Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Spring, the Sweet Spring April 2016

I just love this time of year as the relentless growth and vitality after the long winter days takes complete control and the countryside comes alive with energy and birdsong.

The Elizabethan playwright, poet and satirist Thomas Nashe wrote a poem called Spring, the Sweet Spring, the opening verse going like this

Spring the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing
Cuckoo, jug jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo

Well maybe 'cold doth sting' just a bit with these current northerly winds and even snow Thomas, but your message is received loud and clear. The composer Benjamin Britten included the poem in his Spring Symphony, the music and words sung by a choir with full orchestra expressing far beyond my means the sheer exultation of Spring and the promise of this time of year.

Out and about I find myself caught up in an excitement that I cannot quite explain. It's something primal that stirs deep within and each year it drives me outdoors to just be there amongst it all.

At Farmoor I  first took myself around the concrete vastness of the two reservoirs, their bleak mono structure now surrounded on all sides by many shades of green as the trees and bushes both near and far softened the landscape, and then later I diverted down to the grass path by the Thames at Lower Whitely Farm.

Despite the cold northerly wind whipping the waters of the two reservoirs into proper waves and the shards of sunlight dazzling my eyes as they reflected off the churning waters the larger reservoir was busy with up to thirty terns swooping and dipping down to the waters to pick off emerging flies or seize small fish. Common Terns outnumbered Arctic Terns by two to one. Both species are imbued with a lithe grace, sinuous, muscular and supremely elegant, as like ballerinas they fly effortlessly in their true element of space and wind. They were flying into the wind to feed and when reaching one end of the reservoir turned and sped downwind only to turn back into the wind at the other end of the reservoir and commence progressing upwind again. Some of the Common Terns were already pairing, with birds bringing offerings of small fish to their prospective mates accompanied by harsh strident calls as they strengthened their pair bond. The Arctic Terns possess a special grace, even more so than the Common Terns, built to spend most of their life flying from one end of the world to the other, a bird of superlatives with the longest migration of any bird on the planet, moving from Antarctic to Arctic and back again, virtually constantly in daylight. When perched their legs can be seen to be so much proportionately shorter than other terns, a true indication of the large percentage of time they spend in the air.
Common Tern
High above me the first Swifts of the year, dark sickle winged aerial supremacists, even more so than the Arctic Terns, rode the air on stiff flickering wings, flying before a threatening grey rain cloud together with a flock of House Martins, whose cheery conversational and excited calls came to me from on high as they flew with the Swifts.

A large number of Sand Martins, possibly up to five hundred were feeding on the other smaller reservoir, passing low over the water catching flies, flashing alternately brown and white as they sped around. The feeding was so good on the bounteous flies that there was time to indulge in courtship flights which seemed to consist of many a menage a trois, each threesome consisting, probably, of two males hustling in churring excitement after a female.

The grass bank by the Thames Waterworks has been mown now but the Cowslips have been left intact. Their rich yellow flowers hang in tubular, drooping clusters on elongated stalks, their yellow and pale green colouration being matched today by a group of four male Yellow Wagtails which excitedly chased the inumerable flies and invertebrates through the areas of newly mown grass.

Yellow Wagtail
I walked down some steps off the reservoir at Lower Whitely Farm to be out of the wind, stopping to admire the bluebells, which in a haze of blue now covered the grass below the leaning tree trunks and imparted, like an expensive perfume, a delicate, elusive aroma of hyacinth on the undisturbed air in this sheltered part of the wood. Primroses too were here, the flowers pale yellow stars with a wide ruff of broad and ribbed green leaves, the flowers twinkling above them  in the rank grass.

Countless tiny flies had formed synchronised clouds where the air was still, rising and falling in unison, forming discrete shrouds around any moving object such as myself but with a wave of my arm they would disperse to form up and rise and fall once again in their endless dance. So many of them that the sum of the infinitesimal sound of each of their beating wings combined to form an audible whine. 

I carried on along the path that runs by the Thames. The river, although only rising in the next county, is already wide, deep and navigable to canal boats, its waters slow moving on currents, as little eddies and whirls appear and then mysteriously vanish..

A female Mallard swam out from the bank followed by nine newly hatched ducklings, slightly nervous and anxious she made quiet sounds, compelling the ducklings to instinctively form up close to her for security and swung across the slow moving waters of the river to the far bank and then, perceiving she and her family were secure of any threat from me, relaxed and with different gentle calls indicated to the ducklings they could spread out and feed again. She will do well to keep all her young as the threats and dangers to them are many and varied.

On either side of the path in trees and bushes there are warblers constantly singing. The comparative silence of the winter woods and hedgerows has been replaced with constant sound from the songs and calls of both resident and migratory birds, all responding to the turning of the Earth and the increasing daylight.

Common Chiffchaffs strike out their monotonous two note song from high in the Willow trees whilst their close cousin the Willow Warbler puts them to shame with its melodic, wistful, descending scatter of notes. It raises its head to the heavens and pours out a surprisingly loud song for such a tiny bird, just seven or so grammes of feather and bone that travels all the way here from southern Africa to unknowingly delight us with its song and presence.

