Week 23 Roundup

Week 23 Roundup: 26th August

A week of indifferent but sometimes dramatic weather. Rain each day, until today, and windy almost the whole week; two named storms, ‘Ellen’ (such a good name for a storm, don’t you think?) and ‘Francis’. ‘Ellen’ was responsible for a little unauthorised felling of trees in Thurlbear Wood, while ‘Francis’—the wilder of the two—threatened to flatten our back-garden fence. It was wobbling yesterday afternoon, but still upright this morning, thankfully. At least the weather should improve now the Test series is over.

On Saturday, 22nd, we arrived up at Taunton Deane Cricket Club too late to watch any cricket, as Wellington had offered only feeble resistance and the game was finished by about 4.30 p.m. So instead we walked the ‘Wyvern Round’, a particular dog-walking route (for some reason all our regular routes are called ‘rounds’), from Vivary Park to Mountfields: past Pool Farm, where Walter Watson once lived; through what’s now known as ‘Thorn-apple Field’; and then back along the path running behind Richard Huish College, to check the Ivy, Hedera helix. (Still in bud.)

Anyway, here we are, sitting on the outfield. Half a pint of Thatchers Haze and an orange juice and soda; and much chatter about cricket, as you’d expect. And much chatter above, too: House Martins busily circling—a constant twittering—and then, suddenly, there’s another kind of tilt and flutter, followed by a rapid scything through the air that leaves the martins looking almost pedestrian in comparison. Just a few seconds, and then gone! Or lost, let’s say, against a sky that’s darkening to the colour of roof slates. Could this one be the last, maybe? Almost certainly…[1]

Also on the ornithological front, Gill sent a photo this week of a grounded Sparrowhawk, wings splayed, beside a box of drying onions. She jokes that the bird may have landed in her garden thinking that the onions were eggs needing to be incubated.

On Sunday, 23rd,  the dog and I were doing another ‘round’, this time near Orchard Wood, the venue for our first field meeting of spring had the year not unravelled in quite the way it did. In the shelter of a hedgerow there were Gatekeepers, Pyronia tithonus, a few bedraggled, storm-battered Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina, and a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. It was overcast, humid, and now there was spitting rain in the air.

A presumed-to-be Gatekeeper touched down on a bramble; in flight it looked unremarkable, but on landing it seemed far too smart, too dapper. It looked like a Gatekeeper on its way to a rather posh dinner party. It perched with wings closed: they were orangey-brown underneath, with thin black ‘hair lines’ across the undersides of both forewing and hindwing, one of those on the hindwing being accentuated by a white line along its outer edge, the other, shorter than the first, with a white line along its inner edge. At the bottom of each hindwing there was a little ‘tooth’ or… I don’t know what to call it, really: a ‘sharp protuberance’; a miniature swallow-tail?

And then, coyly at first, it opened its wings, which were a velvety chocolate colour, the forewing sporting a large ‘crescent’ of orange; the hindwing’s ‘tooth’ was orange too, with two little spots of orange on either side of it. It was beautiful. It was gorgeous. And it was my first ever Brown Hairstreak, Thecla betulae. According to Wikipedia, Thecla was an early Christian saint who was “miraculously saved from burning at the stake by the onset of a storm.” Another ‘Ellen’, perhaps? 

I’d never really rated Brown Hairstreaks. I’d been on a trip to search Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, twigs in winter for their eggs; an experience that was a bit underwhelming, to be honest. I couldn’t fathom what all the fuss about. But then, unlike my fellow egg-hunters, I’d never seen the adult butterfly. Now, with this glorious female perched on a bramble shoot, all became clear. 

The name Brown Hairstreak really doesn’t do it justice though. Hairstreak? Well, okay. But Brown? No, not okay: brown sounds boring, brown sounds dull, brown just doesn’t cut the mustard. It needs a name that better reflects its deliciously rich colours, the dark chocolate, the bright orange—Chocolate Orange sounds suitably delicious, don’t you think?

And now, finally, the botanical highlight of the week. Ivy, Hedera helix, is starting to blossom! First sightings were on Saturday, 22nd, when David Reid had Ivy flowers opening in his garden at Alford, as did Karen Netto, at Cocklake (near Wedmore). And then on Monday, 24th, there were sightings of it from Felton Common (Margaret), Draycott Sleights (Georgina) and Henlade (me).

So, there you have it: the last first-flowering of spring! From now on, then, the steady descent towards winter, at which point we begin again to seek out the first signs of spring. Until well past the winter solstice, there will be Ivy blossom. Which begs the question: does Ivy represent the last first-flowering of the spring just finished? Or, could it be the first first-flowering of the spring to come? Or might we allow it to be both these things, acting as a kind of bridge between the end of one spring and the start of the next? Tail End Charlie and harbinger rolled into one… 

Tim Dee, you’ll remember, made the case for there being just two seasons: spring and autumn. He imagines the year to be in two halves:

“… a coming, spring, and a going, autumn; six months forward before six months back, six months up before six down, … six greening months before six browning, six growing before six dying; in autumn things fall apart, in spring things come together …”

Yet, to counter that notion, one might argue that even in spring, amidst all the ‘coming’, there is also the odd ‘going’. During May, for instance, when spring is at full throttle, Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, is already beginning its browning, its falling apart, as it dissolves back into the soil, ready for its long summer hibernation. Just as, later in the year, on the cusp between summer and autumn, there is still an inkling of spring to be had—as this week’s just-flowering Ivy makes plain.

We all have our favourite seasons, and mine is spring. And, thankfully, it’s always there: in every season there’s a touch of spring. With Ivy still in blossom, the first Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, could be flowering just after the winter solstice, and Hazel, Corylus avellana, not long after that.Each first flowering becomes a harbinger of the next, and the next, and the next, and together they help to pull us through the year. Until we reach Ivy. At which point there’s the briefest of lulls, and then—thank goodness—it starts all over again.

This year’s first-flowerings project was conceived as just one way of helping to keep people’s spirits up—not least my own—through a uniquely difficult and troubling time. It would give us reasons to be in contact with one another, to keep us ‘doing botany’ when this perhaps wouldn’t have been uppermost in our minds; a collective endeavour to stay sane, a distraction but also a focus; something that any of us could take part in, if we chose to, whatever our circumstances, and however socially-distanced and tied to home we needed to be.

If nothing else, it presented, during lockdown, an opportunity to see things, hear things, appreciate things, and tell each other about things, that we might otherwise have overlooked or presumed to be not noteworthy. For a few weeks our lives slowed to a near-standstill, just as spring’s trot turned into a gallop. Trying to keep up with it, to stay on its tail, became part of the fun.  

Thanks, everyone, for the records you’ve sent in through the year.[2] And for your emails, texts, WhatsApps, and photos—all of them very much appreciated. Do keep a note, if you can, of when you see your first Spurge-laurel, your first Hazel…

Roll on spring.

[1] Having been proved wrong so often, I’m now deliberately suggesting this is the last Swift, since that is evidently the best way of guaranteeing that it isn’t!

[2] A proper analysis, with graphs and tables, to follow in due course.