Flowerings – endings and beginnings

By Simon Leach

Forty-two weeks since the start of the first lockdown in March, today marks the beginning of a third lockdown. A good moment, perhaps, to reflect on the last couple of months, and on the start of a new year which in many ways has seemed depressingly like the old one—the one we were so keen to see the back of. It’s much harder at this time of year, I know, but there are still consolations to be had from what’s happening (or not) in the natural world. We can fret all we like, but the world out there—the world of Blackbirds and Celandines—just gets on with it. This began as an attempt to keep track of spring, and forty-two weeks later this remains the case, the only difference being that it’s no longer the same spring as the one we started out with.

Quite apart from the virus—and Brexit—the start of 2021 couldn’t be more different to the new year of a year ago. In England, last winter was the third least frosty on record. The first frost of 2020 in Taunton wasn’t until 18th January, which was also the first day of that month with a single-digit daytime maximum. Just six days into 2021 and we’ve already had as many nights of freezing temperatures as in the whole of last January. Daytime maxima have yet to exceed 5°C. Last year’s New Year Plant Hunt, in Taunton, produced about 85 species in flower. This year’s, encompassing much the same route, could muster only 59. Our ‘hunt’ took a very different form this year, of course, with Tier 4 restrictions over much of the county meaning that we couldn’t meet up as a group. Instead we worked either in pairs or on our own, mostly concentrating on our home patches. The counts varied greatly: urban areas produced the biggest totals while the countryside generally offered only meagre pickings following storm ‘Bella’ on Boxing Day and two nights of sub-zero temperatures on the 30th and 31st.  As if to emphasise how odd 2020 had been, New Year’s Eve’s early morning low of -3°C turned out to be the coldest of the year in Taunton—saving its worst for last, one might say. Plants that I’d seen still flowering a couple of days before had, by New Year’s morning, succumbed to the cold. Overnight, quite literally, they’d given up the ghost. Between Christmas Eve and 30th December my usual dog walks produced 72 species still flowering, but by 4th January this had dipped to well below 60.

During the second lockdown, in November, we witnessed how, one after another, plants that had still been flowering deep into the autumn spluttered to a halt. This was unsurprising, but somehow during lockdown it seemed harder to bear. Cataloguing the decline didn’t make it any easier. Each week from the start of October I kept a tally of plants still flowering on our regular dog-walking routes. In the second week of October (Week 30) 193 species were in flower; a month later (Week 34) there were 158; and by the end of November (Week 37) the total had plummeted to 115, frosty nights on the 26th and 27th having an immediate impact. From about the middle of December, until those sharp frosts right at the end of the year, we were bumping along with a weekly count of between 70 and 80. Many autumn ‘regulars’ had fallen away in the first two weeks of Advent: in the first week we lost Wood False-brome, Brachypodium sylvaticum, Large Bindweed, Calystegia silvatica, Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare, Cleavers, Galium aparine, Cat’s-ear, Hypochaeris radicata, Rough Hawkbit, Leontodon hispidus, and Bramble, Rubus fruticosus, to name but seven.The following week we had what turned out to be our last sightings of Meadow Crane’s-bill, Geranium pratense, and Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare.

It felt like these disappearances were (yet another) reason for gloom and despondency, when really they needed to be viewed in a much more optimistic light. After all, this is winter doing what winter does best—wiping the slate clean, clearing the decks. Yet, even as all these ‘hangers on’ trooped off, exiting stage left, so others—signalling the shape of things to come—were beginning to enter stage right…

On 12th November Gill had first-flowering Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans,at Truddoxhill, which was followed by Chris L.’s record of it from Langford Budville on the 15th and my own, at Staple Hill, on the 23rd.  Actually, next year’s spring had got underway even earlier than this, when Karen N. spotted Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, beginning to bloom in Wedmore on 6th November. Helena’s garden Spurge-laurel began flowering on the 15th, while I had to wait until 5th December, in an ancient hedge-bank near Corfe that marks the boundary of Poundisford Park. David H. had it at Weston Big Wood on 28th December, and it now seems to be flowering quite widely across the county[1].

