I get so excited at this time of year knowing that the most exciting day of the year is about to happen. Let's hear it for the 22nd of December - yeah!

No, it's not my birthday. It's special because it is the day after the shortest day. On 21 December, from sunrise to sunset here in Sussex was 7 hours, 56 minutes and 29 seconds. On the 22nd, I get an extra three seconds. The further north you are, well, you're looking at more like 4 or 5 extra seconds. Woohoo!

It may not seem a lot, but it signals that we've turned a corner. It is confirmation that we are now heading towards spring, and all wonders of nature that will bring. And with that comes a sense of hope, which feels good in most years but even more so after the year we've all had.

In fact, nature is already signalling good times ahead, such as these Snowdrops poking through the ground under my Magnolia tree.

And my Hazel catkins are thickening up...

The increase in daylength might start slowly on 22nd, but every day the rate of pace will increase right through until mid March. You might be surprised to know that by the end of January a day in southern England will be over an hour and a quarter longer than the shortest day. By 28 February, southern England will have about three hours more daylight than now, and in Edinburgh your increase will have been 3 hours 40 minutes.

We tend to be rather slow to notice the change, but birds are incredibly equipped to clock the lengthening days.

They have to be, because their life cycles are so tied up in the 'circannual' cycle - the rhythms of life over the course of the year. The increasing amount of light penetrates their thin skulls and stimulates what are called photoreceptor cells, which in turn prompt the brain to send chemical messages their bodies.

This will trigger dramatic seasonal changes, most notably being (how can I put this delicately?) a whopping increase in the size of their gonads.

Sex hormones start surging around their bodies, prompting the males into song (such as this Dunnock, below) and allowing the females to prepare for the heavy-lifting of laying eggs.

There will be mates to be found, territories to be defended. And this coming Tuesday marks the start of that process.

So ring the bells, raise a glass - and celebrate the 22nd December with all the hope it brings.

  • 22 December will be a sad one for me and many others this year. It was the birthday of friend and RSPB colleague, Colin Wilkinson, who died in July. However, he was an optimist so I will look for the signs you mention and also be thankful that I knew such a talented friend .