Mary Green takes a look back at the ups and downs of our countryside in 2019.
At this time, we often look back over the year, and I have found 2019 quite an odd wildlife year. The flowering of plants and arrivals of birds and insects have not been as expected.
It was a very mild start, especially compared with the previous year, yet the first signs of spring weren’t especially early. The start of spring was very warm and quite dry – I remember walking in shirt-sleeves in February – but the blackthorn, plum and apple blossoms came at the normal time and migrating birds like swallows seemed quite late.
We had an all-time record high temperature in late July yet it wasn’t really a hot summer. There was a good crop but a bad harvest for many farmers. And I’ve never seen the trees stay green as late as they did this year, with autumn colour not really starting till the end of October except on non-native species.
As I look out of my window I see a lot of bare trees, without having had the week or so of lovely golden leaves I usually see. But it was a good year for most native wildlife, from great blossom and fruit on our trees to good conditions for most nesting birds in this area. Finally in November we have some wonderful autumn colour, especially from our native oak and field maple trees.
Looking back to January, I remember the spectacular hazel catkins this year, turning the trees gold, and masses of snowdrops. By the end of the month I was hearing great tits, green finches and a green woodpecker.
When I did the Big Garden Birdwatch the birds all deserted my garden for the day! However, I did see a huge number of water birds on the canal – literally dozens of mallards and Canada geese and a few moorhens. Something else I noticed in January was a lot of winter fungi, including Jew’s Ear on elder, and the Birch Polypore.
In early February I found cherry-plum blossom and heard a spotted woodpecker hammering, with blackbirds and thrushes starting to sing, so I knew it was spring. I found flowers on something I have decided is a blackthorn crossed with a cherry plum.
The flowers were tiny like blackthorn but much too early, the branches were thorn-free and patterned like cherry plum. (In the autumn, the fruits are definitely sloes). It shows how plants in the same family produce cross-breeds. There were lots of lovely daffodils.
The weather became warm and there were chaffinches singing in my garden and coltsfoot and celandines along the canal. The Canal and Rivers Trust planted (mostly) native trees and climbers by the old bridge 64A. It was a record high temperature for February and there were wildfires in parts of the country. I saw a brimstone butterfly, really early.
March was an odd month, warm and then cold. Lungwort finally flowered – it’s usually earlier – and blackthorn came out. The plums blossomed about the normal time and there was a frost afterwards which damaged some, but the damsons were slightly later and weren’t affected.
I saw orange tips and peacock butterflies and some lovely sweet violets which taste like those sweets we used to eat as kids. There was lots of lovely new growth and I made soups and salads with wild leaves, especially garlic. Two geese returned to Withybed to nest, and a pair of swans settled further up the canal. I heard chiffchaffs arrive.
April started cold, with snow not far away, but that didn’t stop bluebells coming early along with wood anemones and wood sorrel. There were a lot of elm trees in leaf and blossom, more than usual. Cherry blossom and apple blossom were lovely and there was a lot of may blossom out long before May.
Mallard ducks were nesting in several neighbours’ gardens, as they do. It was warm by the end of the month. Oak came into leaf early, as usual in a warm spring, but the ash was out in leaf early too, which is more unusual. Cow parsley didn’t come particularly early but by the end of the month is was gorgeous everywhere. Orange tip butterflies did well in the sun.
In May there were bluebells even in places you don’t normally see them. I saw holly blue butterflies on holly flowers – quite hard as so many people cut holly back too much. I had the lovely experience again of watching Canada geese goslings emerge from their eggs by the canal, and heard the swans had produced cygnets.
Eades Meadow was as beautiful as ever with green-winged orchids and common blue butterflies, and I was shown early purple orchids in Dunnage Wood. But there weren’t so many swallows as usual round here for some reason – possibly the dry weather.
In June I had the good luck to see another part of the country, Portland, where wildlife was well-protected and the variety of plants, insects and birds was stunning. I’d never seen Adonis blue butterflies before, and it was unusual to see so many orchids everywhere. This was one of the places I saw and heard skylarks again, which had been missing in my life round here.
