Rambles of a Naturalist, January and February 1900

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The long-tailed tits have started visiting the bird feeder at my home this year (left) – or long-tailed titmice as the Rev Theodore Wood called them. He returned as a contributor to The Church Monthly in 1900.  And the gnats are back too but from what he wrote maybe I shouldn’t so dislike them (see below).

When studying the hedgerows near his home in January Mr Wood asked: “What are these exquisite birds? Quite a little party of them have all flown up together, and now they are ceaselessly flitting from branch to branch, and chattering to one another as they do so.

“They are long-tailed titmice – father, mother, and  half a dozen children. Family affection is strong with these little creatures, and the party does not break up when the young are able to fly. Until the following spring they hold together, none ever parting from the others; flying, feeding, roosting together, all in utmost harmony. Then comes the imperious call of a stronger love still, and the little ones fly their different ways, each with the mate of its choosing.

“Now they are all occupied in seeking for prey – insects and their eggs, and such small atoms, which they find in the crannies of the bark. Some are on the branches, some are underneath them; for titmice can cling in every position, and no crack or crevice escapes their eager scrutiny. From many a plague of insect destroyers to they help to save us, and great is the debt of gratitude we owe to themselves and their fellow-workers.

“If we had but time to examine the hedge thoroughly we should find just as much life there as there will be in summer. Only most of it is wrapped in slumber. The bark, the moss, the dead leaves and rubbish, the surface layer of the ground below – they are full of living beings, only waiting the warm breath of spring to rouse them back into active life. And we might return again and again, and yet find plenty of strange creatures, every one affording material for the study of a life-time. For one never comes to the end of the wonders of even an insect’s body. There is something very like infinity in the structure and the history of the tiniest  living speck that crawls beneath our feet.”

His description of February fitted well with how the month began this year. He wrote: “February is not the pleasantest month in the year for a country ramble in England. The ground, as a rule, is still locked in the iron grip of the frost; the breeze is chill and biting; and when warmer weather follows it brings with it a downpour of ran, so that  ‘February fill-dyke’. has become a proverbial expression.

“Yet now and then one has a foretaste of brighter days to come, and as we stroll along this country lane, dank and decaying as may be the herbage with which its banks are clothed, there is yet many a sign to show that Nature is on the point of waking from her long winter sleep, and that even now she is beginning to bestir herself.

“For we meet a butterfly flitting along the road and making the most of a passing glimmer of sunshine. It is a Sulphur, which has been slumbering peacefully in some snug retreat for many a long month past, and has been roused for just an hour or two by the genial but unwonted warmth.

“A swarm of winter gnats are dancing in the sunshine. Theirs is a life of enjoyment surely and not a  life of work. Yet every one of those happy insects, before it became a gnat, laboured long and perseveringly as a scavenger. Its task was to help in removing the dead and decaying matter with which the face of the earth is teeming. Putrid fungus, rotting vegetation – in these it found its home. Side by side with ten thousand others it laboured steadily on, and by feeding on this foul garbage helped to keep the air pure just as the grubs of the summer gnats help to purify the water.

“It is the poetry of natural history this study of the life-history of the myriad beings which surround us. And a ramble on even a February day, when so few living creatures are stirring, may afford us with food for fruitful meditation for many a long day after.”

Reproduced from The Church Monthly with kind permission of Aysgarth Parochial Church Council.

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