But these things also are Spring’s – / On banks by the roadside the grass / Long dead that is greyer now / Than all the winter it was; / The shell of a little snail bleached / in the grass; chip of flint, and mite / Of chalk, and the small birds dung / In splashes of purest white. (Edward Thomas)
The rites of spring are evident in and around all our gardens right now. A sustained period of warm dry weather is welcomed with open arms, although the cold still nights that bring late frosts are capable of wrecking withering havoc on bloom and blossom or tender plants and bean seedlings in the (unheated) greenhouse. Our farming neighbours pray for rain to bring on the sward in their pastures to feed the swelling numbers of turned out lambs and calves.
Clearing out the last of the logs from the east end store I discover an abandoned rat’s nest of chewed up pieces of black plastic bags mixed with shredded rodent poison bags! These labelled bags must be old as not bought by us so the nest may have been here some time. A perfect place for them with easy covered access back of the coal bunker one way to get under the deck and round the corner to drains the other way. We suspect from observation the cavity walls and old walls must hold both rats and mice. I sometimes put bait down for them but mostly desist as I don’t want to undermine nature’s food chain and inadvertently poison the weasels and owls or occasional cat that feeds on them in turn.
Highlight of the week was the sight of residents returned from winter quarters to the garden pond. A glimpse of sashaying tail under the floating weeds drew my attention. Sitting to watch I was treated to a sight never witnessed before – palmate newts paired for mating. A very tender thing it was too. Vertical integration with gentle stroking and languid unhurried motions, whether post coital or not I could not tell, as all this was part obscured by the tangle of oxygenating weed in which they were embedded. The female will protect her eggs from predators by wrapping fertilised eggs in the leaves of of pond plants that inhabit the margins and shallows….forget me not, brooklime, water buttercup, creeping jenny, globeflower, water dropwort, lesser spearwort etc.
Doing our best to tune ears to the calls and refrains of garden birds so we can distinguish blue tit from great tit, robin from wren. Some are easier, like the combined chatter of house sparrows or the unmistakable calls of head chorister the male blackbird, while some are almost impossible to pin down with certainty when you can’t see the songster. Kim delighted when out walking to be told by a naturalist writer friend with an attuned ear that willow warblers are present, back from Migration in Africa. Their tuneful melancholic descending trill heard at our field’s end, coming from somewhere in the neighbouring willow carr. Still no sight or sound of willow or marsh tit though sadly, despite my wishing otherwise.
Last spring a male chaffinch saw his reflection in the glass panes of the front garden door every morning and took to attacking it vigorously with his beak. This year either the same bird or another (who can tell?) is back to repeat the rat-a-tat morning reveille. Out in the yard I’ve taken to covering both our cars wing mirrors with shower caps to stop birds scratching the glass and pooping on the paint work in the process! Up the road at Southridge, with its wonderful new garden room at the granary’s gable end, our friends are driven to distraction by the unwelcome attention of pied wagtails who are doing much the same, on a bigger scale over a greater surface of glass.
The dunnock ménage a trois that has formed in our garden this mating season is the most active of all the avian species present, zipping about all over the place at great speed. The little bird’s behaviour is singular, as this extract from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) website explains;
‘For many years, a peculiar piece of Dunnock behaviour had been noted by many people – vent or cloacal pecking. One Dunnock was seen to peck under the tail of another but there was no explanation of what was happening. A few years ago, Nick Davies, working in the Cambridge Botanical Garden, found out the absolutely stunning explanation for this behaviour. Dunnock breeding behaviour has evolved into an amazing melange of systems, with monogamous pairs, pairs with two males and one female and even pairs with two males and two females. Many males were trying to father chicks with females in other territories, pecking at the female cloaca to displace any sperm from a previous mating before mating themselves. Cloaca pecking was all about the cock bird trying to ensure that he was going to fertilise as many eggs as possible’.
One early evening we observed two of our trio going about this intimate business, just a few yards away, on the ground. Quite a sight! Another advantage of this unique reproductive system is that both cock birds, uncertain of paternity, will feed the female at the nest during incubation, thus increasing the breed’s survival chances.
There’s always a strand of tragedy present, of death in the midst of life. From stillborn lambs to a hen blackbird drowned in one of the garden water tanks. Fortunately most repeating tropes of spring just simply delight and enhance. From the lemon slice of a moon slung hammock like in the night sky; yelps of foxes and hooting owls; the soft thrum of hoof beats when lamb gangs in the field repeat through yet another generation those mad chasing games in and out of hollows by the wall; the spreading yellow carpet of shining celandines under coppice trees thinned last year, skylarks heard before seen over the crags; a crystal clear night sky ablaze with a thousand million pricks of light, reminding us of the region’s officially designated dark sky status. These things also are Spring’s.