Lucy Baring always seems to miss seeing wildlife.
I didn’t think I’d ever met anyone who disliked spring, until my daughter Anna said it reminds her that summer is on the way and then it will all be over. She’s not the gloomy type, but I think this is an unhealthy approach from which I need to dissuade her. Spring, I argue, is when there is so much going on. She looks at me with amused scepticism, because she knows as well as I do that, when it comes to the wonders of wildlife, I tend to miss them.
Zam, for instance, has just heard his first cuckoo. I have not. He’s seen a hobby circling the tree opposite. I have not. I was woken by such frenzied birdsong yesterday that I mentioned it to a neighbour, who told me she’d seen a sparrowhawk take a baby blackbird very early that morning, which would explain the distress I was woken by. I didn’t see this drama.
We went to supper with friends, partly to say goodbye to Graham, who would be retiring from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust the following day. As we sipped wine and stared out at the water meadows, he saw an otter. As did our host. Given that Graham was responsible, more than 30 years ago, for the reintroduction of the otter to a stretch of water about a mile downstream from where we were standing, one could not have hoped for a finer, more magical farewell. My back was to the window.
Determined to overcome my lack of success when it comes to observing the natural world (it’s a family joke that I never see shooting stars), I collect Alfie from school and tell him we’re taking a short detour to an ancient woodland a few miles away. I’ve been told, by someone who knows this sort of thing, that if we want to hear nightingales sing, this is the spot. ‘We won’t hear nightingales and we’ll get lost,’ Alfie sighs as he slumps in the back seat.
An hour later, as we try another path that doesn’t lead back to the car, but which has a bench exactly like the path that does (‘they all have those benches,’ Alf explains), my only relief is that his spirits have been entirely restored at being proved right. He’s positively jolly.
I stand still on the wrong path and try to download the nightingale song on my mobile, for identification purposes. A dog-walking couple approach — they look disapproving (why use a phone when on a lovely walk?), but when I explain the quest, they forgive me. We’re a fortnight too early they explain, but we shouldn’t worry about recognising the song because, once heard, it’s never forgotten.
Liquid seems to be the word most commonly used to describe its beauty. I nod with understanding, because I don’t want to say that my recognition of birdsong is pretty much limited to woodpigeons and everything else sounds lovely and liquid to me.
I come home and add nightingales to the list of other non-sightings. I discover two chickens have been killed, their carcasses stripped bare, but their heads left intact. I assume this to be the work of a badger or fox, but am told that this shows the hallmarks of murder by mink. A mink has indeed been spotted in the neighbourhood. But not by me.
And then I go for a walk with a friend, who shows me a glorious carpet of primroses and cowslips on a scale I’ve never seen before. I ask her to identify a strange white flower I’m pleased to have spotted. She tells me it’s the half-chewed remains of the common wild garlic flower — and we’re surrounded by it. She crouches down and points at the emerging leaves of a stubby-looking thing. ‘I’ve seen masses of tway-blade orchids,’ I show off to Zam that evening. ‘Really? Where? Can you show me?’ he replies. I don’t reply because, truthfully, I very much doubt it.