If you hear a hooting call of “twit-twoo” it’s not really an owl – it’s actually two. They’re busy talking – him and her, back and forth; ask, confer. Not all owls even make this sound; when you hear it, it’s Tawnys you’ve found. Barn Owls prefer to hiss or shriek, Little Owls yelp, rather than cheep, Short-eareds have even been known to bark, Long-eareds whistle to pierce the dark. And those are all the owls you’ll find in the British countryside. So next time you hear a “twit-twoo” you’ll know what’s what, and who is who!
Spring is advancing – en garde! – be prepared, tiny leaf spears are breaking bud everywhere, and here in the woods, an army of new blades is piercing the soil, ready to conquer the glades. Out in the fields, the first lamb scouts are exploring, confirming received intelligence that Winter is indeed thawing. And back on the home front, the news spreads quickly as every trilling bird fulfils its patriotic duty. Advance Spring, advance, we welcome your invasion. You have the will of the people; the heart of the nation!
Who threw scores of paint balls at poor defenceless Hazel, when she was rooted in the hedgerow, unable to fight or flee? And to add insult to injury, when her limbs were bare, stripped of any cover to protect or distract? Doesn’t she look a sight now with a hundred splodges, staining her slender figure with round yellow welts?
‘’I did it, I did it,’’ pipes up proud Lichen, when I get close enough to see. ‘’I think she looks quite fine in experimental haute couture, and while we’re talking, would you really deny me somewhere to grow? It’s taken me a long time to achieve this look so if you don’t appreciate it, just move on!’’
It’s still February, yet here you are, peaking too soon like a childhood star. Didn’t last week’s snow give you a timely cue? The calendar isn’t quite ready for a flower like you. You’ll never be picked now for a Mother’s’ Day bouquet or trumpet triumphant news in a golden Easter display. But you do stand out now, alone there on the verge, shining ahead of your time, way ahead of the yellow curve. You won’t be lost in the crowd now, no one will focus elsewhere, you’re a vindicated Narcissus – briefly fairest of the fair.
Murphy’s law freshly redefined: try to capture wild creatures in time with any kind of focused lens to remember or share with friends. Just as you frame the shot, they’ll fly or dart or flee, this is a recurring trend I can completely guarantee. Today, a plucky sparrowhawk was happy to let us stand and gawk, until we tried to take his picture, when he quickly enforced the “no photo” stricture.
More than crisp fresh snow, bright white mistletoe, or any other Winter treat, there’s one favourite sight, one utter delight, that has everything else firmly beat. The absolute best is tree silhouettes reaching across every view to point out the splendour of delicious dusk colour – rich pinks against deepening blue. For this joy alone, I refuse to moan when Winter drags her feet, for although it’s a trial when cold stretches for miles, there is nothing that can compete with the beauty of trees stripped back to their seams – every single finger defined – as they gently shift while sky-scenes drift into glorious sunsets behind.
The market is fierce, the competition high, house-hunters are fighting over where they will reside. Forget gazumping, that’s for children and amateurs, in the nesting game, there are more violent parameters. The gloves come off to secure the perfect place when time is tight and you’ve a brood to raise. Finding the right home is stressful for humans too, but I’m still relieved we don’t approach it like birds do!
The first crocus is shy, keeping her colours closed and hiding behind the skirts of a wintered brown fuchsia, as if to say, “Nothing to see here; move on; look elsewhere”. She takes after Spring of course, all reticence and blush, tip-toing in, not quite sure yet of her place in the room… But the secret’s not safe with me – I point her out to everyone. And it’s cover blown, debutante exposed; time to be celebrated – ready or not.
I wonder, when the dale is covered in snow, whether they all know about it, down below? Deep in the river, in that hidden underworld I forget is even there, as I walk above it all. And this makes me question, more generally, who is swimming past, that I cannot see? Are there swarms of eels racing schools of brown trout? Which larvae are down there, lurking about? For all my adventures and lessons in natural history, underwater life still retains this air of mystery; for I walk along the river searching surface, ground and sky but am blind to fish and insects rushing quietly by.
