The re­turn of spring

The Oban Times - - Districts - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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.

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