Nearer home I was excited to see the big new orchard planted near Barnt Green. I was impressed by how many insects there were along the canal vegetation and in other wild places here – bees, hoverflies, butterflies and dragonflies. They were enjoying the abundant flowers this year.
Even in Kings Norton Park I found common spotted orchids, and there was one on a nearby verge here for a while until it got mowed. Roses of all kinds, wild and garden, were quite late flowering.
July was the time for flowering meadows. The hay meadows here were thick with wild flowers and butterflies, and the grassed areas around Withybed Marina were also full of vetch, moon daisies, clovers and mallows. I saw a lot of red admiral butterflies and there was a veritable influx of painted ladies.
The canalside vegetation was especially good this year – the Canal and Rivers Trust did a good job with it. It was full of meadowsweet, vetch, figwort and marsh woundwort, and fragrant with bedstraw.
Later in the month it was very hot and I experienced invasions of thunderbugs and then hoverflies while up north. Both are harmless and I find them less annoying these days now I am grateful to still have insects!
On my holidays in August I noticed the difference in places where arable fields are managed with nature, so there are lots of arable wildflowers (poppies, wild radish, camomile, heartsease) and birds like skylarks. I heard and saw lots of yellowhammers for the first time in ages. I also saw giant hogweed close up – quite unmistakable.
At home the Canada geese started wheeling and calling without going anywhere, as they do every year, following some long-gone migration habit. As it was warm and damp, there were early mushrooms, especially a woodland-edge one which came in my garden too,
Blackberries came early and were a good flavour. The harvest was late because of rain. I didn’t have as many wasps as usual around my fruit.
In September came a heavy crop of damsons and a good one of plums. The new Barnt Green orchard had a great apple crop. It was mild and there were plenty of summer wild flowers still out. Mallard drakes were quite late getting their colours back after the summer drab season. Leaves were not turning expect on non-native trees and it still looked like summer.
This continued into October, which was also quite mild and wet. I noticed particularly that the ash hadn’t gone its usual golden yellow but that leaves had already fallen while still green. I’ve never seen ash still green in November before.
Quite a lot of trees seemed bare without having gone through the stages of colour. I don’t know why this was, but it doesn’t seem to be a good thing. The leaves turning colour means that the chlorophyll is being taken back into the trees for winter food, and I wonder if the tree suffers if they fall prematurely. We’ll see how they do next year.
It was a fabulous autumn for fungi. I saw fly agaric, cauliflower mushrooms, parasols, boletus and wax caps, as well as field mushrooms and the many woodland-edge types.
The trees that carry berries were full of fruit, especially hawthorn and the few hollies that are allowed to grow properly, and up to now I haven’t seen the flocks of redwings and fieldfares come to strip them. There should be plenty of food for birds this winter, and hopefully some berries for Christmas.
I should thank my nephew and his family for giving me a special wildlife diary to fill in this year, while I was in hospital at the end of last year. I have had to find something to write every day, and it makes you notice things – try it!
Have a happy Christmas.
I wrote this poem before I knew we had an election coming!
These divided times
They say we’re living in divided times
Families split apart and old friends silent
Two new tribes who can’t be reconciled.
I don’t see it. I haven’t fallen out
With any of my family, no more than usual,
And I know my friends hold different views from me
But then they always have: that’s how life goes.
I’m not part of any new tribe, and I don’t
Have to bite my tongue and not say what I mean.
During these years I have had bad times
But people have held me, helped me and healed me
And nobody’s asked me what I voted for.
We sing in harmony as we always did
Share food, ride narrowboats and make our poems
Sometimes we are difficult or mad or bad
Sometimes we move the mountain for each other.
I am a child of nuclear war, and I remember
Kids dying from measles, girls in backstreet fixes
And gays imprisoned. Life is not a game
Or sport in which you win or lose. In the end
There is no victory if other people fall.