By Mavis Gulliver
February was relatively mild and snowdrops heralded the turn of the year by poking through the leaf litter in Bridgend Woods.
A few flurries of snow failed to settle but the carpet of white blooms meant that a stoat in ermine was only briefly visible. Lithe and too swift for a photograph, it bounded between snowdrop clumps, its black-tipped tail flying like a tiny flag. I shuddered at the exploitation of such natural beauty as I recalled that 50,000 stoat pelts had been used in the ceremonial robes worn at George VI’s Coronation; and that animals are still being exploited for their fur.
In among snowdrops and mosses, clumps of Scarlet Elf Cups (Sarcoscypha coccinea) provided the brightest colour of the year so far.
Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) opened its glossy petals on south-facing banks, reminding me of the poem by William Wordsworth in which he wrote:
There is a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.
Unfortunately, Wordworth’s memorial inside the church at Grasmere depicts a different plant, Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), a fact which has caused both disappointment and controversy over the years.
Strong winds brought a landfall of By-the-wind-Sailors (Vellela vellela) a phenomenon that usually occurs in high summer. Here, in early February, thousands covered the beach with their transparent floats. In their home waters the violet-blue discs of these small tropical organisms float on the surface of the sea while their diagonally set sail enables them to be carried at the whim of the wind. By the time they reach our shores their short tentacles have disappeared and they resemble scraps of transparent plastic, easy to overlook even when they are piled deep among stranded seaweed.
On 21 February came warnings of severe weather as Storm Doris headed our way. The following night brought torrential rain although we fared better than most of the UK. Even so, the burn that flows into Kilnaughton Bay burst its banks and yet more of the track to the fording place was washed away. Water drained from the hill, gushed down through the wood and turned the path into a miniature rushing river.
The dune crumbled, bed rock on the beach was exposed and the remaining sand was covered with pebbles from the burn. As if to emphasise the vagaries of Hebridean weather the following daybreak brought a calm, sunlit sea and my dawn walk was enhanced by the liquid notes of song thrushes.
From song posts on the top-most branches of trees nine of these lovely birds filled the air with their distinctive songs. Each one subtly different from the next, but all providing the reason for Robert Browning’s words in his poem Home-Thoughts from Abroad:
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
Beautiful as these lines are, they present a rather fanciful reason for why birds sing. Most bird song comes from male birds during the breeding season and is a means of attracting mates, claiming territories and warning other males away. Whatever the reasons behind it, the dawn chorus is one of the greatest pleasures of an early morning walk. Starting at first light the singing tails away as the day progresses. The birds then go about the daily business of feeding, mating, nest building and ultimately rearing their young.
But it is the dawn chorus of spring that provides the early-rising observer with an opportunity to become familiar with birds and their songs. Breeding plumage is shown to the full as birds on highly visible perches make identification relatively easy.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) had born the brunt of Doris and was looking distinctly bedraggled. Soon I will look for leaves that appear when the flowers are over. As children we were taught the game of Polishing the Mirror in which, using finger and thumb, we raced to rub away the covering of white down. It’s a game I still can’t resist, even though it reminds me that time is passing.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.