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Signs of spring

February 24, 2011

Yesterday was a dreich, damp day here. Morning fog barely dissolved into low-hanging mist and fine drizzle, shrouding the hills and beading every branch with drops of water. For once, however, this ‘fine soft weather’ (as drenching rain is called in the West Highlands) seemed not melancholy to me, but promising. It really did feel ‘soft’: there was no icy edge to it for the first time in several months. It smelled of spring.

Only last weekend we were up in the Cairngorms, making the most of the children’s half-term with a couple of days of mucking about in the snow. We took the funicular railway up Cairn Gorm, squeezed in with all the snowboarders and skiers. At the top, we discovered that there was a white-out and a wind-chill of -18 Celsius.


Apparently, there are people skiing out there

We had the viewing platform of the top station to ourselves, oddly enough.

On a clear day, you can see half of Scotland through this telescope. Not today.

We had a lot of fun, though, and were lucky to have got up there (and down again) at all. That night a storm swept in, burying the top station and the funicular under massive drifts and effectively shutting down the mountain. Driving home on Saturday, we discovered that the snow had also fallen widely across the rest of our route, making the always empty landscape of this area look forbiddingly bleak.

'mamba' country: Miles And Miles of B... All

And waiting for us at home was a fresh covering of snow. We needn’t have gone north in search of the white stuff: it had been coming to land on our doorstep! On average, I’d say we’ve been having a snowfall a week for the past month or more. Unlike the pre-Christmas falls, though, this is vanishing like the proverbial snow off a dyke (that’s dyke as in stone wall, in case you were wondering). By Sunday morning, the white fields were again green, and this week the temperature has risen steadily to a high of 9 degrees C this morning, probably the warmest day since early November. Today the last pockets of snow in the hollows are shrinking before my eyes. It has lain in places for exactly three months (we had our first big dump of snow on November 24th, early for here), but I don’t think it will hang about much longer.

The last of the three-month-old snow

This thaw is only one sign of the changing season. The first one, for me, was not visual but aural. Three days after Valentine’s Day, I heard a piercing whistle over the castle rooftops: the oyster catchers have returned. They always come back here to breed around Valentine’s Day, and that first shriek as they wheel over the grounds never fails to thrill the heart. More than anything else, it signifies for me the coming of spring. More subtle over the past week has been the gradual increase in other birdsong. In a moment of stillness a few days ago, I became aware of a bird singing – not just chirping, but singing – outside the kitchen window. It sounded like the first tentative notes of May’s dawn chorus, heard drowsily before first light, except that this was a mid-afternoon in February. It was, I suppose, the first tentative notes of the chorus of the year. On every walk now, I am aware of the voices of birds punctuating the woods. They are still sparse enough to be picked out individually: it’s not yet the flood of sound of true spring. But this liquid grace is such a blessing, after the months of silence but for the squabbling of crows and the rusty machinery clatter of pheasants.

When I was in Primary Three – so about seven years old – I remember doing a little school project called ‘Signs of Spring’. I loved drawing and I remember carefully colouring in a picture of a fieldfare and finding out about the black buds on the ash trees. I caused some amusement to my teacher, however, by consistently writing about ‘Sighns‘ of spring. Well, the last of my sighns today is the advent of snowdrops to the policies at Castle Beastie. They are only beginning to flower, but there are more blooming every day.

Soon this bank will be thick with their white drifts.

Long snowy winters in Scotland have been rare enough, in recent years, for me to have relished almost every minute of the past two winters of heavy snowfall and extreme cold. But even I am ready to say goodbye to the snow, and to welcome the snowdrops. Along with all the other sighns of spring.

See also: A des. res. for oyster catchers; A portent of spring

P.S. Many thanks to those who dropped in on Dancing Beastie through its being ‘Freshly Pressed’ on Tuesday. Things are calming down a little now after that flurry of excitement, but I hope that some of you will choose to visit again!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 4:56 pm

    Two weeks ago, I was seeing ‘sighns’ of spring, too. The Stellar’s Jays had returned, the high mountain cranberries were starting to bud…but today there is over a foot of snow and it’s still coming down. Winter’s last gasp. It’s very pretty though, and I can enjoy it as the woodpile is full, the kerosene lanterns are full, the propane tanks are full, and so is the freezer. Spring will be here before we know it and until then I’m going sledding. Lovely post.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2011 5:02 pm

      Snow is great if you have a warm home to come back to! I’m glad that you do. We have run out of heating oil, so I am grateful for the rise in temperature outside. Enjoy your sledding!

