The First Signs Of Spring
Although Wicklow has been experiencing one of the coldest winters in decades it has escaped the February snows, and spring has already awakened. Daffodils are not yet in flower, but they broke through the ground in late January. Incredibly, our only frog species, the European Common Frog (Rana temporaria), began spawning early. I saw my first frogspawn this year on February 1st, Brigid's Day, which is traditionally the beginning of spring in Ireland.
In a small, shallow pond in Newcastle I found frogspawn in great heaps. With these shallow, natural ponds timing is everything.This pond usually dries up in summer, so the frogs have to spawn earlier here so as to ensure their tadpoles have developed legs and become froglets before the hot weather of June. This isn't always the case, and some years the frogs spwan later, but extremely cold winters in Ireland are usually followed by hot, dry summers. This early frogspawn in a cold winter bodes well for our summer this year.
However, the excitement and activity in this small pond attracted the attention of predators. As I approached, I slipped and fell in the mud, causing a startled Grey Heron (Ardea cineria) to take to the air and glide away over the gorse in silent rage. Grey Herons are ferocious predators and eat frogs, and sometimes even small mammals. They are extremely tall too, measuring over one metre/3 ft 3 inches in height. Look at the size of the footprint compared to my boot!
There are now buds on many of the trees and bushes. The first flowers to burst out are usually those of snowdrops, and the same is true for this year. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), like many plants found in Ireland, are not natural to the island. They are bulbs and are usually planted, or accidentally transported from place-to-place. They often flower in huge clusters.
Our most significant spring flower is the Primrose (Primula vulgaris) and this is also the most common in Wicklow. Primroses tend to grow in the damp shade of walls and beneath the canopies of trees and bushes. For this reason they have to flower early, as they would easily be overlooked by pollinating insects once other plants have developed leaves and begun to blossom. Primroses do bloom for quite a long time though. They need just enough light. The first bees to awaken from their winter slumbers are the large furry queen bumblebees. They set about collecting nectar and building new colonies from scratch. It's these insects the primroses most visibly support, as there are so few other flowers to rely on for food so early in the spring.
In my opinion the most reliable indicator that the snows are gone for good are the Early Crocuses (Crocus tommasinanus). Frogs will occasionally spawn too early and have their spawn frozen solid, snowdrops can often be seen happily blooming in little pockets of thick snow, and flowering primroses don't seem to mind being entirely covered in snow or ice.But, although crocuses will thrust their tightly bound spear-like flowerbuds through a layer of snow, they won't unfurl those stunning delicate petals and expose the golden interiors until the snow has definitely gone. Crocuses are also introduced plants, but they have been here a very long time (about two centuries) and are becoming quite a noticeable and welcome part of Wicklow's natural environment. They could certainly never be accused of being invasive and could almost be described as shy. This year they burst into flower on Valentine's weekend. A truly romantic little flower, having great timing. Valentine's Day in Wicklow can always be counted on.