As Winter slowly slips into slumber, it seems that Spring is rushing into action. Within just a few days, the once-bare winter trees are bursting with buds, shoots, new leaves and blossom. Blink, and you may miss it.
There is something very special about the changing of the seasons, it is the start of something new. My two favourite seasons are spring and autumn. Possibly because the change between winter and spring, summer and autumn is so dramatic and colourful.
Spring is a time of rejuvenation, of bright fresh colours after a long grey winter, and of new life. A few days of spring sunshine and our hedgerows and woodlands have come alive. The sense of wellbeing and joy that spring brings is something that is rooted deep within us. It is not just a response from the warmth of the sun or the lengthening of the day, but a reminder of our instinctive need for nature and the outdoors.
The sights, sounds and smells of spring would have once been an important sign that not only had we made it through the winter, but also that before too long there would be foods and supplies to forage, something that would have been essential for our survival.
Everywhere you look, nature is busy. From the trees and plants flowering and putting out fresh growth, to the insects and bees that are buzzing around them. The creatures that are stirring from their long sleep, like the toads which are getting rather amorous in local ponds, and the small mammals creeping in the undergrowth making the most of the fresh shoots and buds.
Not forgetting the birds of course, which have suddenly found their voices and the dawn chorus here is getting into full swing. It is at this time every year that I wish I was better at identifying bird song. Each year I try and learn at least one new call or song, and with perseverance I can now confidently identify a few of the more common species.
Spring is an overwhelming time of the year to try and pick up bird song, with everyone clamouring to be heard. Even though wonderful, it can be an assault on the ears! I friend of mine last year gave me some good advice on learning bird song… Start in the winter, when there are fewer songs and fewer voices at any one time. Become familiar with the normal songs and calls of your regular birds over the winter, then slowly, as spring comes in to force, add one or two more into the mix.
The first trees to flower here in the UK is the Common Hazel, Corylus avellana. The male catkins are a beautiful yellow when in flower and are the first sign to me that spring is stirring. These early male catkins provide a vital source of nectar for our early bumblebees.
It was only a few weeks ago though that I learnt that Hazel also has a pretty female flower, found on the same tree as the male catkins. It is a small unassuming red flower at the end of a bud, sitting and waiting to catch pollen in the breeze from neighbouring Hazel trees. It is these tiny details that keep me hooked on nature, and the enjoyment of slowing down to take notice.
Then we see the Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, come into bloom. A spiked tree also known as the Sloe, because of the fruits that adorn its branches late in summer, used for Sloe gin. The Blackthorn flowers before its leaves appear, where as Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna (sometimes mistaken with Blackthorn) bursts into leaf and flowers a little later. When all the Blackthorn is in full flower, with hundreds of little white petals adorning the branches, it looks as though there has been snow fall, with each of the branches covered in a light dusting. We sometimes get a spell of bad weather around the time it flowers, and it is known as ‘Blackthorn winter’.
The Blackthorn is an important hedgerow plant, supporting over 100 species of insect. It is the food plant for many species of moth, such as the magpie moth, small eggar and common emerald, but also for butterfly species including the Brown Hairstreak.
Goat willow, Salix caprea, catkins also come into flower at this time, providing not only a bright burst of yellow colour, but providing another source of nectar for our early bee’s and food for various bird species.
The woodland floors and understory are coming alive too, with bluebell shoots, dogs mercury and primroses popping up everywhere you look. The Ramsons, or wild garlic, are appearing too and it won’t be too long before the familiar scent of garlic will be floating on the breeze. There is something refreshing about seeing the fresh green growth between the scattering of old brown autumn leaves that cover the floor of a woodland.
I love the spring, it really does seem like nature is rushing to get going, as though it is impatient to get started. I find myself getting distracted at this time of the year, I am forever looking to see what has appeared next, what flowers are up and what wildlife is busying itself with the jobs of spring.
It is an exciting time and every moment spent outside reveals something new. So why not put on your walking boots, grab your camera and go for a walk?
Spring is out there and it won’t wait…
Blink and you’ll miss it.