There is an eternal push-and-pull relationship between spring and winter. The battle is usually at its fiercest during February, but can last well into April. This time, spring was pushing forward steadily as December and early January were mild, but she was reigned in by a ten day cold snowy spell in late January, which produced superb tobogganing conditions. The snow melted spectacularly over the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend, which deprived us rather as many of the more unusual birds instantly dispersed from the gardens (Chaffinch counts in my own garden on the Glos / Wilts border collapsed from 30-50 during the snow down to seven for BGBW, and the Bramblings vanished).

 The cold spell was welcome, as an early spring is a high risk strategy that usually ends in tears – or more aptly, in a cold snap.  Spring mustn’t get over-excited and rush ahead of herself.  Slow and steady is the surest way, but she’s not very good at that. 

 The first signs of spring are incredibly localised, with the likes of Bluebell spikes and Hawthorn leaves appearing at the foot of warm south-facing slopes weeks ahead.  And spring features appear earlier in towns and cities, doubtless due to the warmth that issues from our buildings.  There, young cock birds tune up far earlier than in the cooler countryside. 

 One of the main features of late winter or incipient spring – call it what you will, for the two are so closely entwined as to be one – is the land drying out, in preparation for true spring.  That’s precisely what has been happening in the countryside these last few days.

 To me, New Year’s Day is not January 1st, but when I first see Rooks building – and I watch out for them assiduously, as they are one of my favourite birds, the true spirits of the spring.  This usually occurs around Valentine’s Day, but I am delighted to report that one of my daughters has just texted me to say that she has seen Rooks building this very morning outside Goring station in the Thames valley. 

 The poet-naturalist Edward Thomas (1878-1917) muses in The South Country (1909): ‘It is not yet spring.  Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring.’  Perhaps he was saying that our duty now, at this very time, is to help dream the spring.  Later, at the end of In Pursuit of Spring (1914) he writes: ‘Winter may rise up through mould alive with violets and primroses and daffodils, but when cowslips and bluebells have grown over his grave he cannot rise again: he is dead and rotten, and from his ashes the blossoms are springing.’

Scholars of Tove Jansson’s  Finn Family Moomintroll, a tale for the young at heart, will be aware of the significance of the first butterfly of the year.  At the end of Chapter 1 Jansson writes: ‘And suddenly they caught sight of the first butterfly.  (As everyone knows, if the first butterfly you see is yellow the summer will be  a happy one.  If it is white then you will just have a quiet summer.  Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about…’.  Variations of this saying seem to be fairly widespread in northern European countries. 

The bad news is that there seems to be some truth in it, which means that an awful lot depends on opening one’s account with a male Brimstone and avoiding the somber Peacock and Red Admiral.  For 40 years I have assiduously sought my first butterfly of the year, and have gained a good run of data.  Analysis shows, not so much that good-weather summers are heralded by the Brimstone, for on a couple of occasions Brimstones have ushered in rather poor summers (only I was a relatively happy person during these), but that Peacocks and Red Admirals are early warning systems for bad summers.  And of course butterfly enthusiasts live for spring and summer.   The worst butterfly seasons in my 40 years have all been ushered in by Peacocks or Red Admirals. 

Until 2001 I had only once started off with a Red Admiral, in the despicability that was 1977.  But the Red Admiral has opened the year for me five times since 2000.  This is due in part to an apparent increase in successful overwintering by what was primarily an immigrant insect to the UK, but also because I have become more office-bound and Red Admirals seem to hibernate more successfully in towns and cities.  Moreover, the Red Admiral seems to have a lower temperature threshold for activity than our other over-wintering butterflies, certainly lower than the Brimstone than seems to require a minimum of 12C for activity.  In consequence, I have been avoiding looking for butterflies along the warm south-facing edges of buildings these last few weeks.  This is my 50th year of butterflying, it has to be a cracker and must be opened by a Brimstone, Comma or even a Small Tortoiseshell – If my year starts with a Red Admiral or a Peacock I’m giving up butterflying and taking up golf.

