Last week I watched a song thrush frantically scrabbling to find a toe-hold while snatching a beakful of suet from a hanging fat-block: a quintessential ground feeding bird driven to such desperate measures by the return of snow. Yet, a few days later, a thrush – the same one, I hope – was trying out his song, sketchy but confident, from a nearby treetop. With only a handful of days over the last ten weeks in which the temperature stayed above zero, we’ve still had a pair of great tits repeatedly inspecting the nest-box opposite the dining-room window and several other species of garden birds are paired up and singing. I am gradually coming to believe in the possibility of spring!
Then, last week, I got my copy of the Wharfedale Naturalists’ 2009 Review – an annual publication made up of articles, photographs and Recorders’ reports. These reports, collated from their own observations and from records sent in by members and companion organisations like the Bradford Ornithological Group and the Upper Wharfedale Field Society, detail the sightings of wildlife in our area over 2009. Last spring was also a late one yet, just think, on March 3rd a peacock butterfly and a comma were spotted, and, on 15th a small tortoiseshell. Frogs had spawned in Addingham by 22nd February, and toads were congregating at Low Dam by 18th March and busy mating at Yorkgate Quarry by 25th. What’s more a sand martin – one of the earliest summer migrants – had already arrived at Ben Rhydding Gravel Pits on 15th March.
Once the sun gains a little warmth, even if only temporarily, surprising things begin to happen: for example, last year two male adders were already out of hibernation on 5th of March. Adders hibernate communally underground at certain known sites in our area. As soon as we get a sunny day the males emerge and then have to lie in a sheltered spot getting warm enough to move around and be ready to compete for mates when the females appear somewhat later. This is a good time to get an idea of population numbers for this shy reptile.
When spring comes late, it comes with a rush – so much to pack into a few short weeks. And, while we’re out and about looking for all these new beginnings, there are still winter specialities to catch before it’s too late. Great flocks of redwings and fieldfares are still scouring our fields and hedgerows and, over the winter, those colourful dandies, mandarin ducks, usually congregate on the Wharfe in Strid Woods before pairing off and dispersing to breed. Huge winter flocks of lapwing have been seen to the south of the river, and any time now, curlews will be arriving to breed. What a wonderful time of year!