Country diary: magical moments that herald spring
Late afternoon and cycling alongside Ladybower reservoir, I was enjoying that loose-limbed ease you get from moving in warm sunshine, how you realise that your body has been tensed for months against the cold. I was musing also on the arrival of spring, how something long anticipated can be so uncertain in its arrival. Were we there yet? This was certainly the first warm and sunny afternoon of my year, and it fell pleasingly on the equilux – the date a few days short of the equinox when, as the name suggests, light and dark are equal.
Exact dates don’t mean much in the ebb and flow of seasons though. Many birders hang their vernal hat on the chiffchaff’s two-tone clarion, echoing another maxim that characterises spring as “warblers in, thrushes out”. Not all thrushes, of course, and as I cycled towards the viaduct that stands above the drowned village of Ashopton, I became aware of the repeating phrases of a song thrush, “no mean preacher”, as Wordsworth called him, cautioning me to be a little more attentive and a little less absorbed.
At which point, something magical happened. As the song thrush’s music began to fade behind me, another took up the refrain just ahead, and so I continued for half a mile or so, entering and leaving a bubble of song roughly every hundred yards, handed from one to the next, sometimes balanced on the boundary of each territory and then buried deep within the demesne of one bird only. This terraced street of song, so fully about its business, seemed to be saying that the year’s business – what Ted Hughes called “a nestful of brats” – was irredeemably under way.
Unpaired males were advertising their fitness as mates, and paired males were reinforcing the boundaries of their territory with their glorious song. The amount of time song thrushes spend on this is extraordinary, far more than other heralds of spring, like the skylark or willow warbler. And while much of this effort is during the first hours of daylight, the hour before dusk saw another crescendo that was so pleasurable to me that when I reached the end of the road, I turned around and pedalled back, to listen for a second time.