Fickle February! Great banks of pristine snowdrops, shimmering in the Arctic breeze seemed somehow to defy the fact that keen frost had been pretty much a nightly feature for a week or two. The ground had remained stubbornly rock hard for days on end before at last there were signs of a thaw. Days are now perceptibly lengthening and the strength of the sun increases. There is evident a growing sense of anticipation as more and more of our feathered friends seem to be gearing themselves up in preparation for forthcoming spring. Like a tide slowly and inevitably advancing across a lonely shore, there is a perceptible change in the air and a sense that winter may be in retreat. The ground is certainly softening and indeed, hope sprang eternal when the jaunty little chanting of the equally jaunty bluetit, provided another reminder that the march towards spring is unquestionably quickening.
There was also, a brief burst of the erratic and shrill little song of a dunnock to further confirm that spring fever is beginning to take hold albeit, thus far, it is hardly reaching epidemic proportions. Although there is more warmth in the sun now, nights are still more reminiscent of the Arctic than of the Mediterranean! But the rhythmic reeling of cock great tits is very definitely becoming more strident by the day. Challenges are being issued with real vigour … and answered! Sap and dander are clearly rising daily.
Deeply rooted emotions are certainly rising beneath the red breasts of rival cock robins. The rising volume of redbreast music, a tad more structured now, again tells its own tale of rising passions. And they don’t come more passionate than robins! My morning offerings of scraps are now attracting quite an audience. Whilst mainly intended for my motley little band of hens, a vigorous colony of sparrows assembles each morning to snatch whatever crumbs of comfort they can filch from under the very beaks of the chickens. A plethora of blackbirds also hover, with competition between them obviously hotting up. Indeed, the rivalry between them is such that they seem to spend most of their time chasing each other, thus missing out on most of the offerings.
The speugs are undoubtedly becoming increasingly vocal. As ever, their argumentative nature produces a constant chattering banter, which appropriately maintains their collective reputation as a ‘quarrel’! One redbreast, a regular customer at the morning ‘prayers’ is perhaps quietly repeating to himself an incantation of tolerance, for a rival has suddenly appeared on the scene and stays long enough to snatch a morsel before rapidly retreating. One day soon, I am sure, real hostilities are bound to break out! The war of words, if robin song can be thus translated, is ascending! It may yet turn very physical!
For a number of days recently, a thin skin of ice effectively placed an avian embargo upon the waters of the loch. Thus, I presume, the resident wildfowl moved on to other, unfrozen watery venues. As far as I could tell, there was for a time, no open water for the geese so I presume those that remained must have roosted on the ice. The ice persisted for days but was never thick enough to be fully bearing, yet on a couple of occasions, an intrepid fox was spotted padding confidently across its surface.
This brave-hearted animal seemed assured enough in its explorations and I can only presume that the notion of a free meal of goose was dominating its mind. I wonder how it knew the ice was safe? However, as both sightings were in broad daylight, inevitably, the birds, if there had been any, would, by the time Brer fox arrived, have flown! Of course, this bold creature may have conducted more covert but similar explorations under the cover of darkness and thus unseen. Its expectations of a meal would doubtless be more likely to be rewarded at night. And in any case, the ice would then likely be safer.
Yet such was the intensity of the frosts that even after three days of comparative mildness, the ice, now glazed over by a thin layer of water, persisted, negating the return of its usual plethora of birdlife. Winter may not have completely run out of steam yet but there is an unmistakable sense of change for the good in the air. That feeling was further accentuated by the sighting over nearby Lowland acres, of the first tightly packed squadron of lapwing of the season, making perhaps, their first foray into inland territory. Whilst lapwing cannot be classed as migratory birds in the true sense, spending their winters not in some tropical paradise but in or near the marine environment of our coasts and estuaries, their return inland does, in my mind at least, have real significance. Things are indubitably on the move!
That the natural world is awakening from its winter slumbers was further evidenced by the presence of a heron in the middle of a field, clearly in stalking mode and searching for migrating frogs. We imagine herons to be exclusively fish eaters but that is far from the truth. Like most forms of wildlife, herons are opportunists. Whilst they do spend much of their time beside water seeking out scaly prey, herons in the spring, will readily take young wildfowl, should they come within range, while small rodents such as mice and voles, and frogs, enter the diet when opportunity arises. They will even take worms if little else is on offer.
Whilst herons do often work alone, there are occasions when they naturally come together and work collectively. Indeed, herons are for instance, colonial nesters, often building little ‘villages’ high in the trees, not pretty places for heron nests are generally untidy bundles of ill-matching sticks. Living together is one thing but the spectacle of the advance of a rank of four herons across a field one early spring morning was something entirely different. It was vaguely reminiscent of a scene from some Wild West movie and revealed a very different aspect of a corporate approach to life. From time to time as they advanced in line, one or another of them would suddenly dart forward on those spindly legs and stab at the ground, in its quest for a frog.
That particular observation contrasted starkly with the usual sight of a ‘lonely’ heron standing at the water’s edge, often resembling some kind of grey statue, seemingly cast in stone. However, herons stalking the fields and seeking out the said frogs, illustrates their apparent willingness to work in concert. I have on other occasions, observed heron ‘creches’ when non-breeding adults have taken charge of young, newly fledged herons whilst parents are away collecting food. Such events are of course, some way off but already herons will be well into courtship mode for they are notoriously early starters when it comes to breeding, with eggs often laid by early March and not uncommonly, in late February.
Hope therefore, for them and for us too, springs eternal, that spring really is just around the corner.