Candlemas Day used to have great significance in the rural calendar because the date lies halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it marked the day upon which winter was half over. It was a time of the year which naturally formed a transition period in winter, a sense we were moving on into brighter and better days.
An ancient Scottish rhyme :
If Candlemas day be dry and fair, the half o’ winter to come and mair
If Candlemas’s day be wet and foul, The half o’ winter gane at Yule
It meant that if it was nice on Candlemas Day, 6 more weeks of yucky, winter weather was on the way. If it wasn’t nice on Candlemas Day, the weather should get nicer. A sort of Catch 22 weather. This photograph was taken on that day. Be afraid…be very afraid
Around the university grounds, pockets of Snowdrops were popping here and there. They were known as Candlemas Lilies and Candlemas Bells and a welcome assurance that the brighter days of spring were on their way. In the language of flowers, the Snowdrop was synonymous with ‘hope’ as it bloomed in early springtime, just before the vernal equinox, and seen as heralding the new spring and new year. In British folklore, they symbolised hope and purity. But the bulbs were poisonous which led to the superstition that a single bloom in a house represented death.
We made another visit to Longford Community Nature to see what the Ring-necked or Rose-ringed parakeets were up to. Thankfully, it turned out to be a sunny day and we hoped they would be out in the open. We headed straight to their patch on the Weeping Willow with the branches drooping over the River Sowe. These deciduous tree were often found near lakes and ponds and planted in parks and gardens due to their ornamental morphology. Raindrops that were falling to the ground from the drooping branches resembled tears and that was how the tree got its name.
Their shrill screeching calls gave away their presence. We looked up and they were chilling out deep among the twisted branches and twigs which was void of leaves. Again, they were playing hide-and-seek with us and when they found out that we weren’t going anyway, came out to play. From our observations and reading, we think that this family consisted of 2 adults and 2 juveniles. The male developed a thin black ring round his neck which ran from his throat, becoming thinner on the sides of the neck where it ran into a light coloured collar on the nape of his neck. The ring developed by about 17 months old and the male was usually sexually mature by age 3, a year later than the female.
The female and juveniles either showed no neck rings, or display shadow-like pale to dark grey neck rings. Bedecked with emerald green feathers and rose-red beak, the family brought a touch of tropical glamour to the park. One was seen speeding through the skies with its stream-lined body, pointed wings and long tail, so graceful and elegant in a brilliant green whirl. It was magnificent in flight. Unfortunately, it was just too fast to photograph.
Yellow catkins were appearing on the trees and in spring, the twigs and branches will be covered with the lance-shaped leaves. These catkins were important for producing an early source of nectar and pollen for bees and insects and we saw the Parakeets feeding on them. They also fed on a variety of fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, grains and household scraps. I am sure they were frequent visitors to the bird tables and garden feeders from the houses that bordered the park.
Native to Africa and Asia, Ring-necked parakeets were now thought to have one of the fastest-growing bird populations in the UK, estimated to more than 32K individuals at the end of the breeding season. These free-living parakeets were descended from multiple large releases into the wild, leading to a genetically healthy population with rapid growth rates. They evolved to tolerate a cold niche due to their ancestral origins in Northern India and was believed to have the potential to be ‘the grey squirrels of the skies.’This was because the mushrooming numbers might displaced other hole nesting birds such as the woodpeckers and nuthatches.
We also popped over to our favourite playground when we found out that flocks of Bullfinches were feeding on the seeds from the dried heads of the Buddleia flowers. In summer, with its purple, golden-eyed flowers full of fragrant glory and was a butterfly and bee paradise as they were an important nectar source. No other plant was such a magnet to them. We had photographed Tortoiseshells. Peacocks, Red Admirals, Whites, Brimstone and other species feasting on them. Buddleias provided nectar and pollen to bees and other insects. On warm nights, moths took their turn. And now, in deep winter, it was the turn of the Bullfinches. What a versatile plant. We’d 3 in our garden and they were always bedecked with glorious blossoms, butterflies and buzzing bees. Let’s raise a glass to the 17th century botanist and Essex clergyman after whom the shrub was named, the Reverend Adam Buddle.
