Spring is late this year and every time we cleared the snow on the reserve we had more a week later, but last Sunday was warm and pleasant so we set off to Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham to find our first butterfly of the year. The bees were active, we identified honey bee, buff-tailed bumblebee, tree bumblebee and hairy-footed flower bee, but no butterflies. The next day the weather was back to normal I had an odd thought, I did not want to see a butterfly until Thursday when I would next be at RSPB Sandwell and this is why.
I love nature but I am a city boy and always have been even after moving out to Zimbabwe in the 80s, as a child in Birmingham I lived next to Europe’s largest Allotment Gardens much of which had returned to the wild and this was our playground (OK, technically we were trespassing and got chased off frequently!) We learned about insects, mammals, and amphibians by exploring the little brooks, broken down sheds, lifting corrugated iron from recycled air-raid shelters and netting tadpoles, frogs and newts in bomb craters, we also read voraciously on any books on nature from the public libraries at times to the despair of those who worked there. We were fairly feral but we knew a fair bit about the natural world. As I got older I went to art school, but nature and its colours were very important to my work there. Our teachers allowed us to experiment and to make mistakes but this freedom allowed us to soar as well.
RSPB Sandwell Valley is a very important and special place as it allows urban kids to get a taste of nature, and maybe to enthuse them into coming back, going to other wild places and maybe even look at the life cycle of the mayfly on the internet rather than pictures of cats. They can get out of the classroom and enjoy learning whilst still a part of the national curriculum, but removed from many of its narrow constraints. One of the things that I have got involved with at the reserve is volunteering with Gretel who is in charge of educational visits. A couple of weeks ago we had our first school of the year and as I took my reception groups down to the hide we looked for signs of spring. Amongst other things I brought their attention to an area of broken ground where I believe a badger had been snuffling at. It was only later that Christina (our new schools intern) pointed out to me that only one of the children knew what a badger was, such is their detachment from the natural world!
Back to my elusive butterflies, I get excited at this time of the year and can feel the tension as I wait for those signs of spring: the first oystercatcher, little ringed plover, sand martin, chiffchaff, yellow wagtail and swallow. Also it is sad to see our winter visitors leave as redwing, brambling and the Iceland gulls depart for the north. You wait for those first and then it can be overwhelming as they happen in rapid succession, and then it is summer and there are peacock, comma, small tortoiseshell and ringlet butterflies everywhere and we are blessed with the colours of the flowers in the meadows, and the burnet and cinnabar moths feeding on the Ragwort, and things slow to a languid time of biting mosquito and darting dragonflies. As the season dies away we lose the vibrant tones of summer to an autumnal brown and then we fade into winter but there are still splashes of stunning colour as we see our first fly agaric, jelly Ear and scarlet elf cap, and as well as the fungi the lichens and mosses come into their own.
I hope that some of the children that visit us will be inspired and will go on to know the excitement of seeing the first blossoms of the late winter and wonder why some oaks only shed their brown leaves in spring. (It is called marcescents. This act of arboreal petulance annoyed me so much that I Googled it and it is there amongst Peppa Pig, Justin Bieber and the Kardashians). As for my butterfly, it is Easter Sunday and I am still waiting, but when I see it I hope we are at Sandwell.
- Wali Taylor, RSPB Sandwell Volunteer
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