The joy of being in the thick of spring

PUBLISHED: 12:19 13 June 2018

Bluebells

Bluebells

ILIFFE

Swifts have arrived and will stay with us until mid-July.

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,

als alle Knospen sprangen,

da ist in meinem Herzen

die Liebe aufgegangen.

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,

als alle Vögel sangen,

da hab’ ich ihr gestanden

mein Sehnen und Verlangen.”

These words, by the German poet Heinrich Heine, beautifully capture the joy of late spring, especially when experienced through the sublime music of Robert Schumann in his song cycle Dichterliebe. It certainly does feel as though all the buds are bursting open, and many, if not all the birds are indeed singing.

Buds opening this month include hawthorn, also appropriately known as may. Whereas last month the splashes of white in the hedgerows were mainly the flowers of blackthorn, out before the leaves, this is the month for hawthorn blossom.

Another favourite May flower is Queen Anne’s lace, a most attractive member of the carrot family. Over on Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green there are clouds of these complex flowerheads now showing at their finest amongst fern-like foliage. The riverside pastures are perfect for these delicate 
plants that seem to thrive after regular grazing by cattle, justifying their alternative name of cow parsley.

There are splendid displays of bluebells in some of the region’s woods, for example at Hayley Wood to the west of the city. Wild native bluebell flowers are an intense blue and droop downwards from the stem. Most bluebells planted in gardens are either the Spanish bluebell with larger, paler flowers that spread out more evenly around the stem, or a hybrid between both wild species.

Our local blackbird now sings loudly from 4.15am, a wake-up call I rarely resent. Nightingales notwithstanding, I regard the song of the blackbird as our finest. If you listen closely to its song, the amount of detail is quite extraordinary. Sure, the basic structure, timing and melody enable us to identify it as blackbird, but each individual bird has his own version. This became clear to me this spring when I noticed that ‘our’ blackbird sounded different. I suspected we had a new territory holder in the garden.

This was confirmed when I then heard last year’s bird singing loudly further down the alley. I recognised his characteristic sequence of lilting notes that to me were almost like a fingerprint, labelling him quite clearly not just as a blackbird, but as an individual. I have now learned the special phrase of the interloper too – quite different, but just as particular. That this was not just my imagination was confirmed by checking with recordings I have made of both birds. If we humans can detect these differences, I think the birds themselves can probably read even more complex messages into their musical utterances.

Every year at this time I eagerly await the arrival of the local swifts, as does our neighbour. We were both gazing hopefully into the sky at the start of the month, hoping and wondering. Then on May 5 the first swift appeared, to be followed by several birds the following day. I expect they were pleased that their arrival this year coincided with unusually warm weather.

They seem always to be punctual whatever the weather and usually appear here around May 4 or 5. Small groups of these amazing birds are now swooping about in pursuit of flying insects and re-establishing their pair bonds for their short breeding season, often racing low over the rooftops, screaming as they go.

Some of us will be lucky enough to have them nest under the eaves. By the middle of July most will start their return journey to central Africa where they will arrive by mid-August, so they are only with us for about three months, though some may linger into late August or early September. They can live for about 20 years and spend almost their entire lives in the air, some clocking up more than a million kilometres in a lifetime.

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