We’re desperate for the longer days and the growing greater light – the shorter nights, the dampened dark, the medicine of bright. But how do the night watch feel as the shadows ebb away and their freedom is restricted by brutally advancing day? Do they live their year in reverse, working towards Winter solstice, greeting the gathering gloom as a time of peace and solace? Do they spend the summer season moaning about the light, counting down the days till there are more hours in the night? I expect they take some comfort in warmer times at least and in the bi-product of more sun resulting in better feasts. But still, I feel I must temper my lengthening day celebrations in deference to nocturnals and their likely sinking sensations. And as for those who’ve spent Winter in the joy of hibernation, well, there must be part of them that feels pure consternation!
The day is close to waking up before me now, and next to my window, on the maple’s bough, the winged orchestra is warming up again, harmonising with sunlight’s swelling refrain. Spring is almost stirring – stretching, yawning; hear her distant melody – catch her first chords dawning.
While others fall silent, Mistle Thrush sings on, filling the wet garden with her Storm Crow song. While others wait for sun, Mistle Thrush persists, reverberating her notes through drizzle and mist. While others hide away, Mistle Thrush remains, perching in plain sight to perform her bold strains. While others grow downcast, it will be to my gain, if, like Mistle Thrush, I can learn to sing through rain.
I’m living in hope that Red Squirrel’s bright tail will one day soon be seen in the trees of Nidderdale. I’ve heard of wild sightings as far south as Redmire, so surely the population won’t have to get too much higher before they leap lower still through North Yorkshire’s woods and arrive safe and sound in our neighbourhoods. If they reach here, I don’t know how I’ll celebrate the end of my agonising, life-long wait to live alongside this elusive, impish mammal, and have seeing one become absolutely normal. It would be nothing less than a dream come true, so come on down red squirrels, I’m rooting for you!
Deep in the earth, it’s already begun. Sleeping bulbs are waking – the aconites have come. Even when fresh snow falls, something is now in motion that can no more be deterred than the tidal pull of oceans. In a few short weeks now, anemones will bloom, tulips will proudly unfurl – colour will be here soon. The flower wave is starting, each arrival swelling the good, the quickening is hastening, bluebells will swiftly fragrance the wood. And every opening is welcome, tumbling over itself in yearning to lay out nature’s best carpet for the first swallows’ returning. Yes, the swallows will return my love, the garden will grow again, apple blossom is near now, Spring is just down the lane.
What is it about puddles that strip the years away, enticing every adult’s inner child out to play? As long as you’re in your wellies, it’s impossible to resist their promised splishy-splashy-sploshy mischievous bliss. Even when murking with lurking silt and slime, a magnetism draws you to paddle in their grime. And if you’re the first one to succumb to temptation – what delicious delight to rain down surprise precipitation! This is why puddle power strips the years away, drenching the greyest day with vivid shades of play.
The brook babbles like a cliché but its splashes quiet when iced into thick casts of bramble trails and scales of silent pan pipes. Everywhere else has now thawed but high up the bank’s micro-climate, stream glass is blown into shape and appears, for a moment, infinite.
There is a deep, delicious and powerful joy in turning fresh-fell snow into a sculpting toy; out in the magic, making more with your hands, seizing a moment you can’t schedule or pre-plan; knowing it’s fleeting, as will be your creation as it shrinks before the sorcery of evaporation. Forget clay or play dough, it will always pale next to forming white stuff figures at colossal scale. Yesterday, I broke tradition, and swiftly crafted a rabbit, which I think, on reflection, might become a new habit. I felt a special glee when the ears stood up tall, and all the twiggy details had me totally enthralled. If only every afternoon included such fun, I wouldn’t mind the cold, or miss the absent sun. If only every work out involved building with snow, I’d never make excuses, I’d definitely always go.
Every morning I go foraging, foraging for fresh finds – experiences and sightings, metaphors to unwind. I search every nook of nature to plunder its endless feast, filling my pockets with description, storing up assonant treats. One ear is deep in the moment, the other listens for the page, letting words sigh out in strings, trusting they’ll compose and arrange. Language haunts me outdoors, the wild speaks on inside; this is the glorious double life of idea-foraging delight.