Another difficulty surrounds the recent decline of the humble Small Tortoiseshell, which on 11 occasions has been my year’s first butterfly.  This species heralds good or reasonable summers, being quite a bright butterfly.  The trouble is that I have only commenced the season with it twice this millennium (it has nose-dived since 1996).  Like the Red Admiral it hibernates a lot in buildings, but the chances of seeing it ahead of a Red Admiral have diminished. 

The female Brimstone I saw on New Year’s Day, hibernating in Savernake Forest, cannot count, as I have been following her in hibernation since mid November, and she wasn’t flying.  She is fine, by the way, despite having been buried by the recent snows.  She is currently resting on a beech leaf trapped at the base of the bramble bush she was originally using.  This is a good move as many of the bramble leaves have been eaten by deer.  Likewise I’ve discounted various Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and even the odd Red Admiral hibernating in roof spaces and the like over the years, and the Small Tortoiseshell seen batting about during a wedding in Christ Church, Winchester. 

Watch this blog for the all-important announcement.  This is what’s required –

Brimstone male, Hailey Wd 10.3.12

 

 

 

Surviving winter is a challenge for people of entomological disposition.  Those of us who spent our youth coarse fishing (and fishing is good for youths, it teaches them patience, how to be still in Nature, and much wildlife) will remember the long wait inflicted by the close season, from mid March to mid June.  Winter is much worse than that for most butterfly folk, but no longer holds any terrors to me: I have no close season as I butterfly all year round. As Eliot put it, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ (Burnt Norton I).  I go butterflying in all seasons and weathers, albeit looking for immature stages – for the circle of metamorphosis is ever unbroken. And I am not just talking about searching for easy-peasy Brown Hairstreak eggs.

Searching for White Admiral larvae in their tiny hibernacula – spun up small leaves of Honeysuckle – is excellent butterflying, especially in a winter like this, after the leaves came off cleanly in autumn (after drought summers myriad withered Honeysuckle leaves stay on the shrubs, and hibernacula are almost impossible to find). Here’s a hibernaculum I found in mid January –

White Admiral hibernaculum Alice Holt Forest 13.1.13

You can see strands of white caterpillar silk attaching it to the stem. Somewhere up that tube is a tiny spiny brown and grey caterpillar, who will come out and start to feed in April.  Bless it.

But that day I also found something more significant, this –

Copy of WA pupal case Straits 13.1.13

which is the remains of one of last summer’s White Admiral pupal cases, just the basal third.  Now this is significant, as there are precious few records of the pupae of many of our butterfly species actually being found in the wild.  It is also amazing on two fronts.  First, the leaf is still attached to the stem, which shows the strength of caterpillar silk.  Second, the basal part of the pupal skin, made of chitin, has survived – and the pupa was probably formed last early June and probably hatched in late June (or early July).  So much for the wet summer and autumn…

But, I can go one better – 

PE pupal case

PE pupal case

This is the remains of one of last year’s Purple Emperor pupae high up in a sallow tree in Savernake Forest.  Again, this pupa was formed last mid June, the leaf was attached to the twig by silk and the basal portion of the pupa (which I think held a female Emperor) has survived.  Bottom right are some old leaves on which an Emperor caterpillar has been feeding, held on to the twigs by silk. 

My case rests.

Blackbird singing in our village at first light this morning, which is way too early, especially outside a warm city.  There’s cold weather forecast.  That will slow him down.   Then a dangle of Hazel and Grey Alder catkins all the way down the Blessed M5 to Bovey Tracey.  Bright winter sunshine around Cullompton, then fog in the Exe and Bovey valleys; then light rain set in throughout the South West.   

