Springtime wanderings

img_3218The wood looks bridal as I approach it today. The edges are dressed in a white froth of hawthorn; small perfect blossoms and delicate clusters of unopened buds. The floor of the wood is white too, festooned in the lacy white pom-poms of ramsons¹. Birds are chatting and the sun is shining. At this time of year, it is amazing how fast the wood changes – each day there is a sign of the spring moving forward.

Inside the wood, the whole place is a lush green, a liquid green, dripping from every surface, saturating even the air between the branches. The smell of new growth mixes with the scent of hawthorn, the damp earth, the ramson’s garlic hints. The paths I walk are covered in confetti, thousands of tiny hawthorn petals, tumbled down from the canopy way above my head.  I can’t see the flowers from down below, but if were a bird, I would surely see a beautiful carpet of blossom as I flew over the trees.

The wood is becoming shady again. There are still gaps overhead for the sun to penetrate as the ash is lagging well behind the oak this year (we’re just in for a splash this summer, folks²). The oak leaves have already lost their red tinge of youth, the hazel, beech and elm are all well leafed in the beautiful lime green of newness. The ash won’t be long now, the buds are bursting.

As I walk the path to the camp, black birds, blue tits, great and coal tits are all busy around me, and as I arrive, the nuthatches start alarm calling. One stops mid-flight to the nest box, does a tricky double-back manoeuvre and sits glaring out at me from behind a branch, its beak full of food. The chicks in the nest box are calling furiously for breakfast so I move further down the path, and sit watching through my binoculars as the parents pop in and out of the box feeding the hungry occupants.

The wood floor is busy too. Insects are buzzing round all over the place, solitary bees are bobbing around in and out of the leaf-litter and spiders are scurrying about. I walk on. Although the bluebells are almost over, I catch glimpses of blue hints in cooler places where there are still some in flower; a lilac wash in amongst all the green.

The badgers too have been busy, and no wonder. Two nights ago, on my third badger watch of the year, four cubs emerged from the main sett, accompanied by two females and one male who clearly needed some space; he shot off as soon as he came out of the sett, without a backward look at the females trying unsuccessfully to control their offspring now engaged in a very loud and fluffy play fight. It was a very exciting night.

As I open the cosy shed, I am greeted by a vigorous buzzing. It takes a while to locate it. A wasp has started to build its nest under my stool. The nest is exquisite, a beautiful paper globe, striped in muted browns, with a round entrance hole at the bottom. I feel terrible, but I can’t sit on a growing wasp nest all summer, so I detach it. The dome layers fall away to reveal the hexagonal chambers of the incredible comb within. The central cells are sealed, containing the larvae that have already reached the pupal stage and will soon emerge as adults. Surrounding these, are cells containing the bloated white larvae soon to pupate, each one writhing, mouthparts working, waiting for the wasp to bring the next meal. Further out round the comb, one in each cell, are smaller wriggling larvae, and at the periphery, the little cream coloured eggs that have yet to hatch. Strangely grotesque yet fascinating, a complete study in the life stages of the wasp in one comb.

As I write, I share the cosy shed with an irate wasp. I hope she will be able to rebuild her nest somewhere else as it is not long into the season. I see that the other wasp nest I knew about, built under the bird feeder’s squirrel baffle, has been predated too. I doubt either wasp will be put off after their initial setback.

Later, as I walk the path home, I pass through dappled sunlight, the temperature rising and falling as I step from light to shade. I see a deer – it saw me first so it’s off through the trees – then in the next clearing, a speckled wood butterfly flutters across my path. I get the feeling that summer is round the corner now; the wood is almost fully dressed. It’s such an exciting time to be out, there’s a sense of anticipation with every footstep. The atmosphere in the wood crackles with a magic I love, the magic of never quite knowing what wonders are waiting to be found within the trees.  I am looking forward to the adventures of the next few months.

¹ Wild garlic

²Oak before ash,
We’re in for a splash,
Ash before oak,
We’re in for a soak.

Oak responds to temperature, while ash is thought to take it’s cues from daylight, so in the past, ash and oak used to vary in their order of leafing.  With climate change, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that ash will beat oak to leafing.  The scientist is me wants to say that this way of predicting whether or not we will have a wet summer has always been pretty inaccurate; the other side of me just enjoys the saying as an old traditional rhyme!

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