The Coiled Spring

If you prefer, you can download the Word version here.

28th February – Weeks 43 to 49½

We seem to have come almost full circle. Yet this spring, until now, has been quite unlike the last one. Recent weeks have been especially hard. This time last year life was carrying on much as normal. Well, maybe we were being advised to bump elbows rather than shake hands, but COVID-19 still seemed to be a disease wreaking havoc in another universe, and something from which we’d probably escape lightly – although what was already unfolding in northern Italy felt like a bleak warning of things to come. Of more immediate concern, anyway, was Storm Dennis, which nearly led to a postponement of our indoor meeting on 15th February. But ‘Dennis’ proved to be less of a ‘menace’ than we’d been anticipating, and our meeting went ahead as planned. Leaving Shapwick at the end of the afternoon we hadn’t the slightest inkling, really, that we might have to cancel our next meeting in March; and we were still looking forward to our first field meetings in early April, starting with a trip to Orchard Wood on the edge of the Blackdown Hills near Taunton. But by the last week of March we were in lockdown – and, as a group, we haven’t met since, other than at our virtual AGM on Zoom in January. 

Fast forward a year. The virus and the weariness of a third lockdown is taking its toll. All of us, in one way or another, have been affected by what’s happened in the last year. The novelty of lockdown has long since vanished. Being expected to ‘stay at home’ in the spring is one thing, but being faced with the same constraints, or worse, in the middle of winter is quite another. The weather has been pretty diabolical, too. Short days made shorter still by the lack of sun. Days of permanent twilight. Rain. Then more rain. Mud, murk and mid-winter blues. It would be fair to say that I haven’t been the best of company. The periods of numbing, biting cold haven’t helped. We had more frosts in January than in the first three months of last year; and then, in the second week of February, we caught the western fringe of a ‘beast from the east’, with sleet, hail and even snow on several days, day-time temperatures hovering within two degrees of zero, and down to minus 5°C in the night – the coldest nights in these parts for three years. Each cold snap seemed to slow spring’s progress: the new season put on hold, winter tightening its grip again. Plant species that had looked set to flower right through the winter came to a shivering halt. In Taunton, by mid-January we’d lost Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium,while later in the month a series of sharp frosts seemed to put an end to Pellitory-of-the-Wall, Parietaria judaica,and Smooth Sow-thistle, Sonchus oleraceus. And then February’s ‘beast’ finally saw off the last flowers of Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber, Yellow Corydalis, Psudofumaria lutea, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Cymbaria muralis, and Herb Robert, Geranium robertianum. Weekly counts of species in flower (Fig. 1) showed the long decline through the autumn and early winter – no wonder my mood was worsening – with any gains being outweighed by losses until the middle of February. Hardly surprising, then, that the crawl towards spring can feel so painfully slow; each tiny tentative step forwards – the first Lesser Celandine, the first wheeze-and-chitter of a Greenfinch – countered by another step backwards. To begin with, these signs of spring are like punctuation marks in a seemingly never-ending stream of wintry prose, each new flower a comma, each bumble bee or hoverfly a semi-colon, each sudden burst of Chaffinch song an exclamation mark.

Fig. 1 Numbers of species in flower each week, recorded mostly along our usual dog-walking routes in the Taunton area
1st October 2020 to 24th Feb 2021

But now, at last, the graph has begun to tilt in the right direction again! And the road verges and grassy banks are studded with Lesser Celandines, Ficaria verna – just as they were a year ago. Three days of glorious weather – bright sunshine after an early frost – and it’s like we’ve been picked up and transported back to the start of the extraordinary spring of 2020. To be honest, I wasn’t intending to write anything this time around, but the sudden improvement in the weather has changed my mind. My mood is lifting and, considering it was lastyear’s first Lords-and-Ladies, Arum maculatum, that started off this whole business, it seems only right that we keep going just a few more weeks – long enough, at least, to get us back to where we started, so to speak. After that, who knows?

So, as we await the first Arum, here’s a slightly off-the-wall account of the year so far, events arranged in (very approximately) chronological order. You’ll have to put up with most of the observations being mine, I’m afraid, plus a few snippets from others picked up through the grapevine, mainly via emails and various WhatsApp messages.

Week 43: 7th-13th Jan.

  • Saturday, 9th. Steve has had his first Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, in North Petherton: surely a rogue sighting, much as Jeanne’s would have been at the start of the month on her New Year Hunt.
  • Sunday, 10th. Another outrageous record today, this time Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, in the road verge outside Wicke’s, near the Obridge roundabout. It looks very sweet alongside the now-flowering Bulbous Buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus, but hard not to imagine these overnight frosts won’t soon get them both. Following on from Margaret’s very early Shining Crane’s-bill, Geranium lucidum, I saw my first today – at the base of the back wall of the Brewhouse Theatre[1].
  • Tuesday, 12th. Following Bill’s report of Wild Strawberry, Fragaria vesca, yesterday, Margaret has now seen first-flowering Barren Strawberry, Potentilla sterilis, along with Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis. P. sterilis has been seen already by one or two of us, notably by Helena on the 2nd. Lesser Celandine, also seen by at least three of us today, began to flower in Taunton in early December, and Margaret had it on her local patch on 3rd Jan. It seems to be popping up all over the place now. [Linda had her first Lesser Celandine on the 7th, Karen N. on the 13th, Steve and Ann F. on the 17th (Week 44), and Kate in Williton on the 22nd (Week 45).]
  • Wednesday, 13th. Violets: Liz posts on WhatsApp that she’s seen Early Dog-violet, Viola reichenbachiana, in flower. In Taunton, it’s been flowering sporadically in the garden since early November, while Margaret had it on her list for New Year’s Day, but now it’s beginning to be seen more generally. Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, has also been flowering since about mid December and was another one that Margaret had flowering on the first day of the year.