One of the many hidden jewels of the NT is its Parke estate, either side of the river at Bovey, discovered only by local dog walkers who mudify the paths spectacularly – one stretch of path today was stippled with myriad paw prints, plus the zig-zag stripes of a few wellies.  Two years ago the Trust felled some ailing middle aged conifer plantations either side of the river at the north end of the estate; three and a bit blocks, each well over 1ha in size, which had been planted with Japanese larch and Norway spruce over relic riverside meadowland in 1972. 

Pearl-bordered Fritillary was seen in at least two of these clearings last spring.  I suspect Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary also occurs.  Both butterflies occur just upstream in Trendlebere Combe, which is part of Yarner Wood NNR.  I visited Parke today to assess the potential of the new clearings for these fritillaries.  Great news, two of the three blocks looked distinctly promising, being rich in violets, plus much Bugle and Primrose – they are of serious potential for both these butterflies, at least for a few years.   It shouldn’t take much effort to make this happen. 

Also, delighted to see that the neglected rush-filled marshy meadows just downstream of these new clearings are now being lightly grazed.  Rushes have visibly declined, which is surprising.  There is good potential for Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary in these meadows, as well as Orange Tip and Green-veined White.  We can also recreate a bit more Pearl-bordered Fritillary habitat in other, drier meadows east of the river by easing off on Bracken management – an easy win:win there. 

Need to return in three months with a small gang of helpers to map and assess violet densities, so we can plan some necessary cutting (bramble etc), and count the butterflies.  Can’t wait…

Good to ping pollen from Hazel catkins and even see some female flowers, hear Great Tit calling and even hear a Dipper briefly.

Desert Island Birds

Something to do on a long solo car journey is to consider what eight species of British bird you would take with you to a desert island in lieu of utterly useless gramophone records.  It is by no means easy, beyond some initial choices.    

To the pragmatist the early items are obvious: Pheasant, Partridge (grey), Woodcock, Mallard, Grey-lag Goose, and take a good shotgun + ammo as your luxury.  But how do you finish?  You cannot add chicken as that is hardly a British bird, and your choices may place you in breach the third deadly sin, gluttony.  No, we need some rules and criteria: you are not allowed more than two highly edible birds, and chickens are not native or naturalised in the British Isles (apart from on a single roundabout in Norfolk, where fighting cocks were naturalised by travellers).  The desert island by the way, is temperate – and by that I mean it has a temperate climate, with four seasons: washed ashore with you is a large supply of decent claret.

Those of us who are fired up by the beauty and wonder of nature have other problems, notably that of what to leave out.   Never mind feeding the body, the soul is hungrier and less easily denied.  You may only be able to have one of House Martin, Sand Martin, Swallow and Swift.  Now, that is decision-making at its hardest.  I know, having been through the process (it took several car journeys, and the answer was House Martin).

The Blackbird must be on all our lists, as it is without any question of doubt our premier garden song bird.  Spring would not be spring without the Blackbird, a garden would not be a garden, and England would not be England.  It is that quintessential.  I would be quite content to have eight regional variations of the Blackbird, for they definitely have dialects.  Many of us would take the Song Thrush too.  I wouldn’t, as it drowns out other songbirds, and gets over excited and repeats itself terribly.  The Mistle Thrush has to be a wiser choice.  Its song is so magical that it cannot be envisaged in the mind, nor can anyone imitate it. 

The seasonal element is also important.  March belongs to the Rook.  Some of us would have to have a rookery, and not because of the prospect of Rook pie.  They are also magical at other times of year, not least in winter when they warm up, motionless in the trees, in weak sunshine after clear frosty nights, and in autumn when they feed in the fields.  Consider the Rook: it may be central to our rural culture, part of the essential experience of Home.  It is for me.

Some summer songsters are essential.  The poet in me insists on the Nightingale, though I once lived so close to a veritable infestation of them that I was seriously deprived of sleep for eight weeks each year (no way could I live near Corncrakes).  No, as a disciple of Keats, the Nightingale is a must for me.  I would also have to have either a Chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler, probably the former but either would do and I’d like both. 