Willow Warbler

A Blackcap sings from an Ash tree, the loud, pure notes of its song distinctive but it is hard to see amongst the emergent leaves, the grey plumage merging with the grey bark of the Ash boughs and seeming to almost disguise its profile in the tree, and the glossy black cap is not as obvious as one would imagine. Another Blackcap joins it, a female, similarly dull of plumage but with a chestnut brown cap. Listening to the Blackcap I fall into a temporary reverie about my childhood in rural Surrey and remember a time when I found a Blackcap's nest containing four eggs all those years ago, in a small Elder bush, a delicate woven basket of grasses with two basket handles, each woven round a stem of Elder on either side of the nest and these being its only support.

On the other side of the path a similar song came from denser bushes and bramble. The notes less clear and pure than the Blackcap but still richly melodic and harmonious to the human ear. The notes, slightly slurred and throaty betrayed the song of a Garden Warbler, more nondescript in plumage than a Blackcap, with little variation whatsoever in its dull brown and fawn plumage.

I walked on with the heady, sickly sweet smell of Blackthorn blossom thick in the air, the white star like flowers blossoming in profusion, the earliest of the hedgerow bushes to come into flower, well before the Hawthorn, that other familiar prickly hedgerow resident. The white blossom covers the entire bush making it impossible to see into the centre and is beloved of the Lesser Whitethroat who, secure in the depths of the leafless black twigs and blossom laden outer edges of the hedge announces his presence with a distinctive rattling warble, volleyed from deep in the heart of the blackthorn.

I wandered on further, now passing a rough field bounded by an unkempt classical hedgerow of mixed trees and bushes untouched by chainsaw or axe. As I approached the hedgerow a perceived bird of prey flew low and fast along the bottom of the hedge only to swoop up and perch on a hawthorn branch.

At first its bluish grey upperparts and barred underparts had me thinking of a male Sparrowhawk but no, it was a Cuckoo. On landing it promptly confirmed its identity by loudly calling cuckoo cuckoo and carried on for fully a couple of minutes. Its hawk like flight and appearance not only duped me, for it was promptly mobbed by a Blackcap, which abandoning its attractive song, scolded the Cuckoo with grating, harsh calls. I suppose, if you like, the Blackcap equivalent of swearing.

The Cuckoo ignored the Blackcap and sank down onto its perch, letting its wings droop and tail swing slowly from side to side. It was in the lee of the wind here and the sun was warm, reminiscent no doubt of its winter home in the tropics of Africa. It was content and ceased calling, sitting silently and at rest. Perhaps the most fabled and written about British bird after the Nightingale I watched it with a feeling of immense privilege and no little sadness as I realised how much they are declining in our countryside. It commenced calling again, the pale grey throat swelling but the bill hardly opening as those instantly recognisable notes of Spring, surprisingly far carrying, proclaimed its presence and territory alongside the River Thames.

Cuckoos have something about them which seems to attract and cause you to stop and look at them in almost mesmeric fascination. Perhaps it's the way they let their feathers hang loose and their wings and tail swing and droop unlike other similar sized birds. They also spend a lot of time quite low to the ground behaving, again, unlike any other bird of similar size. I remember keeping observation on a young Cuckoo in a Reed Warbler's nest in Sussex and even I felt the strange pull and insistence of the relentless calling of the young Cuckoo, a monster that had taken over the nest and forever was demanding to be fed. Not only did the parent Reed Warblers constantly bring food but on occasions other birds found the calls irresistible and would divert to feed the Cuckoo. Maybe this is where the phrase 'One flew East, One flew West, One flew over the Cuckoo's nest' originated and became the children's counting rhyme. 'One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest' also formed the title and inspiration of Ken Kesey's famous and seminal novel of the 1960's which recounted one man's battle and ultimate heroic but tragic triumph over institutional tyranny. The institution, a mental home being the cuckoo's nest in the book.  As you can maybe guess this very much appeals to my inner spirit.

The Cuckoo, tired of its perch moved off and round the hedgerow. I followed but it had gone further than I thought and was nowhere to be seen. I returned to the path and looking across the river, in direct contrast to the rough field behind me there was a field of short grass full of sheep and yes, Spring lambs. If ever there was  an incentive for being vegetarian the two lambs looking at me with such innocence across the river was the epitomy of rebuke for my ever eating meat.

Further on and I came to a ditch crammed with the yellowed stalks of dead reeds, spikey like myriad giant knitting needles stood end on end, so closely packed that it was impossible to see more than a few feet into them.

From their base came the scratchy rhythmic call of an invisible Reed Warbler, hardly an attractive song but yet another harbinger of Spring and I tried to imagine and indeed marvelled at this bird travelling all this way through the nights above great cities and over deserts and mountains, following the stars to find a home deep in this reedy ditch in a secluded part of Oxfordshire.

Sedge Warblers were also present in some numbers, many singing from bushes although some were also in the reeds. Their warble, similar to the Reed Warbler but less rhythmic and much more varied often included mimicry of other bird calls such as Swallow, Common Whitethroat and Yellow Wagtail. In an ecstasy of passion they hurled themselves a short way above the reeds or bushes singing with an added intensity and then descended on stiff outstretched wings and spread tail back into cover. I watched one singing from a blackthorn bush, its rich red orange gape wide open as it sang.

Sedge Warbler
I grew tired of walking and stopped by a small willow. I felt the yellow and silver, soft, cats paw like flowers, their silky touch soothing, sensuous and gentle to my fingertips. Soon, all too soon, all this will be over but for now and the coming few weeks I will once again feel my heart sing and to quote a well used phrase 'Be full of the Joys of Spring'. 

                                  When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
                                     Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing

Sonnet 98  William Shakespeare

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