Country Diary: First summer songbird is an early bird

The song of the chiff chaff was heard on March 18 this year.
The song of the chiff chaff was heard on March 18 this year.
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It’s arrived! Our first summer songbird, which arrived in our neighbourhood on March 18. Last year it was March 21. The chiff chaff derives its name from the rather monotonous song – “chiff chaff chaff chiff”, delivered from the bare branches of a tall tree. This tiny bird has brownish-olive upperparts and off-white underparts, with yellow tinged breast.

What would our countryside be without those lively, noisy rooks? They are gregarious, quarrelsome birds, nesting in tree-top rookeries and swaying precariously in the wind, but their familiar calls – deep ‘caws’ or ‘kaahs’ are part of country life. They eat mainly worms and leather jackets, along with grain, and roost communally with rooks, carrion crows and jackdaws.

Michael’s brother John, has a splendid garden which epitomises springtime. Masses of vibrant flowers adorn borders, flow from wells and troughs, and spill from hanging baskets. No wonder house sparrows were swift to take over John’s smart bird house in his cottage garden during mid March. Grass and straw have been taken into their chosen nesting site.

The normal breeding cycle is May to July, often with three broods. However, there’s been an increasing trend towards year-rounding nesting.

Michael and myself have been delighted to be busy gardening once again. It’s so very therapeutic. Tigga loves to watch from the greenhouse-seated in his special chair surveying his territory. Country walks have revealed new sights, scents and sounds so acute to his senses.

Visiting John in West Heslerton, we collected a lawn mower for repair, and whilst on the roadside verge, I was aware of a beautiful sweet fragrance. You’ve guessed – sweet violets. Exploring further, as we ascended the lane towards Driffield and West Lutton, patches of both purple and white violets revealed their modest blossoms, downward bent and shy.

Queen Victoria used posies for all daytime occasions, and evening wear, and set a fashion. The poet Wordsworth compared Lucy’s sweet charm, to “a violet by a mossy stone,” and Napoleon sensed an affinity between this flower and Josephine. Shortly before his exile he plucked violets from Josephine’s grave. These were later found in a locket on his death bed.

Since ancient times violets have been strewn on floors of old cottages and churches to relieve damp, musty smells. Grown in pots on window sills, they not only perfume the air but relieve headaches, melancholia and insomnia.

Perfume, sachets and soaps convey the sweetness and charm of this humble flower.

Flourishing on the sheltered bank, we found small spurge laurel bushes (Daphne laureola). ‘Daphne’ means garland flower, and ‘laureola’, refers to its leaves being reminiscent of laurel, being thick, glossy and leathery. From the axils of the uppermost leaves were clusters of yellow-green buds, with three to eight on a stalk. Most had tiny yellow-green flowers blooming well. The bark was once used to treat cancer.