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As a birder, people always astound me when they pronounce the arrival of spring on the first day of February. Are they mad? The first day of February is still the depths of the winter in my mind. This year, 1 February was a day filled with heavy showers and sunny spells along the Wicklow coast. Yet people I met walking were all cheery and happy that ‘Spring had finally arrived’! Storm Henry arrived that night…enough said. In fact, February can be the coldest month of the year and often has the worst weather. No, let us get one thing straight…spring certainly does not start in February.
The people in the ‘Met Office’ are a little bit more accurate. Metrologically the first day of spring falls on the first day of March and I can (sort of) live with this. Of course, having accepted this compromise, a walk along the coast yesterday morning reminded me of a quote from Dickens in Great Expectations: ‘It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade’. Looking out today on 4 March, it is cold, grey and wet in Wicklow while much of Ireland is covered in snow. That doesn’t exactly feel very spring-like, does it?
All of this proves that the new government (whoever that might be) should officially adopt my thinking on the first day of spring. I don’t consider spring to have officially arrived until the first of our spring bird migrants have been seen…and that doesn’t usually happen in earnest until about mid-March. So, as an Irishman, I would like to propose that St. Patrick’s Day be officially recognised as the first day of spring.
I accept that people have different things that define the arrival of spring. Perhaps it’s the first flush of new buds on our trees or the first daffodils pushing their heads through the ground. This year, I saw the first daffodils in late January. So much for that theory! I must confess that for me, the first hint that spring might be just around the corner is when I hear the garden birds in full song each morning or watch Blue Tits check out the nest-box for the breeding season ahead. However, it really is seeing the first migrant of the year that heralds the official turning of the year in my heart.
For that reason, I find myself drifting to the coast as the first weeks of March arrive for it’s here that the first of the migrants are usually seen. This makes sense of course because, being an island, birds need to fly over the sea in order to reach Ireland. The first birds seen are usually those that have travelled the least distance. Birds like Wheatears, Chiffchaffs and Sand Martins are inevitably the first to arrive. It’s no co-incidence that these species spend the winter just south of the Sahara. By comparison to species like Swallows that winter in South Africa, these birds really do have a head start when it comes to flying north.
Early arrivals take great risks…March can be a cruel month when winter lingers on. Insects are hard to find and shelter from cold winds hard to survive. Yet these first birds manage to hold on. They are the front of an enormous tsunami of birds heading north. Regardless of the weather, they still come. Undertaking journeys of up to 10,000km, our spring migrants deserve our respect and admiration. In my opinion, each and every one of these birds deserves to be welcomed by a full symphony orchestra in celebration of their achievement.
So keep your woolly hats handy, those warm gloves close by and your fleece jackets well zipped up. It is only a matter of a week or two now before you will see your first spring migrants arriving along our shores. Then, and only then, can we say that spring is truly here.
From me, seeing that first spring migrant of the year has a profound effect on me. I firmly believe it’s a primal thing buried deep within my DNA. It’s the caveman gene in me telling me that I have survived another winter and that first summer migrant heralds a time of plenty ahead. Since childhood I have always welcomed home the first spring migrant of the year and, when I see that bird, a full symphony orchestra is playing in my heart.