We need a raptor to keep the rabble in order (though cock Mistle Thrushes are handy here).  I cannot choose between Buzzard and Red Kite, the Buddhists of the raptor world.  Perhaps the Red Kite is lovelier.

Oh heck!  I’ve only got one left…  But I cannot name it in case I offend you by leaving out your favourite bird.

Now it’s your turn…  Good luck, you’ll need it.

 

The weathermen are warning that a cold spell is likely to develop during the second half of January.  To date the winter has been mild, too mild, bar a few days of beautiful hoar frost during the second week of December.  Nature could do with slowing down a bit as very early springs are fraught with danger, usually ending in tears.     

Fifty years ago, the infamous winter of 1962-63 was kicking in.  It was the worst winter since 1795 or 1740, depending on how far back you can remember and/or which weather data sets you accept.  The bad weather began up north before Christmas in ‘62, before a belt of snow became stationary over southern England on Boxing Day and a severe blizzard hit the South West on the 29th & 30th.  Power lines were brought down and drifts up to 20m were recorded.  The snow then froze, the temperature barely exceeded zero all January, and there was much freezing fog.  There were ice flows under Tower Bridge, and the sea was frozen for half a mile off Margate.  Huge stalactites of ice hung from every bridge.  Then, a 36 hour blizzard hit the South West in early February.  That snow also froze, apart from an incipient thaw mid month.  For 60 days there was significant snow on the ground down south, and remote villages were cut off for three weeks.  Then, on March 6th, the sun returned, the temperature reached 17C and Brimstone butterflies took to the air. 

 I remember it rather well, starting with a nightmare journey in freezing fog on glaciated roads en route to Bruton, Somerset, from visiting Grandma near Gloucester.  We got trapped in Frome, where the car then remained for weeks.  At that time my mother taught Latin and needlework at the girls boarding school in Bruton.  Foolishly, the sign at the main entrance used white lettering on a bottle green background, which meant that dextrous use of white chalk ensured that the school was regularly transmogrified into SUNNY HELL SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.  Eventually we got to Bruton by train, only for me to get trapped there.  I missed almost an entire term of St Custard’s Preparatory Boarding Skool 25 miles away at Crewkerne, where my peers included Nigel Molesworth, Thomas Peason and Basil Fotherington-Thomas.  Being trapped in a girls skool should have been a nightmare for a nine year old boy (a few years older and it would have presented serious opportunities…), but the weeks were spent helping on the farms and tobogganing on a large tin tray borrowed from the  skool kitchen.  The chef was a very nice man, when he wasn’t playing the bag pipes, which he did early each morning.  Throughout I wore shorts as boys under 13 were not allowed to wear long trousers in that era.  I can still sense the raw pain of knees rubbed red on the hard-crusted soot-stained snow.  The skool also had some absurd rules: girls were only allowed to wash their hair once every three weeks, and pet rabbits could be mated only with express permission of the headmistress.  Mother’s diary points out that ‘some of the rabbits couldn’t read’.  The larger girls made an igloo cathedral, decorated with giant icicles.  

Mother’s diary records the tale of that winter in Sunny Hell.  The skool was in crisis: the primitive heating system regularly failed, gas was being rationed nationally due to a power workers dispute, coal was in short supply as Avonmouth docks had frozen over, oil could not be delivered, power cuts regularly occurred because of power lines being brought down and an industrial go-slow, and burst water mains lead to water rationing.  Girls were not even allowed one bath a week.  At one stage the Lower IVth ran away en masse, claiming starvation, only to be rounded up by Matron and her Alsatian.  On the surrounding farms things were serious.  Milk churns could not be collected, and the milk froze anyway.  Sheep got buried in drifts and chickens perished frozen to the perch.  Dead wild birds were almost commonplace.  I found several dead Fieldfares and a frozen Green Woodpecker at the base of a beech tree.  Wrens were annihilated.  I did not find a wren’s nest that year, and I was an ardent (and rather adept) bird-nester.

