April arrived with such an explosion – flowers, birds, butterflies – that it is difficult to decide what to write about! However, what better place to be on a warm spring morning than an English oak wood, and how lucky we are in Ilkley to have one of the best virtually on our doorstep.
If you enter Middleton Woods from the lower edge, as I did last week, you are immediately dazzled by the flowers. Wood anemones, their frail petals stretched out to catch the sun, and shiny yellow celandines like little stars, form a mosaic of gold, white and green. In the boggy patches among the alders, kingcups give bolder splashes of colour and along the edge of the stream we found patches of golden saxifrage, its flowers a wonderful lime green against its darker leaves. We even discovered our first wood sorrel of the year. This modest little plant also likes a moist situation, and its delicate white flower heads droop amid shamrock shaped leaves. Ours was nestled up against a moss-covered stone, making us marvel once again at the number of different shades of green visible in a few yards of spring woodland. In one or two sunny spots we even found a few bluebell spikes already opening. In a couple of weeks the whole wood will be awash with their colour and their heady scent will fill the air.
Then there was the birdsong. The fluting tones of the blackbirds mingled with the see-sawing calls of great tits, the robin’s sweet whistlings and, everywhere, wrens were sounding off with that distinctive whirring trill incorporated in each burst of song. The high-spot for me was the unmistakable call of a chiffchaff. This tiny warbler, probably newly arrived from North Africa, was announcing its presence from the tree-tops in a steady chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. Soon it will be joined by another small olive coloured warbler – the willow warbler – which will have completed an even longer migration, from West Africa. If you had one of each of these birds in your hands, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference: the chiffchaff’s legs are usually darker, the willow warbler perhaps a tiny fraction larger – minimal differences. But their songs are poles apart: the willow warbler’s silvery cascade of rippling notes, so sadly sweet, the chiffchaff’s – let’s face it – a monotonous repetition of its name; yet both are welcome confirmation that spring has arrived.
In the second half of April I shall be listening for the call of yet another migrant, the cuckoo, which usually arrives on Ilkley Moor around St. George’s Day.