The sights and smells of spring

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That moment when an orchestral conductor raises his baton and there is a moment of tension and an excited expectation, before the first movement sets off the opening notes of what you know will be a wonderful piece of music, is a real thrill.

To me, that sums up last week. The tree buds were all at that moment where the green was just showing and the blackthorn blossoms were each a tight, round bead of carefully folded petals.

A few days of mild, bright weather and they all burst into life in a wild cacophony of leaf and bloom; hawthorn, one of loveliest and freshest of the spring greens, bore little bouquets of crinkled leaves; horse chestnuts opened their sticky brown buds to reveal folded fingers of leaves that expanded daily; blackthorn blossoms unfurled their little white balls of petals like the unfolding of an origami sculpture.

Blackthorn flowers, so pristine and starry and such a contrast to the bare, spiny, dark branches, are the first herald of a succession of spring and early summer tree blossom. Their delicacy may not have the blowsy look of hawthorn, nor the impact of geans en masse, but it is a welcome sight at this time of year and I love getting up really close to appreciate each individual bloom with its lovely spray of stamens, each tipped with gamboge yellow and to watch the insects that flock to its lovely flowers.

I saw a gorgeous small tortoiseshell butterfly sitting in the sunshine, sipping on a flower - what a beautiful picture that made.

All over the fields, lapwing and oystercatcher pairs are protecting their territories, and as I stood one day watching both in adjoining fields, I was struck by how different their attitudes are.

The lapwing¹s flight above the field is flirtatious, an airy-fairy almost hippy affair, swooping and like ‘hey this is my patch man’. Even their calls are a happy and laidback sound, whereas to the oystercatchers it seems like serious business, to be carried out loudly and aggressively with much straight, military like precision flight, often in formation and a challenging call. Both seem to get results though and that is the purpose.

Locally, the first ospreys are back from their winter in Africa, so keep an eye out along the rivers and lochs (and fisheries) for them. They are magnificent to watch, an impressive sight in flight. The Loch of Lowes female (believed to be one of the oldest ospreys) has returned from migration for the 21st time - what a bird!

A bit closer to home, the male woodpecker has returned to my feeders and what a good-looking specimen he is, resplendent in his bright breeding plumage. The scarlet under his tail and at the back of his head is so red it almost glows and his striking, pied plumage is bright and fresh. He looks fat and in great condition and seems positively jumbo sized in comparison to the little siskins and tits. I have seen him pecking ‘practice holes’ in some of my trees. Every year I hope that the woodpeckers will nest in my patch of wood - maybe this year.

Also on the feeders, for the first time ever, were two long tailed tits.

They are all around where I live, but never before have they been on the nuts in my garden. Looking like dumpy, fluffy lollipops, with their round heads, bright, boot button eyes and gorgeous pink, black and white plumage, they are most appealing.

I daren’t hope that they may nest nearby. I would love to see a family come to the garden, as the youngsters are just the cutest ever. Their nests are wonderful dome like structures, hidden deep in brambles or thorn bushes and expertly woven from lichen, spiders’ webs, moss and hair and the lining can contain 2,000 small feathers. They can have huge broods of youngsters and I have seen a photograph of one parent alongside a line up of 13 fledged youngsters - the adult was looking a bit harassed, I have to say!

Good news on the greenfinch front too, as I have two pairs in the garden and have heard of a few others locally. You may remember a line of discussion a while ago about the lack of greenfinches due to a parasitic disease that hit them hard. Let’s hope that these few survivors can breed successfully and boost the population a bit. Judging by the amount that they are taking from my feeders, it will not be though lack of food.

Out in the countryside, I have had two really interesting encounters over the last week or so. The first was with a creature whose looks I love, the fox. At this time of year, they are absolutely splendid, the males sporting thick, bushy tails and trotting about with that air of one who knows he is handsome. As I approached a gravely bank covered in gorse and broom bushes, I caught that distinctive scent of fox - it is sharp and acrid and assaults your nose. In his poem ‘The Thought Fox’, Ted Hughes described it as a ‘hot, sharp, stink’ which is exactly what it is. As I came around the bank, I heard the noise of a creature crashing though the gorse. Deer often lie up in this gorse, but this did not sound noisy enough for them and too noisy for a pheasant. I followed the sound and then at the bottom of the bank further along, I got a glimpse of a gloriously ginger fox as he briefly crossed a bare patch. It was only a brief view, but after a bit of searching around, I thought that I found had his lying up spot, a patch of flattened, bare earth, right in the sun. Closer inspection confirmed this, as it revealed some reddish hairs caught in the gorse. Next time I will approach from a different angle to avoid disturbing him and I may get a view of him snoozing in the sun.

The second encounter was with one of the creatures most associated with spring. It happened just outside Aboyne when I spotted three hares in a field. I watched amused as they got up to their usual antics, racing around, chasing one another, changing angle mid-sprint with incredible speed and leaping vertically into the air to avoid one another’s mad dashes. There was no actual boxing, but I have noted the field and will return at a later date.

So whether it is getting your nose in among some blackthorn blossom or watching that iconic hare making itself appear even madder than it looks, spring is the perfect time for getting out and re-acquainting yourself with the joys of the awakening countryside, so have fun!

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