  2. Margaret Lambert permalink
    February 24, 2011 6:58 pm

    I can certainly see that your grass is ‘greening up’, as they say here. And the last photo of the snowdrops, the very close-up with leaves and a pine cone- simply beautiful.
    Thank you for including some of the distinctive words and descriptions of your region, though I cannot hear the pronunciation. There is a way to include brief lines of audio which I have been seeing in some blogs. Nice for local music, poetry, or birdsong!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2011 7:55 pm

      The grass itself is still that tired, rather acidic end-of-winter colour, but isn’t the intense green of the snowdrop stems wonderful? We will see changes every day now, and the true spring grass should come through in mid-April.
      I’d love to have audio clips in my blog – I often have a particular piece of music running through my head as I compose a post, for example, and would like to share the mood it creates. Preliminary research into the possibility was discouraging, but I will investigate further. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Deb permalink
    February 24, 2011 11:23 pm

    Still not many signs of spring here, although the birds have begun their spring songs. They seem a bit precipitate – we still have at least 2 feet of snow cover and more expected in the next few days. I can’t wait for the first scents of spring – even the mud, which I’m sure will be abundant this year. But I’ve got some new Wellies from L.L. Bean, so I’ll be ready!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 25, 2011 10:54 pm

      Well, congrats on the smart new wellies! 😉 No, really, I couldn’t manage without mine. And yes, even the bare earth smells good after a long stretch of snow and ice. It’ll come, it’ll come…

  4. February 25, 2011 2:48 pm

    My sign of spring this morning occurred as I stood at my door, enjoying fresh air rather than shivering in it: I heard a wingbeat above my head and glanced up to see a raven circling over the roof top. All birds have been conspicuous by their absence since just after christmas, so even a crow/raven is a welcome sight. We still have 2 feet of snow on the ground and a storm brewing today. So glad it is getting milder where you are and you will not miss the absence of heating oil as badly. What a sight the top of Cairn Gorm must have been! And thank you for the wonderful photo-essay on your pleasure woods.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 25, 2011 10:57 pm

      I love to hear of all these tiny signs of the turning year that people are noticing across the northern hemisphere. Don’t know about the top of Cairn Gorm – we could hardly see beyond the end of our noses! You do get extraordinarily long views up there when the weather is fine, though.
      Glad you enjoyed the woods one; thank you.

  5. Barbara M. permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:24 pm

    Oh, I wish that there were sighns of spring here in New Hampshire! We have had another 8 inches of snow today, which makes me glad we spent the money to have the roof shoveled off last week! Glad to relax knowing that 8 more inches will NOT cause it to collapse! (But if it had all melted I would be quite angry today…..

    Only the paperwhites on the window sill whisper of spring…..

    Barbara M.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 25, 2011 11:03 pm

      Goodness, Barbara, you must be absolutely fed up of the white stuff by now! I hope the trees in NH are bearing up under what must be a tremendous weight. And now the West Coast is getting snow too. Maybe this is the last gasp before the spring really begins. Last year we had fresh snow at the end of Feb and it was still very cold at night, but we seem to be having a rather more ‘normal’ February this year. One of the things I’m enjoying about blogging is being able to compare notes with what I wrote a year ago, and to chart the variations. (Thinks, does that sound a bit geeky…well, it keeps me happy, anyway!)

  6. March 2, 2011 12:24 am

    I feel so nerdy bringing this up… but apparently the first literary association of Valentine’s Day and romantic love was in a Chaucer poem about how all the birds come together on that day and choose their mates. This talk of Oystercatchers and Valentine’s all at once made me think back to old times in the lecture hall.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 2, 2011 3:12 pm

      Thank you! Yes, I was thinking of that too! (Fellow nerd… 🙂 ) The return of the oyster catchers always makes me think of the birds choosing their mates.


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