Bullfinches were striking birds. The name was said to describe the bull-like appearance with their compact, neckless body and short, deep bill. In Victorian times, they were desired captive birds due to their beautiful plumage and calls. It was believed that the caged bird could be trained to mimic music and it became a popular pastime to play a special flute to the birds. Their call note was a low, piping ‘deu-deu’, while the song was highly variable, quiet in nature and audible at short distances and was often described as ‘mournful’.
The male Bullfinch was unmistakable with his bright pinkish-red breast and cheeks, grey back, black cap and tail with a bright white rump. The female had a brown back and pinkish-fawn underparts. They formed strong, lasting pair bonds and it was usual to see them in pairs all year round. In winter, the resident population was joined by ‘northern’ bullfinches from northern Europe. This pair were feeding voraciously on the seed-heads and because of their huge appetite were once ‘a pest’ of fruit crops.
We were surprised not to see any Robins harassing us for food when we walked along the path. Perhaps the weather was much better and there were plenty of food around. But we saw one who was busy singing. The sound of a Robin chirping in winter was a good sign. It meant the bird had built up enough fat reserves to survive the cold nights and had enough energy left to defend its territory. Robins traditionally sings in spring to attract a mate, but in winter, when food was short, it faced a dilemma. Should it spent its time hunting for food to get through the next cold snap or burst into a song? Choices…choices. We helped by leaving a large mound of mealworms on the ground.
We made a pit stop at Baldwin Hide but there was nothing much about. As soon as we got out the door, a family of Long-tailed tits had just landed on the tree near the hide. We watched this cute bundle of fur showing off its acrobatic skills as it gleaned invertebrates from the branches and from under the leaves. The tail was the most remarkable feature of this very tiny bird, and accounted for more than half of its total length. During its short, undulating flights, the tail dipped up and down. The flock moved in rapid surges through the tree in restless waves.
At East Marsh Hide, a pair of Gadwall was swimming quite close to the hide. They were grey-coloured with an obvious black rear end. When seen close up, the grey colour was made up of exquisitely fine barring and speckling. As a dabbling duck, they fed mainly on emergent and submergent vegetation which they gathered by surface-feeding and ‘up-ending’ to strip the greenery from the shallow water. Since such plant material was nutrient poor, they needed to eat vast amounts of it for sustenance.
We scanned the Wigeon banks hoping to see the pair of Muntjac that Babe had seen earlier in the week. As usual, they didn’t get the memo. Muntjacs, also known as barking deer and Mastreani deer, originated in South-east Asia but was introduced to Woburn in Bedfordshire in 1900. Many escaped from their private estates and were now well-established where they colonised woodland and dense scrubland. Active by day or night, they were mostly seen at dusk. They uttered loud barks over prolonged periods and equally loudly distress calls. They were mainly solitary animals but may be seen in family groups.
The males, or bucks, had short backward curving antlers which were shed in May and June and re-grown to full size by October or November. These were not used as weapons, but instead the elongated, protruding tusk-like teeth were used. Females don’t have antlers or the elongated teeth. They had a hunched posture due to haunches being higher than their withers. Both sexes had black scent glands under both eyes and a large characteristic tail which was held upright when they were startled revealing a white underside.
This year for the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same date. I guess many Christians had faced a dilemma as they tried to reconcile their faith with the traditional celebrations of romantic love. How exactly do you observe Valentine’s Day on the day Lent began, marking the season of atonement leading up to Easter? Could you be a believer and still celebrated with champagne and chocolate, the indulgent mainstays of Valentine’s Day??? It wasn’t a dilemma for us. We don’t celebrate Valentine in a big way but still exchanged cards. It was good to remind your significant other that you loved them.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,”
~Eden Ahbez ‘Nature Boy’~
I ended February with the dreaded lurgy. I was so proud that I didn’t catch anything so far when everyone around me was down with something. I coughed for Britain and I think I had woken up the neighbourhood with my persistent coughing. My nose was winning the running race. My constant companions were the hot water bottle, cough syrup, boxes of tissues, Vicks vapour rub and Paracetamol. I took 3 days off work to recover and rest. Resting had allowed the body to focus all of its energy on overcoming the virus.