Eventually I was dispatched back to St Custard’s just in time for a major bursting of water pipes there.  My skool trunk had been sent by train via a gloriously inefficient service called Passenger’s Luggage in Advance (PLA), a national institution that needs reinstating if Britain is ever to become Great again.  Mother’s diary reveals that the trunk turned up in May.  At one point she states: ‘The weather is wearing down the veneer of civilisation and the basic ancient Briton is re-emerging.’  The worrying thing is that she then recorded a miserable spring. 

On another occasion I got snowed in splendidly at Timberscombe, in north west Somerset, again missing a lot of skool and whizzing down steep slopes on a tin tray instead.

 

(The above is a reworking of a piece published in The Watershed, our parish magazine).

So often at New Year there is no noticeable sense of change between the last hours of the old year and the first of the new – same weather, same feel, no sense of transition.  That’s a bad sign.  Good years, and in particular good summers, are not heralded like that; with them, a distinct aura of change kicks in over the new year period, you can feel a new power developing, even though it may subsequently sleep during the pall of January. 

This time there was a clear difference, mercifully.  As the year just past was so Vile that I refuse to name it, referring to it only as That Year, change was imperative.  Sure enough, as 2013 came in, scudding clouds suddenly dissipated to reveal a near-full moon and a host of stars, strangely visible for once as the orange glow of street light pollution seemed to be taking the night off, presumably to get plastered. 

Looking up and around from a hill top in the southern Cotswolds it was as if all the doom & gloom of That Year was being physically pushed away by some advancing brightness, a force of goodness.  Then the celebratory fireworks commenced down in the Stroud valleys, That Year had gone.  Stroudo, as it is known by its young folk, puts on a good firework show – you can look down on them from any of the surrounding hill tops (though Rodborough Common is best).

New Year’s Day dawned clear and mild.  It is essential that we, as naturalists and lovers of Nature, get a new year off to a good start.  For the last X years I have been studying Purple Emperor butterflies in what most people call Savernake Forest but I call Savernake Cathedral.  I have seen the butterfly in its various life stages there for 44 consecutive months now, which is probably obsessive – at least I hope so.  The species spends 10 months in the caterpillar stage, five of them in hibernation during which time they are mercilessly predated, seemingly by British tits.  The good news is that British tits had a poor breeding season during That Year, so predation may be down this winter. 

Nonetheless, one of the 10 larvae I am following was lost during December, probably due to predation by British tits.  I have recorded worse rates of predation in previous winter months, so things could have been worse.  The good news, though, is that I found a new larva – by spotting the remains of its old autumn feeding leaf dangling from a silk thread high up in a sallow, and then homing in on the caterpillar hibernating in a twig fork nearly 4m away, through dextrous use of binoculars.  These old feeding leaves are fairly distinctive, as larvae leave a clear feeding pattern, and can remain attached by silk strands long into the winter.  So I started and finished the day with 10, albeit a slightly different 10. 

Also, I’ve been following a hibernating female Brimstone butterfly there, low in a loose bramble patch in a sunny glade.  She had fallen off her bramble leaf and was lying, comatose and covered in dew, on oak leaf litter 12″ below.  Gently I managed to coax her back onto the underside of a bramble leaf.  Hopefully she wont fall off again.  And hopefully the deer wont accidentally eat her, as quite a few bramble leaves in that glade have been browsed off (I’ve recorded Purple Emperor and White Admiral larvae being accidentally consumed by feeding deer…).

The forest was full of people, drying out after the Christmas floods.  Dogs and mud everywhere, displacing the forest birds.  They all deserve a decent summer, which we haven’t had since 2006.   This blog will record the summer of 2013, though at this stage I will emphasise that good summers have first to be dreamt, during the winter. 

This will be my 50th year of butterflying – various celebrations are planned, and I’m writing a book documenting and eulogising those years, provisionally called Bright Elusive Butterfly but I’m open to suggestions for a better title…