Primroses, Primula vulgaris, have been seen flowering locally since mid-November, while there have been some extraordinarily early sightings of Lesser Celandines, Ficaria verna, starting with Caroline’s at Luccombe on 14th November, followed by my own in Taunton on 5th December, and then a minor flurry of records in the last days of the year. Hazel, Corylus avellana, is another to have made an earlier-than-usual start with first records ‘up north’ on 29th November (Gill) and ‘down south’ on 14th December (me). Steve’s first Hazel in North Petherton was on the 28th. My own first-flowerers in the last few weeks in the Taunton area have also included Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, on 17th December, Wild Strawberry, Fragaria vesca, on the 24th and, oddly, Small Nettle, Urtica urens, on 2nd January. Jeanne had Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium, and Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, flowering on her New Year Hunt. The first of these was flowering well into December in the Taunton area, so it’s hard to know whether one is looking at the tail-end of last year’s flowering or the start of this year’s—or maybe both? The Greater Stitchwort, though, is amazingly early. As also was Margaret’s Shining Crane’s-bill, Geranium lucidum, in Chew Magna on 3rd January.

Spring has been showing itself, albeit tentatively, in other ways too. My first singing Mistle Thrush was on 18th November, and first Song Thrush ten days later on the 28th. But the best of the lot was on 15th December when I heard my first Blackbird, singing quietly at dusk from an Elder, Sambucus nigra, beside the cycle-path at the back of Stoke Road allotments. It wasn’t our local bird, the one that sang its way through the first lockdown, but it’ll do for now[2].

Meanwhile, many of us have been getting thoroughly distracted by Mistletoe, Viscum album. Thanks to Chris L. and Linda, the SRPG Mistletoe survey was up and running by the second week of December, with beautifully arranged web page and natty on-line form for entering records. The great thing about Mistletoe, of course, is that searching for it involves looking up rather than down. How nice to be able to straighten one’s back and yet still do botany! Hard-pressed GPs could do worse than prescribe ‘searching for mistletoe’ for any botanist suffering from backache caused by too much stooping.

Lastly, I can’t not mention the visit that Vicki and I made to Ham Wall at dawn on Christmas Day. We wouldn’t be seeing any of the family, in part due to Tier 4 restrictions, so we decided that if Christmas wasn’t going to go to plan then at least we ought to do something unusual to mark the day. We’ve watched starling roosts at dusk many times, but never at dawn. We weren’t sure what to expect.

We parked the car at 7 a.m. and set off down the path to the roost. It was dark. There wasn’t the slightest breath of wind. It was chilly, too, on the way over the car thermometer had stayed stubbornly on zero. As we arrived at the roost, we could hear the faintest murmuring, like a distant mountain stream, like water trickling over stones. That word murmuration perfectly describes the sound the birds were making as they woke up; and then slowly, imperceptibly, they began to turn up the volume. The sky above was the colour of dark slate, but there was a widening slit of lemon-yellow to the south-east. No moon, which had set hours ago, but Venus still shone to the south, gradually drifting upwards and becoming fainter as the day began to break. The excitement was growing and the chattering in the reed-bed became louder, then louder still. By 7.40 a.m. it had become a raging torrent of water. If you shut your eyes, you could imagine being on the inside of a waterfall. And then, above all the chatter there came a deep—almost thunderous—rumbling, like a storm brewing, like sudden rushes of wind through the reeds on this otherwise perfectly calm morning. Through binoculars we could see that these rumbles were being produced by large ‘squalls’ of starlings as they shifted their position within the roost. The birds were getting restless.  

And then, at 7.56 a.m. precisely, the chattering stopped and the whole roost rose up, like a veil lifting. They took off south-eastwards as a single flock, a great wall of starlings slowly gaining height as it headed towards the sunrise. Afterwards, there were coots and wood pigeons calling, wigeons whistling, and lapwings flying high enough to catch the sun that wasn’t yet visible to those of us still tethered to the ground. And a Cetti’s warbler added his own commentary, loudly spitting out expletives from deep within a patch of track-side scrub. Ham Wall was burgeoning with life, of course, but it was the lack of starlings that left the strongest impression: it felt like the whole place had emptied into the sky. And by 8.20 a.m. the sun peered above the horizon, lighting up first the tops of the Alders, then the tallest reeds, and then our faces. By the time we left, everywhere was bathed in early morning brightness.

When we arrived, there were just two cars in the car park; on our departure there were eleven. Altogether we’d seen six people and two dogs—a miserably small number to witness such a spectacle. But, in this age of social distancing, it turns out that dawn at Ham Wall on Christmas Day is probably about as good as it gets.

[1] Walter Watson’s average first flowering date (FFD) for Spurge-laurel early in the last century was 8th February.

[2] And this morning (7th Jan) my first Great Tit, singing from an old oak tree in Corfe.