[1] 28/2: And it’s been flowering ever since!

Week 44: 14th–20th Jan.

  • Thursday, 14th. Margaret reports her first Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, today, to be followed by Linda on the 15th and me on the 17th. [There was quite a flurry of Galanthus records on WhatsApp during January, encompassing quite a bewildering range of different species and forms. I’ve never been much of a ‘galanthophile’, to be honest; but we’ve got a profusion of ordinary nivalis in the ‘front bed’, purloined about twenty years ago from the garden at Roughmoor; and there’s a very fine one in the back garden that originally came from Helena’s collection. She’s told me its name several times, and I’ve still forgotten it.]
  • Sunday, 17th. There’s a suspicion that Linda and Steve may have been walking in the same wood today since both of them independently found Greater Stitchwort and Dog’s Mercury.
  • Monday, 18th. The end of the first Test against Sri Lanka. I’ve spent far too much time watching Cattle Egrets wandering around the outfield in Galle, which has meant relatively little recording closer to home in recent days. This could become a bit of an issue in the next few weeks.
  • Wednesday, 20th. Storm Christoph. The start of a much milder but very wet period…

Week 45: 21st-27th Jan.

  • Saturday, 23rd. A Greenfinch singing in Longrun Meadow – in the same hedgerow, but six days earlier, than last year!
  • Monday, 25th. More Cattle Egrets, plus – as I now realise – the Sri Lankan subspecies of the House Crow, Corvus splendens, subsp. protegatus. (Which just goes to show that natural history and laptop cricket-watching needn’t be mutually exclusive.)
  • Tuesday, 26th. Another grim milestone in the course of this pandemic, as the death toll rises to more than 100,000.
  • Wednesday, 27th. Yesterday, at Thurlbear Wood, my own first Barren Strawberry. And then today, at last, a patch of Dog’s Mercury, on a lane verge at Poundisford, near Corfe; plus, for good measure, my first drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Week 46: 28th Jan.–3rd Feb.

  • Monday, 1st February. Between Christmas and New Year Vicki and I found a branch of Mistletoe, Viscum album, which had been ripped from a tree during Storm Bella, and on one shoot of it the flowers had just begun to open. Discounting that record as a bit of an anomaly, today was my first ‘proper’ flowering Mistletoe, growing at reachable height in Hawthorns in a hedgerow near Creech St Michael. [Later in the month, photos were being posted on WhatsApp as we tussled with the Mistletoe’s strange flowers, trying to work out which were male and which were female.]
  • Tuesday, 2nd. An unlikely sense of déjà vu on finding first-flowering Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium, not only on the same date as last year but also in the same place – beside the path at Otterhead Lakes, in the Blackdown Hills. It seems that the cold period in January has done nothing to upset its impeccable timing…
  • Wednesday, 3rd. Common Whitlow-grass, Erophila verna, has begun flowering in Taunton. I posted an excited WhatsApp message to announce its arrival, which was met, within minutes, by a return message from Steve to say he’d already seen it flowering in North Petherton at the weekend! Helena hasn’t found it yet in the north of the county, but as some consolation she’s seen Field Madder, Sherardia arvensis, flowering in Midsomer Norton. And spring must be on its way now, as I’ve heard my first singing Chaffinches today, out at Roughmoor and in the oaks along the southern edge of the community orchard at Frieze Hill. Last year’s first-singing Chaffinches were on 29th Jan, so they’re a little late this year. (Or is it me who’s a little late in registering them?)

Week 47: 4th-10th Feb.

Friday, 5th. Surely the pick of this week’s first flowerings will be Toby’s Hutchinsia, Hornungia petraea, seen today in the Avon Gorge. It’s quite a rarity, of course, but it’s also a species for which neither Capt. Roe nor Walter Watson ever recorded a FFD. Clapham, Tutin & Warburg suggests a flowering period of March to May. First Test in India: there’s an apparent absence of crows and egrets in Chennai, but I’m going to have to keep watching, just to make sure…

Saturday, 6th.  How much excitement can one take in a single day? Well, I’ve been pushed to the limit this afternoon. First, the ‘flick test’ confirmed that expanded Alder, Alnus glutinosa, catkins at Firepool Weir had begun to release pollen. And then, on the verge outside Wicke’s I spotted a patch of a tiny grass with yellowish leaves and minuscule spikelets, and anthers too small to see. Voucher specimens – now pressed – confirmed it to be Early Meadow-grass, Poa infirma. Checking its distribution in the ‘online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora’, I discover that this species, which until the turn of the millennium was confined to coastal districts in the extreme south-west and south of England, is now being widely recorded inland across a great swathe of England – mainly on road verges, roundabouts and in car parks – south of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel. Graham recorded the hybrid between P. infirma and P. annua outside Sainsbury’s in Taunton last year, but as far as I can tell this is the first record of P. infirma[2].

