AS I compile these notes at least two weeks ahead of publication, the feast day of St Valentine is now past, and as anticipated on that day, the birds of our countryside began to sing that very evening and also select their mates – and so did a fair proportion of humans!
After attending a St Valentine’s Day event in our village, I returned home to find a pair of robins singing near our garden – both would be males, and I think they were engaged in a gentle and civilised battle about declaration of their territorial boundaries for the coming nesting season. Certainly, bird activity since St Valentine’s Day has noticeably increased and we can expect nest building and more singing probably before these notes get into print. Some may already have made an earlier start.
Prominent among our regular garden birds is a small flock of goldfinches that have made themselves known within the last two weeks or so. I do not know where they roost or where they have come from but during the daylight hours, they seem to flit from tree to tree, invariably making their presence known by a loud and very pleasing twittering noise that involves the entire flock. This is widely known as a charm of goldfinches, and it could be a large family group or a mixed flock.
As I write these notes, the trees are still leafless but in spite of that, once the birds descend upon the branches, they seem to disappear. It is difficult to see them with the naked eye and even with binoculars the tiny birds are hard to spot among the branches. Once the leaves appear, the goldfinches will be almost impossible to observe and they do recognize the wisdom of visiting or roosting in evergreens of various kinds.
These are small members of the finch family, only around the size of a blue tit, but their colouring is beautiful and distinctive. They fly with the familiar bouncy flight of the finch family and can be quickly identified by their white underparts and warm soft brown upper parts. However, there is a good deal of black on the head and their wings have strong black edges with yellow centres. The tail is also edged in black.
Probably the most recognizable feature of a goldfinch is the red face and forehead, distinguishable in the both male and female, but not in young birds. The plumage of the chicks lacks the bright colours of the parents.
If you are fortunate enough to have a charm of goldfinches visit your garden or the immediate neighbourhood, you will recognize the loud but pleasing chattering from the highest branches of a nearby tree. Even with binoculars, the flock may be invisible among the branches, especially when buds, leaves and blossom appear. However, the birds do not appear unduly nervous near humans.
A few years ago my wife and I went for a country walk, part of which was through a long avenue of decorative small trees planted by the landowner. The trees were young and not then in leaf, but as we entered the avenue, a charm of goldfinches settled in one of the nearest trees. Their chattering was very loud and as we moved along the avenue, so the goldfinches kept pace and moved with us until both they and we went our separate ways. I do not know how many birds would be within that particular charm, but I would estimate in the region of 100.
Not surprisingly, the goldfinch was a popular cage bird in former times but thankfully, those cruel days have gone. The finch family in this country comprises more colourful birds – the chaffinch, for example, has a red body, grey cap and black and white wings, whilst its cousin, the brambling, looks very similar but with more black and white upper parts.
The bullfinch is heavier than most of its relations and also has a red breast but with a grey back, black tail feathers and a white rump. Bullfinches are not popular in orchards and parklands because they love tender new buds on trees and seem to favour those on fruit trees as well as hawthorn buds and a variety of seeds from trees and flowers.
Another bruiser is the hawfinch with its powerful beak along with black, white and tan colouring but this is a secretive bird that is rarely seen and it spends much of its life in woodlands where it seems to favour hornbeam trees.
When I was a child living in the North York Moors, the chaffinch was said to be the most common bird in England but in the 1950s, its numbers had decreased. This was thought to be due to changes in farming methods but now it seems, chaffinches are again very numerous.
NOW that March has arrived, we can expect a crop of weather prognostications and rural wisdom from a variety of sources. The lore of the south may not apply to the north and so, when we read those words of wisdom in the coming days, we must treat them with some caution.
This is reflected in one of my reference books published in 1898. It contains more than 200 close-printed pages of weather lore that has been collected from the whole of our country with Scotland and the Welsh borders being included as well as parts of Europe such as Holland, Spain, Portugal and France.
I think the most simple piece of lore, and one that is very well known, is “March is the month of many weathers” and it is enforced by another well known piece of wisdom – “A peck of March dust is worth a king’s ransom”. This would appear to suggest that a dry but windy month augurs well for everyone and this is reinforced by a piece of Scottish lore that says, “Dust in March brings grass and foliage”. It is widely believed that a March that is too dry and warm, however, will bring harm to farmers’ crops.
Across the Channel in France, it is claimed that if March has April weather, then April will have March weather. Old Norse folklore said that the lengthening month of March wakes the adder and blooms the whin while on the Isle of Man, it was believed that a new moon on a Saturday in March is enough for seven years. I am not sure how to interpret that but it is widely believed that a mild and warm month of March is no good for agriculture and in fact harms the farms and crops.
A fairly general belief was that upon St David’s Day, which is March 1, it was wise to plant your oats and barley and it was also necessary by the following day, the feast of St Chad, to sow your peas whatever the weather but it was vital the seeds were planted no later than the feast of St Benedict, March 21 once regarded as the first day of spring and the spring equinox.
March weather is often a challenge and there is an old belief, quite widespread, that the end of March borrows three days from April – and they are usually stormy and cold. They are widely known as the Borrowing Days. We can but wait and see.