The season of pure light and soft breezes

CHiff Chaff by John Caffrey..
CHiff Chaff by John Caffrey..
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IT seemed like yesterday when I sat under this mature larch. Its beautiful red flowers grew in abundance, and looking so brilliant under the clear March sky. Spring had arrived; and all things took on a different perspective.

In my garden I have listened to the chiff chaff, whose short repetitive song comes from amongst the sprouting leaves of the buddleia as it hunts for aphids. This small leaf warbler has been my constant companion since their arrival in good numbers.

Spring brings change, in what we see and how we think. Its verdant greens replace the golden ochres of autumn and the sombre umbers of winter. This is the season when we welcome the swallows. They have left the azure skies of a distant land to travel once more to summer in the British Isles.

Yet with these gains, we also lose such birds as the brambling, that beautiful continental cousin of our chaffinch. They visited my feeders over the winter months. Feeding on the ground along with the chaffinches, they would fly down from the large alder at the edge of the garden. They have now returned to the birch forests of Scandinavia, answering the call of a more northern spring which beckons them home to the land of their birth.

I will miss them, along with the siskin and redpolls that passed through and remained at our feeders during the winter. These small finches broke off from the larger wandering flocks to visit the feeders. These flocks disperse with the advance of spring and the individual birds pairing off to their selected nesting areas. I have been fortunate to witness their presence at such close quarters.

As the sun gained in elevation and strength, the winged beauties of March appeared in the form of the small tortoiseshell and the peacock butterfly. Both of these are the early flyers of the butterfly world, followed by the orange tip as the vegetation developed with the arrival of April.

I often sit in the garden under a very old elder on the warming days of spring. It is quite large for an elder, about 5m high, its trunk is 180cm around its base and 107cm around one of its branches. It matured into a tree long ago. Its old scraggy branches are lichen covered and because of its age is always late coming into leaf.

It is the favourite haunt of the robin, who sings just above my head. At times so close I hear the soft burring of its wings as it takes flight. The coal and willow tits fly from our feeders with nuts or seed and hide them in the crevasses of its gnarled trunk and branches — this is their pantry, nothing is wasted.

The goldfinch visits too, and now has found its voice that has long been silent over the winter. It breaks into its varied tinkle-like song, its red facial blaze and brilliant yellow wing bars give it the appearance of an exotic species from a distant land. But this is one of the most exquisitely coloured native birds we have.

The bullfinch also visits this old elder and announces its presence with its soft piping notes; it too is a bird of rare beauty.

These are the sounds of nature that surround me as I sit and observe. Spring has many sounds, colours, and surprises, if we take the time to just sit, to look and listen. Then and only then, when the mind, eye and ear are in complete harmony, do we truly see and hear what is about us. Another world opens to us, revealing the everyday sights, scents and sounds we tend to miss in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

This old elder provides me with the elegance of its flower, its fruit and welcome shade in the summer. Also the blackcap with a feast, and the blue tit a nesting hole to rear its brood, it is a provider to both humans and nature. Like all things in nature it has a place and a purpose.

The elder next to it was about the same height and girth, but has succumbed to the winds of winter and the weight of the heavy snow upon its branches. It now lies prostrate to disintegrate into the warming soil from whence it came. First breaking the soil on a distant spring morning, it has served its purpose by nature’s time-scale.

Its long life has ended with dignity, and not prematurely by the hand of man. How many dawns has it welcomed, how many springs has it seen, how many families have picked its harvest? I will never know the answers to these questions. But I have seen it in all its finery; garlanded with a mass of delicate white blossom, and I have relished its wine.

Many a blackbird has rejoiced from its twisted branches, performing their evening overtures to the glory of the setting sun in the distant sky. Its beauty is but a memory of times past; and the fragility of what we know as life.

We welcome the warmer breezes of April; and the light is now more penetrating while the earth is responding to its golden touch.

We are experiencing an early Spring this year, with temperatures more Mediterranean than Northumbrian.

This month I have seen the orange tip and comma butterflies flying along the hedgerows. The wild plum, blackthorn, cherry and apple blossom were to be seen in abundance. There is a greening of the landscape, while the earth adorns the roadsides in contrast with the brilliant yellow of the dandelions.

The swallows were early this year. I saw a pair flying above St James’s Church on April 7, but I was told that others had been seen at an earlier date.

As we approach the end of the month, the song of the blackcap and whitethroat are with us daily, they sing from their concealed perch among the unfolding greenery. The woodlands display their finest new carpet, which the bluebell and wild garlic have provided. I have seen my first young mallard ducklings on the Wansbeck, in the Quarry Woods. The horse chestnuts now blossom throughout the town, providing both brilliance and shade.

Nature has turned another page in its ancient annals, and colour is everywhere.

The season of pure light and soft breezes is with us once more.