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Wednesday, 26 January 2011 20:59

A few hopeful signs of spring

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I detect signs of spring. Whether this is fantasy or reality, that’s for you to decide, but I choose to cling to these wisps of hope. Just this past week I grew heartily tired of winter, after cheerily pretending to myself since November that I enjoy snow and cold. Which I truthfully did like for a time, but enough is enough: I’m sick of it now. Here are my signs:

• White-breasted nuthatches are starting to hang out together. My recollection is they stay paired more or less all year, but the males and females grow less fond of one another after the mating season, and pursue individual interests until January or so. Then they grow amorous once again, and the male decides it’s not such a bad thing after all to allow his beloved first crack at the sunflower tray instead of chasing her away and greedily devouring said seeds himself without sharing.

Or, that might not be exactly how the bird-behavior experts describe the nuthatch-mating ritual, but I enjoy my version enough that it would be a shame to look it up and find truth and reality is otherwise, which so often is the case in life. I do remember for sure and accurately (I think) that white-breasted nuthatches are the earliest of our year-round birds to begin the mating process. And mine do seem to be visiting the feeders together; or rather, one flies in to feed while the other patiently waits a turn, and they are making “yank, yank, yank” or is it “hank, hank, hank” noises at one another (that would be “I love you” in nuthatch speak, by the way. See if you get a True Fact like that in a run-of-the-mill nature or birding column).

• The garlic bulbs I planted in November have sprouted through the heavy layer of straw mulch placed on top. Now that’s not really a sign of spring — they probably sprouted on a warm day shortly after being planted — but it is pleasing to me, so I note it here. Seeing the sprouts trigger a warm self-congratulatory glow when I pass them, because I actually got them in the ground when I was supposed to — this instead of letting them molder in a paper bag tucked away somewhere in the corner of the shed or garage, which is often the fate for bulbs in my care.

• The hellebores are budding. I believe it was Elizabeth Lawrence, one of my favorite garden writers, who so accurately noted the earliest flowers are the most important. (That might not be exactly what Lawrence wrote, but the sentiment is close enough, and her books are out of reach on a shelf about 5 feet away from where I’m writing. It would be a hardship to actually get up, walk over there, and hunt down the passage I’m referencing.) Lawrence, as I recollect, was writing about the delicate spring flowers, which if they bloomed in summer would be overshadowed by the great drama queens flowering then. The delicate whites and pinks that charm us early on would be lost in the bawdy colors of summer.

• The tips of the maple trees seem to have developed a slightly reddish tinge. That is good — maples are one of the important early sources of nectar for honeybees in Western North Carolina. My journals indicate they usually start flowering about the first of March, at least down in the lower elevations along warm, sun-facing slopes. I believe the three stands of honeybees I’m nominally supervising have survived the winter. On the few warm days we’ve had, I’ve seen them fly, which surely they wouldn’t do if they were dead. These next few weeks are the most dangerous time of all for beekeepers and their charges, because honeybees could well starve if not fed sugar water between now and when the maples actually bloom. In fact, it would be a good thing if I heeded my own warning and fed them this afternoon.

• Like the maples, Sophie the ewe is swelling, too, the good and excellent work of her mate and ram, Leo. I’m looking forward, for the first time in my life, to seeing lambs gambol, just as they so often gambol in the Victorian novels I sometimes read. (“Gambol” is a lovely word, and it gives me immense satisfaction to work it into a sentence. The pairing of the words “lamb” and “gambol” seems as natural together as the words “mint jelly” and “leg of lamb,” though more cerebral in this case than gustatory, of course),

(Quintin Ellison is a staff writer and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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