Dear Readers, last week I was ‘on location’ in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset, spending a week with Mum and Dad. They are both doing very nicely at the moment, and Mum asked me to relay a message of thanks to you all, for your messages of goodwill when she was so ill at Christmas, and also for keeping my spirits up (which indeed you did). So, I add my thanks to hers. If any blog has a kinder or more generous readership than mine I would be amazed.
I decided to take an hour out from making pancakes and soup (not simultaneously, I hasten to add) and went for a walk along Cole’s Lane, which winds up through some new-build cottages and farm buildings and into the fields. Last time I was here, the House Martins were massing on the roof prior to flying south, and as yet it’s too early for their return. But the bushes are alive with birdsong. Robins are singing from the laburnums and elders, their little round bodies puffed up with passion. The woodpigeons are singing their soft, crooning verses, and some starlings are ticking and whistling in an old beech tree. The pulse of life has picked up, and the leaves are just coming through, as green and toothsome as baby salad.
The path passes by the cottage where my brother used to live, and then a modern single storey building that looks as if it might have occasional use as a conference centre or meeting place. As usual in the village, there are signs asking people to pick up their dog poo. I don’t know who the anti-social culprits are, but allowing your dog to do its business and not picking it up is number one concern around these parts. Another sign, by the hedgerow on the opposite side of the road, begs people not to pick the daffodils. And there are lots of daffodils, for sure.
Some are the plain golden trumpets that you can buy a bunch of in Sainsburys for a pound. Some are more like the wild flowers, the petals paler than the centre. Some are the colour of plaster and apricots. Pale cream primroses peek out every so often, and in the shadier places there is the liquid sun of lesser celadine, those little golden star-shaped flowers peeking out from amongst the dark-green heart-shaped leaves. In one spot, a little thicket of snowdrops is hanging on, each porcelain flower marked with a green kiss. In short, spring is pouring forth in abundance, and I half expect to see an Easter Bunny.
Then, something moves by the stone steps leading up to a farm shed. My first thought is ‘rat’! And then I see a white bobbing tail as a tiny rabbit jumps back into the darkness of the open doorway. So, I did see an Easter Bunny!
I stride on womanfully uphill, and see a dunnock displaying in an hawthorn, raising his wings to display his armpits to a robin, who is unimpressed. I learned recently that the testicles of small birds, like sparrows and dunnocks, increase in size tenfold in the spring. Of course, the testicles are carried inside the birds so we can’t see them, but just imagine the impact of all of that testosterone on such a tiny bird! No wonder they are impetuous and bold. The dunnock, normally a mousey little bird, takes to singing its sweet, thin song from the top of any available bush, regardless of the danger. We have already mentioned the robin. And the wrens are exploding into song all along the hedgerow, so that as I leave each territory and enter the next it’s a constant corridor of sound.
The hedgerows themselves are worthy of mention. In some places, the road has been worn away so that it is a good two metres below where the hedge is. I bump into a well-equipped elderly man who is off for a hike – he has walking boots, two sticks,, a rucksack and a GPS. We talk about the hedges, and he agrees that some of them have probably been here since the Domesday Book, marking the edges of people’s land and stopping the wanderings of cattle and sheep. The individual plants might have withered and died, but each would have been replaced as it failed. And what a mixture of plants – hawthorn and yew, hazel and beech, blackthorn and plum, and some newcomers – berberis and mahonia and pyracantha. Each hedge is both a source of food and a shelter, for many little birds like to nest in the thick cover that a decent hedge provides.
I walk further up the path, passing an old barn (full of rolls of straw and bags of urea pellets),
and, as I come up to some puddles in the road where a tractor has created a convenient pool in the mud, I see a small bird with a blazing golden head. A yellowhammer, a typical bird of farmland and hedgerow. Once these were as common as sparrows, but I don’t remember the last time that I saw one. Their call, often rendered as ‘a little bit of bread and NO cheese’, was echoing around the copse. I looked up and down and roundabout to see if I could get a picture, but the yellowhammer is one of those birds that you see, briefly, flying away from you and into cover. As indeed I saw another twice before I gave up my photographic ambitions, and decided to just enjoy the walk.I followed a pair of birds along a little side-lane, as they bobbed about just in front of me, occasionally landing on the fence. They looked very finch-like, but I was sure they weren’t chaffinches. And, finally, when I got a good look I recognised them. They were linnets, the sweet singing birds of many a Victorian ditty, and I had never seen one before. They are the colour of dried thistles and stubble and autumn leaves.
And so, I retraced my steps, saying hello to the bold dunnock, the singing wrens and the feisty robins as I went. Spring is so full of new hope that it’s difficult not to get caught up in the spirit of the time.
Photo One – By Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) (Yellowhammer – Rutland Water) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer