Ben's Nature Diary: on mad hares and birdsong
PUBLISHED: 00:24 01 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:08 20 February 2013
Spring is in the air, so keep your eyes peeled for boxing hares and your ears pinned back for avian choirs. Shropshire artist and writer Ben Waddams explores the sights and sounds of Shropshire in March
The path was well marked across the field. Heavy boots and many paws had compacted the earth over the previous week but rain in the night had eased itself down the cracks; now clods of mud stuck heftily to my soles. The rainclouds still hung in the dawn sky, grey and opaque; only their very edges pricked with the faintest of morning glows.
As I stomped along, head to the ground, hands in pockets, it began to blow hard. Ahead was an old oak. I sought shelter beneath its withered branches and hulking frame and allowed the wind time to dwindle. As I did so I was aware of a faint sound coming from the other side of the trunk. A soft, wet, brushing sound. I peered round to see a hare, licking its front legs in an effort to stave off the advances of the mud.
As I watched in wonder, a gust of wind hit my hood from behind, blew it over my face in a flapping cloak and I was left shrouded in plastic. When I pulled it from my face, the hare had taken off at an incredible pace. In the gloomy light, its legs seemed to be moving in a cartoonish blur, whilst its head, back and tail were clearly visible. I could not believe the speed at which this animal was travelling, especially in the thick mud. It was, without doubt, haring along.
March is of course the time to see our mad, march hares. Whilst the fields still lay relatively bare, why not take an early morning sojourn and see if you can make out the famous boxing of the hares. It was long thought that this activity was the lagomorphic equivalent of rutting stags, challenging each other for territory and females. But in fact, although the fights are about territory and mates, the boxing match is between males and females.
The desperate pawing of the animals is really just the female extrapolating on her state of mind and rather emphatically making her opponent, the male, realise that no means no. You will often see a single female sat in a ring of three to four males, every so often having to fend off the amorous advances of one of the males with a sharp left hook or two; no handbags needed.
Spring may not have fully sprung yet, but at least there are signs that it is on its way. Swallows are currently travelling back from southern and central Africa and should start appearing towards the end of the month. There is a saying in the country that goes one swallow does not a summer make. This is certainly true, for the weather can change in an instant; warmth replaced by cold, spring air turned to biting winter wind.
But it is not just the return of the swallows which encourage us to look skywards. Summer visitors are all on their way back after toughing out the winter in some tropical paradise. Wheatears and chiff-chaffs begin to return. The latter is easily found when listening to its call which mirrors its namesake; chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff.
British swallows migrate down to South Africa during our winter. Some choose to travel through the countries of West Africa, avoiding the Sahara, whilst others will fly down the Nile, before entering Sudan, Kenya and so on. There is no over-wintering for these remarkable birds and others like them. When its winter in Shropshire, its summer south of the equator; and when things warm up here, they cool down there. The migrants from southern Africa never experience a winter in their lives. They are over-summering in our winter and over-summering in the southern hemispheres winter.
And remaining on an avian theme, March in Shropshire sees the start of the dawn chorus. This natural choir will swell in intensity and numbers into next month, but it begins now. Robins, who have been singing through the winter, get particularly vocal now. Shy, ground-dwelling birds, such as the Dunnock, now proudly proclaim their presence from any lofty perch. The palpable existence of the more obvious garden birds, such as the blackbird, song thrush and great tit, add their notes to the harmony in earnest.
March in Shropshire brings with it the promise of wildlife sightings and natural tunes where there have been none since last year. Its worth getting out there and enjoying this visual and audible performance because it wont be around for long. Why not weather the weather whatever the weather, youre certain to like it a lot!