The return of spring
WHEN the calendar tells us a new year has begun, Mother Nature is not slow in reminding us that she, too, is about to embark on another annual miracle - the return of spring.
Historically spring starts on the day of the vernal equinox, which usually occurs on the night of March 20/ 21.
Vernal originally comes from the Latin word for bloom and refers to the fact that, in the northern hemisphere, this equinox marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. An equinox is a time when the nights are as long as the days and the vernal equinox is recognised the world over as the start of the new astrological cycle.
Even in January, the alder and hazel catkins are blowing in the breeze along the exposed shores of the Sound of Mull and by February the birds in the woods and high glens are showing signs of mating and courtship.
A few species of flowers are out at all times of the year which, some say, is a sign of global warming. If that is true, climate change must have started years ago because even under snow, chickweed and an occasional dandelion or daisy can be found among the old fields around Loch Aline.
Gorse is a typical flower of early spring, for though its finest splash of colour does not come until March, by the end of February, it has begun to line the roadsides and river banks with its golden glory - its flower-heads smelling of hot coconut in the weak sunlight.
Now, too, the insects begin to emerge. Some hibernating species, including midges, make an appearance during the occasional warm days of early spring.
Caterpillars are not likely to be found, except rarely, at this time of the year. To find pupae, that is the inactive immature form between the larva and adult, involves digging into the thick moss at the base of trees.
One of the first signs of bird activity in early spring is the movement of the rooks who favour old castles and buildings in ancient woodlands. Although there are no rooks in Morvern now, they can still be found not far away in Ardnamurchan and around Oban. The raven is even earlier, for its three to seven grey and green grey eggs are often laid by the end of February making it the first of all our breeding birds to sit.
Famed in legend and lore for its intelligence, size and appearance, ravens are found chiefly in remote areas and are one of the finest of all our Argyll birds. Its great size and voice distinguishes it from other members of the crow family. The raven’s plumage is completely black, though most of the feathers have a metallic, greenish sheen when seen in strong sunlight. Its strong beak is slightly curved and blunt at the end. The bird’s overall length is about 26 inches and its wing-span over three feet.
The raven is appreciated to the full when flying high over some bare corrie or sailing out from its cliff home over the sea. For all its dignity, ravens enjoy playing with their siblings, wheeling and turning hundreds of feet up, falling downwards, sometime upside down, with half- closed wings calling out ‘glok, glok’.
There is an old stone quarry in Morvern where, for at least the last 20 years, a pair of ravens have nested on a precarious ledge under a small overhang.
On almost every occasion, just as the young are about to take wing, the nest falls to the ground under their weight. There they wait until the protective and fussing adults lead them on foot to higher ground from which they are able to launch themselves into the wind.
An even more remarkable piece of good timing is that round about the time the young are due to fly, the sun has risen to such a height above the horizon that it falls full onto the nest offering no shelter from its unrelenting rays.
Truly, there is much more we have yet to learn and understand about nature and her ways.
Ravens are now protected but may, in exceptional cases, be shot under licence where they are found to be molesting sheep. They used to be persecuted by shepherds and crofters and although they have been known to kill sickly lambs, they chiefly feed on carrion, birds, rats, rabbits and other small mammals. Ravens are the dysons of the hills.
Without them the ground would be littered with rotting carcases and other offal. Wild red deer are the chief providers of food for the raven; when they finally disappear from Morvern we will lose one of our most ancient and magnificent upland birds.
Other harbingers of spring are the wild goat kids which inhabit the rocks and sea-shore between Kingairloch and Kilmalieu on Loch Linnhe’s north coast. They are born in February and this year, thanks to favourable weather, there have been fewer deaths than usual which augers well for the survival of this herd which is one of the oldest in Scotland.
Gorse brings a welcome splash of colour in early spring.