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I’m actually one of those strange people who really like winter. I have to admit, though, by the time we get to March and April, I’m ready for the arrival of spring. From the first snowdrops, I get increasingly impatient for a change in season, and like many people start looking out for the signs of spring.
Of course, humans have been noticing these signs for centuries, but in the 18th century, the first structured approach was taken. Norfolk landowner Robert Marsham began recording the timing of various spring events every year from 1736 and continued for the next 62 years. In fact, successive generations of his family carried on the tradition until 1958. As a result, scientists have a valuable record of the timings of these events and how these have moved in relation to changing temperatures.
This study is now called phenology, and you can record your own ‘signs of spring’ and contribute to citizen science on the Nature’s Calendar site. This is helping to find out what species are being affected by climate change. Whether it’s the first leaf buds, first frogspawn or first swallows, there is lots to look out for.
The Chiffchaff’s Song
One of the species I look forward to hearing most every spring is the diminutive chiffchaff. One of the earliest returnees, it is also one of the easiest to find because of the distinctive song. Although they can sometimes be hard to tell apart by sight alone from the similar willow warbler, there is no mistaking them once singing. While the willow warbler’s song is a fluid series of descending notes, the chiffchaff sings its own name in a repetitive ‘chiffchaff’ song. Poet Edward Thomas thought it sounded as though ‘every note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into winter’s coffin’, surely one of the loveliest quotes about a bird’s song.
Interestingly, more chiffchaffs are now spending winter in the UK. More research needs to be done, though, to find out if these are birds that bred here and have decided not to migrate as winters get warmer, or if they are birds from the continent who are just migrating a short distance instead of heading to the Mediterranean and Africa as they used to. This seems to be the case with wintering blackcaps , after all.
Two for the Price of One
One of the other things I love about spring is the chance to see summer and winter visitors side by side. New arrivals often get here before the wintering birds have left. I have watched brent geese feeding while listening to a nearby sedge warbler and seen wigeon on a lake while swallows hawk over them. The sight is always a little incongruous!
But it’s not just the overlap of winter and summer visitors that gives us this bonus birdwatching experience. The dramatic change in plumage that many birds undergo each year means we almost get two species for the price of one. I’ve been lucky enough to live in a number of places that sees a lot of great northern divers each winter. It is always exciting to see the first summer plumage birds before they head north to breed. The handsome black and chequered birds really do look like a completely different species from the grey and white winter ones.
Likewise, the golden plover changes from a subtly beautiful gold-spangled wader to a smart, black-bellied bird who almost looks like a small judge with his white trim.
Edward Thomas set out to find the signs of spring in 1913 by cycling south and west to the Quantocks from London. His account, In Pursuit of Spring *, is a wonderful read.
Gilbert White corresponded with early phenologist Robert Marsham and kept his own notes on the arrival of spring events. His Natural History of Selborne * charts his thoughts on the natural world.