At time of writing, it is dark outside, and the day has so far brought us snow, sleet, hail, rain, and thunder. Undeniably, it still feels like winter. It’s the kind of evening where you want to sit close to your heater, or burner, with a cup of tea, and think Indoor Thoughts.
Yet once the Christmas celebrations have passed and the new year has begun, it’s hard not to start looking forward and thinking about spring, especially when mornings start to bring that clear, crisp light you only seem to get at this time of year. Dunnocks and robins have already been singing in the tentative light of mornings, joined by great tits later in the day, calling ‘teacher-teacher-teacher’ from the treetops. In the last week, song thrushes have also joined the chorus. One of the great joys of being a naturalist surely has to be the privilege of seeing and hearing signs of spring before so many others.
So, when does winter officially become spring? According to the Met Office, the meteorological spring starts on the first of March; the meteorological calendar, based on our Gregorian calendar, runs from March to May inclusive. The astronomical spring is slightly later, being based on the earth’s orbit of the sun, and runs from 20 March till 20 June. Personally, I favour the former, with St David’s Day therefore marking the official change of season, but I’m looking for signs and clues long before that. They drag me from the drab greys and browns of winter life and give me hope and enthusiasm for the season to come.
Growing up, one of the natural history books that have me greatest joy was Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. A charming combination of field observations in diary form and illustrations, it documents her nature notes from the year 1906.
The rather inauspicious entry for January 14 reads simply ‘Great gale of wind and rain’; it could just as easily have been written for today. However, other January entries give great clues about what to look out for- especially if, like me, you are not organised enough to keep your own diary to compare notes with. She records, ‘Primroses, Polyanthus, Winter Aconite, Mazereon (sic) and Snowdrops are all in flower’. She also notes fresh leaves pushing through the soil: nettles, foxgloves, and ground ivy. She beautifully documents each small step as the natural world begins to recover from the ravages of winter. Turning the pages feels like an illicit glimpse of the weeks to come, with beautiful water colour images of our hedgerows and woodlands bursting into life.
Two signs that truly herald spring for me personally are the first singing chaffinch, and the return of the sand martins; the latter I normally first see in March, either over the Teifi Marshes, or over the Tywi at Llandeilo. Wheatears, too, are welcome early arrivals, although I don’t spend so much time in the right habitats these days to spot the really early birds. Possibly giving me even more joy, though, are the more subtle changes in the vegetation of our grey, bedraggled and mud-splattered winter countryside. The showy hazel catkins are already on display, but a careful search will reveal the tiny little red stars of the female flowers.
Bulbs are just starting to poke their way up through the mulch of last year’s autumn leaf-fall. The joy of new spring bulbs is another fond literary memory of my youth- the excitement of Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, when she finds her way into the long-neglected garden, and begins weeding. ‘They seemed to be starting up everywhere and each day she was sure she found tiny new ones, some so tiny that they barely peeped above the earth. There were so many that she remembered what Martha had said about the “snowdrops by the thousands”’.
Despite the harsh weather January and February often bring, I find it hard not to get excited by these small signs of the summer to come. I’m not a very organised naturalist, and put in fewer field hours than I should, so I must miss many ‘firsts’ each year. Nevertheless, each one gives me joy. Do I mind if they’ve already been seen around the country for two weeks? Not really; it gives me just as much pleasure, and I just remind myself to look harder next year.
She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
“Winter is dead.” A. A. Milne