Sunday 19 January 2020

Sighting of first Wheatear signals spring's arrival

The Wheatear is a small member of the large thrush family
The Wheatear is a small member of the large thrush family

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

When does spring arrive? Based on the annual temperature cycle, the first of March is officially the first day of spring. Many people don't agree with that and insist the Lá Féile Bhríde, the feast of St Brigit on the first of February, is the real first day of spring. The debate continues with no resolution in sight.

The first of March this year was the coldest first day of spring on record. Bitterly cold easterly winds wrapped around a Scandinavian high-pressure area grasped us in their chilly embrace as they swept forcefully out of Siberia.

Storm Emma tracked north from Portugal via the Bay of Biscay creating blizzard-like conditions as it contacted with the cold Siberian air resulting in its moisture being precipitated as powdery snow with significant drifting. It certainly didn't feel like spring.

One of the difficulties with the 1 February / 1 March debate is that with twelve months in the year and four seasons, there is a natural tendency to divide the year into four three-month seasonal blocks. If you follow Met Éireann, spring comprises March, April and May, the summer months are June, July and August, autumn occurs in September, October, November, and the winter months are December, January and February.

Whenever it starts, one of the great events of springtime is the annual migration of wild birds. Great numbers of our feathered friends flood north out of Africa and arrive on our shores. Though expected, their arrival each year is eagerly anticipated. The sighting of the first Swallow and the call of the Cuckoo always demand a mention.

When tidying up after the recent snow I spotted a flock of birds flying high. They came from the east and circled repeatedly overhead before descending to partially settle in a nearby group of tall trees. They were Woodpigeons, about 80 of them I estimated. They were very restless and rose and settled several times with a lot of noisy flapping in the bare branches of the trees.

They were hard-weather movers rather than migrants. The true migrants should make landfall soon. The Sand Martin, Chiffchaff and Wheatear are normally among the earliest to arrive here from Africa. For me, a sighting of the first male Wheatear, a most elegant creature, confirms that spring has arrived. Most commonly seen in grassy areas near the coast, it regularly flees from its elevated perch fanning out it tail to reveal its large white tail patch.

Wexford People

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