Blackbird steals an early arrival in May

THE weather has been kind over the past few weeks. No frost to blacken the new leaves of the potatoes which are now above ground — though it has been touch-and-go on a couple of nights. And there’s been plenty of sunshine during the day, with little in the way of rain and wind.

This sort of weather puts everyone in good humour. They comment to me about how lovely the countryside is in May when the rain stays away. It also seems to have a stimulating effect on the natural world. A fortnight ago I saw a young blackbird on the lane. This was early for a fully fledged bird to have left the nest, but blackbirds are prone to sneaking in an early brood if the weather is good.

They are increasing in numbers in this country and the reason may be that they are adapting to take advantage of climate change.

Then a strange bird landed on my bird table and I spent a couple of seconds trying to work out what the exotic rarity was. When I got a better look, I realised it was an immature robin. The stance and behaviour of a baby robin is very similar to that of the parents, but the plumage is totally different — a rich dark brown covered in speckles with no hint of a red breast. I imagine this must be camouflage to help it survive through those vulnerable early weeks.

Some of the adult robins that visit the bird table have a distinctive white feather on the front of each wing and others don’t. The sexes are identical in robins and it appears that these feathers are a sign that a bird is in its second year and that older birds don’t have them. I find it useful for telling individuals apart when I’m trying to work out the behaviour patterns and relationships between them.

One of the things that puts people in good humour at this time of year is the blossom in the hedgerows. The hawthorn is now fully out. It’s called May blossom, although it doesn’t appear in this part of the country until the middle of the month and lasts well into June. The reason is that May blossom, like the May fly, got its name ago before the Pope changed the calendar and we lost a fortnight.

Once they both coincided exactly with the month. Grass put on a great spurt of growth at the end of April when the soil temperature finally topped six degrees, but then it slowed down again. No sooner had it got the temperature it needs to grow than the soil moisture levels dropped. Most grasses have shallow roots and the sandy, gravely soils on the esker ridges round here are very free-draining, so the top few centimetres dry out rapidly in the absence of rain.

The hawthorn is deep rooted and can exploit soil layers that are still retaining some winter and spring rain. The same is true of the cow parsley that lines the lane. It is a relation of the carrot and has an even longer tap root, sometimes probing 40 or 50 centimetres in search of underground moisture. The lacy verges of white flowers winding between the roadway and the hedge have a subtle perfume in the evenings and early mornings. I write this article some days before it’s published and I’m always nervous about mentioning the beauties of the countryside in fine weather because the weather often changes in the meantime. But even a bit of wind and rain will not be able to stifle the magic of this second half of May.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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