Nature 2006 February

As I walked out one evening…

It’s Mid January when I am writing these notes and there’s typical Hilltop Villages weather about. It feels pretty chilly all day with frequent night-time sub zero temperatures. Everywhere and for that matter anyone venturing out for any length of time looks pretty sodden. There has been a sudden emergence of potholes all about the lanes which are filled to the brim with dank water which cleverly disguise them until your wheel discovers them and the car shudders. (Reminder, must get on the phone to the Council!) And yet the rainfall figures to date tell me it hasn’t even been such a wet start to the year after all. This reminds me that it has been my custom since starting to write these Nature Notes, three seasons ago now, that I start each new year with a look back at the previous twelve months’ weather stats. So here goes. If you abhor stats skip to the next but one paragraph!

Rainfall levels in 2005 at 23ins were considerably down on 2004 (29ins). Interestingly, the monthly averages were pretty even throughout the year apart from January and February being two of the three driest months just making it to 1.3ins and August and October the wettest each with almost twice that at about 2.5ins. Temperature-wise for once June did not disappoint tennis fans as the hottest day at 31°C fell in the middle of the first week of the tournament. Meanwhile the coldest day came on the last day of February –6.6°C.

Looking ahead for the early part of 2006 we should continue to experience cooler average temperatures for this time of year until late March and the Met Office is not ruling out a really cold snap before winter is out. Meanwhile it will be on the whole dryer than usual but typically will turn squally in March.

Spring might be making inroads into Winter these days but any self-respecting garden bird will tell you its tough this time of year, very tough. In fact it’s a matter of life or death with only the most alert and healthy ones surviving. Each abbreviated day they must take on board sufficient fat reserves for the night ahead. Fall short and they will perish before dawn. The smaller the bird the more feeding they must do. For example the Goldcrest, one of Britain’s smallest birds, feeds literally from dawn to dusk. Prevented from foraging for an hour or two will be fatal.

The increasing day length will eventually mean warmer days and nights but well before us humans have even noticed this, the birds have started to change their behaviour. For example the Robin, which before Christmas would tolerate its red-breasted neighbours scavenging within its territory, is already making it known via its strident calls… tick-tick-tick!… come rain or shine that this garden is now off-limits and dare any cousin of his invade, even momentarily, they will get sent packing. Thrushes whilst often less visible, high up in the treetops can be heard laying down the law as they run through their endlessly varying repertoire of punctuated shrills, pauses, and fluty warbles. Listen out too a bit later on for the alarm call of the Blackbird, a rapid and piercing….. pink-pink-pink!….. A good indication that there’s a Sparrowhawk or Tawny owl about, a siren which continues long after the danger has passed. Unfortunately the woodpigeons around us seem oblivious to this early warning system and despite repeated training sessions one always seems to get caught totally unawares time after time by the aforesaid hawk. ‘Small body, big mouth’ as I saw it perceptively described recently, the wren makes up for its size by an ear-piercing shrill warble like high-pitched Morse Code which runs for five seconds then stops suddenly only to suddenly repeat again and again over several minutes.

We all enjoy the sight of birds and benefit in terms of pest control from them visiting our gardens in the Spring and Summer but whether you have a show this year will be down to how well they have fared from late Autumn through to this time of year. So continue to provide plenty of food, not just on the bird table and feeder but scattered on the ground so the less aggressive also can have a share.

If like one of our three native mammals (bats, hedgehogs and dormice) you were to wake from your annual hibernation how would you know instantly it was March? There are many signs, characteristic of the countryside southern England, for you to look out for this time of year. Firstly, hares – on open fields on higher ground around here hares can be spotted ‘boxing and coxing’. Secondly, over-wintering butterflies such as comma’s, peacocks and small tortoiseshells emerging from under eves, mysteriously trapped in garden sheds or lurking behind the curtains in the spare bedroom ready to surprise you. Thirdly, the Arum Lily or ‘Lords and Ladies’ are in flower; a cylindrical club-shaped yellow or purple flowerhead (the spadix) enclosed inside the green hood (the spathe). Lastly, on warmer days towards the end of March the red-tailed bees visiting any flowers in bloom and on warm evenings as March becomes April the first bats will be overhead.

These are just a few of the many signs of Spring. so if you would like more information about what will be happening when this Spring visit the BBC Springwatch 2006 website at www.bbc.co.uk/sn/. You can even have Bill Oddie spring up on your PC with up to the minute news!

Finally, my recommendation this time for an excursion is to take a walk out one evening in late March and experience the sounds of the countryside around us much as WH Auden suggested in his poem (borrowed for the title of these jottings) one should experience the sound of a town of an evening.