April sees the real beginning of nature’s unfolding pageant. Winter weather may still linger awhile with a brief spell of bitter chill, sleet and hail of ‘blackthorn winter’ but it will be short lived. Most will be unaware of spring’s extraordinarily early advance other than by the planted ‘host of golden daffodils’ which seem to be the ‘marker’ of spring for many people. There is, however, so much more.
Let’s take a walk without ears stuffed with earplugs or concentrating on that takeaway coffee and let’s cast our eyes about. It starts tentatively in March, it’s a joy and it’s free. Expect the return of our summer migrants. This has already begun heralded by the simple but strident notes of the chiffchaff heard from the 10th March on the Valley Trail although one was photographed in the Quay cut in early February. Perhaps human induced climate change encouraged it to overwinter. On the same warm March day brimstone, small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies were all on wing although this was not necessarily a good sign as warmer winters are driving some of our remaining butterfly species ever closer to extinction.
During April, however, things really get going. Not only are the chiffchaff notes coming from every quarter but suddenly there is the blackcap’s beautifully melodious addition and very soon after, the falling cadence of the willow warbler. All are long distance travellers to our lovely piece of countryside although willow warblers are becoming very much scarcer as our climate warms.
When sunshine brightens the sallow willows’ plump butter-yellow flowers there is an audible hum of bees working busily for nectar and pollen. Along the Valley Trail and in the meadows the bright yellow blooms of lesser celandine shine up at the passerby, each one a cheerful little sun. Along field margins blackthorn blossom opens in explosions of purest bridal white. Here and there in the pastures the pale pink cuckoo flowers unfold and in the distance the familiar call of the cuckoo itself may be heard later in the month although these birds have declined drastically. Few young people seem to know about the cuckoo’s clever adaptation to seek others to rear its offspring. Any female cuckoo that might appear will soon keep a sharp eye out for potential hosts such as the riverside reed warblers or the hedgerow dunnocks to watch where they will nest.
Low over the meadows the first swallows of summer weave their fast flights in pursuit of insects, refuelling after their gruelling migration from Africa and getting into shape for the forthcoming breeding season. House Martins are not far behind but flying much higher in pursuit of their meals.
April is really a prelude to the great symphony of spring that bursts into a great crescendo during May and early June. It is a very fine time to enjoy the countryside. As farmer and writer John Lewis-Stempel observes ‘the point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing.’