gloriously temperate spring. Mild, not hot; cool breeze, warm sun and air with a delicious, fresh-laundered scent. The air is rich with the fruity song of blackbirds, especially in the early evening. Their song always strikes me as so beautifully homely. Woodlarks or nightingales may have wilder toned or more showy repertoires, respectively, but they’re birds of special habitats these days, not part of the everyday nature that soundtracks our lives. Conservation action targets the rare, but arguably we need blackbirds more. That may be one reason the recent epidemic of netted hedges and trees has stirred up such strong emotions.
This afternoon I’ve heeded the blackbirds’ song and stayed here in our garden. I mowed those parts of the lawn that I keep short, navigating round some blooming celandines. Sowed vegetables, herbs and wildflowers. Trimmed some ivy and dead stems round the edges, pausing for a few minutes here and there to watch the small creatures disturbed by my gardening – woodlice, yellow ants, springtails, millipedes. Watching life in miniature is as effective a form of meditation as I’ve ever known, one I have probably practiced without knowing it since I was a child. I don’t often enough. When everything in the world seems to be changing, it can feel like the only appropriate response is to take a view, to move, to act. Sometimes, it’s better just to sit under the tree where the blackbird sings, and be.
As I write, we’re in mid-March and experiencing perfectly seasonal conditions – blustery days that veer between sharp cold showers and warm spring-like spells of sunshine. It makes what went before all the more surreal. February ended with a week of full-on spring. The landscape was bathed in soft, hazy light and warm sun that tempted insects to emerge and birds to raise their voices to the blue sky. On Greenham Common, what I would usually regard as classic mid-March sightings were the highlights of a few-hour survey. Brimstones passed me frequently: animated scraps of such intense yellow-green that they are enough to persuade me hope yet remains in the world by sheer force of colour alone. In the woods on the edge of the common I saw two chiffchaffs working the tree-tops for insects. The woods shield a series of damp south-facing gullies, well-sheltered and probably harbouring plenty of winter gnats and midges for a wintering warbler. As I headed east back on the open common at noon, another unseen chiffchaff broke into full song – the earliest in the year I have ever heard one.
At dusk each day the spell was broken with the return of winter chill, a daily reminder that such conditions are far from normal for late winter. Perhaps the most outlandish statistic I saw during the warm spell was not the high temperature record (though this was impressive enough) but that under cloud cover a part of northwest Scotland did not drop below 16 degrees on the night of the 22nd. That would be a fairly normal daytime temperature in July in that part of the world, let alone an overnight minimum in February.
Did the unseasonable heat hint at a more dangerous fire to come? Similar weather patterns have certainly occurred in February before, though it is undoubtedly a rare event. Even under climate change we should not regularly expect these temperatures in winter. The greater threat to spring wildlife is not so much high temperatures triggering breeding cycles early but the possibility that the pendulum will swing quickly back to winter. More energy in the climate system means more variability, more extreme weather. Many have made the comparison between this year and late February / early March 2018 when we experienced consecutive subzero days, but it doesn’t take weather that extreme to wreak havoc. A few weeks of cool and damp will soon take its toll on newly emerged insects or snuff out early nesting attempts. Hopefully this spring will have just enough sunny spells to keep the early birds and bees going.
Absurd February weather at Greenham Common
The cloud of uncertainty looming fretfully over 2019 began to burst into precipitation, perhaps even earlier than I feared. I felt some days as though it would drown me. There was little to feel positive about, even as I considered my relative good fortune compared to many of the world’s poor and marginalised. Somehow our minds don’t do rationality as much as we might like to. When I could, I took myself away to the woods or the lake. A cold, bright late January afternoon tempted me outside, but by the time I finally left the shelter of my office grey clouds had scudded in on the easterly breeze. A few pellets of graupel, that curious polystyrene-like soft hail, made it through the oak canopy to bounce on the path in front of me. I made my way through the Reading Wilderness towards the gate where firecrests have wintered for most of the last seven years, the hail picking up as I approached the spot. I took shelter under a laurel to wait out the storm.
I’d already tried this corner of the Wilderness for firecrests several times this year, as well as other places I’ve seen them on campus in the past, hoping for the little lift these dazzling little birds always give me. Firecrests are in some ways the perfect birder’s bird: just scarce enough to be challenging to find; just common enough for you to chance on at least once a year—or more regularly if, like me, you are blessed with knowing a regular wintering or breeding haunt. They are, of course, also quite beautiful; I would say objectively so, their eye stripes and bright lemon-green plumage giving them a stylistic edge over the more common goldcrest. Perhaps it is my imagination—along with the intense sternness of their expression compared to the more demure goldcrest with its short moustache—but everything else about them seems bolder too. Firecrests have a louder and sharper call and song, and their quick, precise darting movements through dense foliage are particularly tricky to follow.
Shortly after ducking into the shrubs I heard an insistent three-part call from a nearby holly. Hoping I was identifying it correctly, I broke cover, the shower now receding anyway, and caught a glimpse of movement ahead. There indeed was a firecrest, sheltering closely within a few holly bushes with occasional forays into a low patch of rhododendron. Every minute or so it let out a short burst of song, a rising series of notes to match the lift in my mood. I almost audibly sighed with relief—relief that firecrests were still among us, that I had been gifted this small moment of transformation. A foolish response, for just one little bird? I don’t think so. It truly is the most wonderful mystery, that a simple encounter with a fellow wild creature can bring such a dose of uncomplicated joy. That isn’t to say that to fix all our problems all we need to do is go birding. But it might be a bigger part of the answer to life than we often suspect.
Firecrest wintering habitat on Whiteknights campus, busy Wilderness Road just beyond.