The Hungry Gap
Winter has stripped the countryside bare. The trees are shrivelled by cold winds and frost, branches snapped, last leaves tossed to the fields. Dried tufts of grasses are flattened by the snow, shrink wrapped against field edges. ‘As the days lengthen the cold strengthens’ – an old Suffolk saying that has been accurate this year as the frozen half of February lapses into a bitter snow shaken March.
Birds are on the move. A flock of fieldfare and starlings are joined by twenty pied wagtails and one day this week, a small party of seven lapwing and two golden plover arrive in the back field for a few hours.
This is the ‘Hungry Gap’. The end of winter when last year’s food reserves are at their lowest but little is emerging to provide new sources. We are putting out seed regularly for flocks of finches and yellowhammers. There are eight yellowhammers, the males boast impossibly buttercup coloured heads with a mix of black spots and streaks. When crouched on the ground and seen from above, the marks take on a frightening devil face.
Yesterday one flew into the kitchen window and I found him, unwilling to fly but able to hop away. After watching his progress, I decided he needed to be brought in from the biting east wind. I managed to catch him as he crouched, flattened against the snow under the hedge. I left him in our “bird recovery” shoe-box on the floor of the airing cupboard hoping the warmth would help him get over the shock and that there were no internal injuries. Then comes that difficult moment late afternoon, to check his recovery and let him go back into the cold and take his chance.
He was still alive and flew briefly from the box but stayed grounded in the garden hedge. I watched a small group of yellowhammers only 30 yards away but he didn’t attempt to join them. Dusk fell and I feared I would find him dead next morning. But at last light, he worked his way up through the hedge, perched on the fence rail and hopped into the adjoining field. I watched his progress as he collected a few grains of seed and I hope, as he disappeared, that he would have found shelter for the night and would recover.
This late winter has brought other new visitors to our seed hoppers. First a flock of siskins, sometimes as many as eight, male and female, impossibly small delicate black and yellow birds, with bright energetic movements and a characteristic bouncy call that tumbles out of the nearby birch trees. And two reed buntings, both male and already in their summer plumage, who feed mostly early and late.
The cold sun now brings some late afternoon hope that spring must surely come soon. We are still on alert for the annual toad migration but it will take a mild, damp night. Sometimes our village toad patrol can collect over 1000 toads, making their slow warty way across the roads to our pond.
As the Hungry Gap stretches into April, we do our best to provide food and shelter for our wildlife and we gain so much pleasure from watching them.