This is the time of the year when we start looking for the signs of spring and they are already there if you know where to look. Butterburs are just pushing through the ground in the traditional place such as the roadside verges just south of Newhall Point near Udale Bay on the Black Isle. There is another colony on the sides of the road just south of Dores on the side of Loch Ness. Snowdrop leaves are well up and even if the snow persists the delicate white flowers will push their way through providing it is not too deep. Little wonder that one local name them is “snow piercer”. How the flower manages this is because of a small leaflet like sheath that covers the top of the flowering stems so they can force their way through the snow.
Snowdrops are mainly a woodland plant although they will not tolerate dense shade. It is frequent in parks, gardens, road verges and watercourses but one of its favourite places are churchyards. This suggests that it is not a native plant but was introduced . Surprisingly it is not very widespread in the Highlands. It occurs in a few place around Inverness and is commoner along the east coast to Aberdeen. Elsewhere it is absent from vast tracts of the countryside with a few records for the coast of Caithness and a couple of sites on the west coast. It seems to be absent from the Western and Northern Isles. In the UK it was known in cultivation since 1597 but not found in the wild until 1778. For a long time it was thought that in a few places it was native but now it is assumed they are all alien plants. Newhall Point is one of the very few places where you can see colonies of butterbur and snowdrops together and it is quite impressive.
The earliest of the willows, often called “pussy willows”, are beginning to show and these play an important part as a food source for the first of the bird migrants, the warblers, when they arrive. The yellow pollen attracts the first insects and they are important for the first warblers as they need to pack in food after their long migration from their winter quarters in West Africa. Every year I look in the Highland Bird Reports for the previous years and look at the interesting list of first and last dates for migrants. These indicate that one of the first migrants is the willow warbler and the most likely places to see or hear them are around pussy willows and their insects. Interestingly one of the very first migrants is the osprey and one of the main reasons for this is that their main food is fish. These they can get from lochs, larger lochans and rivers whilst they will, given the opportunity, go for fish farms. If these various areas ice over then, even in very freezing weather, they can resort to the firths around Inverness.
The earliest of the resident birds will already be thinking of nesting and they will already be in their territories. Golden eagles, herons and dippers are amongst the first and in the case of the golden eagle and heron they will already be adding refurbishing material to the huge nests. The dipper may well have stayed in it’s territory on inland rivers and even burns all through the winter. It is one of the few birds that can be heard singing in the winter months and it does this to advertise that it is in territory so female dippers are welcome but not males.