Wednesday, 5 May 2010

May days

We enter May with some trepidation. Will the nightingales all come back? Will we have a lot of orchids this year? Will the classroom ever be finished? Will we get our sewage connected?

I hope the answer in each case is YES! Either way, we will know the answers soon. That's what's so special about spring; the apprehension, the expectation and hopefully, the fulfillment, all in a matter of a few precious weeks. If you travel to the USA or Europe, you might find that winter turns to "Mud Season" which turns to summer, almost immediately. Our spring may be short this year, but it is definably spring.

The most defining visual aspect of spring in the UK is blossom, which also stimulates the olfactory organ, otherwise known as your hooter. We have fountains of white and pink blooms all over the site. Blackthorn (top) is followed by apple, then hawthorn, but some trees are only really noticeable at this time and become invisible in summer. The best example of this is bird cherry (pictured below); a tree I associate with limestone in the Yorkshire Dales. If you visit the river view point you will see dozens of them on the island and more dotted about the site. They have cherry-like leaves, but flowers in spikes like a privet hedge. Unlike the privet flowers, those of the bird cherry have a wonderful vanilla smell; almost intoxicating.

All too soon the flowers die and look rather sad, then the whole tree is defoliated by moths which leave behind a "dead" tree, covered in bags of cobwebs, known as "bagworm" across the Atlantic. (I know these things because I am married to an American.) The culprit (not my wife) is actually a rather attractive insect called the buff-tailed moth. The trees look dead but seem to be able to recover from feeding millions of caterpillars, then go on to feed berries to the birds in late summer , yet they come back to flower each year, better than ever.

The sound of spring is undisputed. Apart from the ringing of garden-centre tills, we rejoice in the sound of birdsong. Nightingales are the top choristers at Paxton, or are they? A lot of people would put their vote against the humble blackbird. It's song is subtle, hinting at melody, neither sad nor exultant, but expressive all the same. I think that we take the sound of a blackbird, robin or thrush too much for granted. Rarity makes a bird sound more exotic.
I'm getting a bit blase about nightingales, despite my better instincts. I'm revelling in the less familiar sounds of uncommon birds such as grasshopper warbler and Cetti's warbler, both of which are having good years at Paxton.
Grasshopper warblers (Groppers for short) have a high pitched, reeling song, all on one note that is just about on the threshold of my middle-aged deafness, (thank you Jimi Hendrix). Just hearing them presents a challenge and seeing them is even more tricky. We usually get a pair or two breeding on the site, but this year we may have more than that, assuming they all stay.
By contrast, Cetti's warblers are not at all hard to hear. Take a stroll around the meadow trail and you may be accosted by this bird yelling at you "Chip, cheerup, cheerup-up-up" , just as loud as a nightingale, and more strident. Seeing them is even harder than seeing nightingales. They skulk in brambles and they look like large plain chocolate brown wrens, but this is irrelevant; you won't see them!
A trip to the Reserve is becoming an annual spring pilgrimage for thousands of people from all over England who come to see, hear and photograph the birds. We are really pleased to see them all, but we are worried about how much pressure the place, and the birds, can stand. Please be a responsible visitor and keep your distance. Stay on the paths and give the birds, and the plants a bit of space.