The signs of spring

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Latest update 05.02.2014 12:21

February can be the last month of winter, or the first of spring. Last year it was the former, this year it could well be the latter. 

By February we are desperate for signs of spring, as January is the slowest and least-loved month. Luckily, February is full of the little beacons of hope that tell us spring is on its way. But many of these signs are subtle, and easily missed.

In contrast to last year, many of the early signs of spring are already apparent, as (so far) winter has failed to show up. It's probably only the incessant rain and saturated ground conditions that are holding spring back.

The concept of the signs of spring was invented by Robert Marsham (1708-97), who corresponded with Gilbert White of Selborne, the father of natural history. Marsham determined 27 indications of spring, most of them trees coming into leaf. Many of these are relevant today and are used by the Woodland Trust’s phenology network which monitors the progress of the seasons.

Things started early this year

The mild January enabled many song birds to tune up early - dunnocks, robins, song thrushes, tits and wood pigeons have been unusually vocal for at least a fortnight. Aconites and snowdrops are just about in full bloom, and crocuses are coming out fast. Hazel catkins, which are profuse this year, are fully out, offering some early experience for hay fever sufferers. In the woods, Honeysuckle leaves have been prominent since early December, elder leaves are at bud-break and bluebell leaf spikes are above ground. Although there’s been a scatter of butterfly sightings the insects, though, haven’t got going yet, probably due to the saturated ground conditions.

Perhaps the definitive sign of spring breaking through is the rooks starting to build. Down south and in the lowlands, that usually kicks off in mid February, but it may start earlier this year. Other imminent signs are the first bumblebees, pussy willow (sallow) flowers, primroses, celandines, frogs in ponds, blackbirds singing at dawn and dusk, prunus blossom and, for us human beings, the first lawnmower and the start of the Six Nations Rugby tournament.

Spring is all about promise, the promise of summer. We yearn for spring. That is why these early signs of spring are important.

Here’s a list of things to look out for in February and March...

February

  • Six Nations Rugby
  • rooks building
  • first bumblebee
  • pussy willow catkins
  • black-headed gulls developing black heads
  • first primrose flower
  • first celandine flower
  • frogs in ponds
  • blackbirds in song
  • first lawnmower

March

  • first brimstone butterfly
  • first daffodil
  • skylark ascending
  • frogspawn
  • lambs in fields
  • blackthorn blossom
  • hawthorn hedges flushing green
  • hares boxing
  • chiff-chaff singing
  • clocks going forward