Sunday, 7th. A cold day, just 4°C and a biting easterly wind. Storm Darcy heralds the arrival of what the Daily Express is quick to call the ‘Beast from the East’. Not surprisingly, no-one seems to be recording anything while the Beast persists, which it does for almost a week…

[2] 28/2: Another patch of this grass was found a couple of weeks later in the park-and-ride car park at Silk Mills. I must be getting my eye in. As is Graham, who has since found it in a car park at Bossington, and (possibly) on the verge of the lane down to Dunster water treatment plant.

Week 48: 11th-17th Feb.

  • Monday, 15th. I was one of 275,956 people to receive their first jab today, for which I am extremely grateful. This is the first time I’ve seen the inside of the GP’s surgery in more than a year. Not for want of trying, I can tell you!
  • Wednesday, 17th. On WhatsApp, Margaret reports the first dollops of frogspawn in her garden pond: “A sure sign of spring!” But this is also the start of four days of heavy rain, and localized flooding. The River Tone tops its banks in several places. Mud everywhere. It’s all a bit grim, to be honest, but makes a change from last week’s big freeze.

Week 49: 18th-24th Feb.

  • Sunday, 21st. The next door neighbours have found a scattering of black feathers in their back garden. They think one of the local cats has killed a Blackbird. We fear this could be the rooftop songster that so cheered us through the first lockdown with his endless variations on a theme. The first ‘proper’ wild Daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, at Poundisford are scant consolation, frankly.
  • Monday, 22nd. A lovely sunny day after overnight rain. The start of a settled week, and suddenly the season is like a coiled spring, ready to be released by the next few days of relative warmth and sunshine. We’ve had Cherry Plum, Prunus cerasifera, in flower for several weeks now, but today I’ve spotted my first Blackthorn, P. spinosa. Plus bud-burst and first leaves unfurling on Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, and Hazel, Corylus avellana.
  • Wednesday, 24th. I woke early, just as a dawn chorus, of sorts, was getting underway. First a Robin, a distant Song Thrush, Herring Gulls and Jackdaws. And then, at the end of the street, an unmistakeable catch-phrase being belted out by our local Blackbird – a mellifluous racket that three days ago we were convinced we’d never hear again.  Maybe as a result of this dawn treat, the ensuing batting collapse in Ahmedabad seems vaguely bearable. As the late Captain Sir Tom Moore said, with a catch-phrase of his own: “Tomorrow will be a good day!”

Week 49½: 25th-28th Feb.

  • Friday, 26th. The morning begins with a Blackcap singing in the back garden, and later there are bumble bees on the Lungworts, Pulmonaria sp., and Primroses, Primula vulgaris. Then up at Thurlbear we see our first Peacocks, Aglais io, and a fleeting glimpse of a Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni. And on the way home, first-flowering Danish Scurvy-grass, Cochlearia danica, on the verge of the A358 in Henlade. Gill, meanwhile, also sees her first Brimstone today, and a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. Spring’s ‘punctuation marks’ are coming thick and fast now – it shouldn’t be long before we get our first Comma, Polygonia c-album… (Smiley face emoji.)
  • Saturday, 27th. First leaves on Field Maple, Acer campestre, at Obridge, followed by a Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, and then Colt’s-foot, Tussilago farfara, by the canal. This is about the usual time for Colt’s-foot to appear in the Taunton area, although it’s several weeks later than last year.
  • Sunday, 28th. The last day of meteorological winter, another gorgeous sun-drenched day following an early frost. The coiled spring continues to unwind, with Linda’s first Colt’s-foot “below Castle Neroche”, and Margaret’s wild Daffodils “bursting into bloom” at Shipham. For us, though, today’s highlight has been much closer to home: a female Flower Bee, Anthophora plumipes, dashing about the back-garden Lungworts. Flower Bees are easily told from bumble bees by their hurried flight, relatively high-pitched buzz and the general sense of urgency they display. They always seem to be on a mission, and engage in aerial dog-fights at the slightest provocation. Females are black, males are buff-coloured. Steven Falk’s Field Guide to Bees says the males emerge two to three weeks before the females – so today’s female is a bit ahead of itself. Last year’s first Flower Bees weren’t until 21st March. Honey Bees, Apis mellifera, are much in evidence too, as are hoverflies. I really must give hoverflies a go this year…

The garden is starting to lose its wintry monochrome, Primroses are everywhere, Lesser Celandines are increasing by the day, and Spring Sowbread, Cyclamen repandum, is flowering really well along the back path. It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the promise of what’s to come. Vicki says there’s no need for me to be quite so grumpy. She could be right.