18th July 2018
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Sprouting plants seem fooled by seasons

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ANYONE would think it was March or April. Even now, as we approach the coldest time of year, the darkest seedlings are sprouting in vast numbers on areas of bare soil.

Nature’s sheer dogged, blind drive to thrive, to proliferate, to grow and spread is breathtaking. I stick my nose out in the morning and one sniff of that chill, dank winter atmosphere sees me retreating to a warm neuk faster than a blink. But those minute weed seedlings are made of sterner stuff.

A micro tip of green shoot emerges from an opening seed and, finding the year’s grasses lying frosted and limp all around, makes a bid for freedom. Now, while every­thing else is dying back, in a kind of annual recession, these little entre­preneurs are hell bent on victory.

Within hours the shoots swell, feed the unravelling of two fat little leaves and begin to absorb whatever heat and light the weary sun can offer. Well, good luck to them. They deserve to be left in peace for a month or so.

But back to the sun for a moment. Have you got a spare bit of east facing wall? Is there a small area which receives the first shaft of sunlight every morning? We have a short stretch of wooden panel board which will have to serve for the present, as the wall which receives the midsummer sun rays is out of range for the winter early light. But marked there are the small lines and dates showing just how far north the sun swung this year. Now it’s time for the winter record.

There is less than a fortnight to go before the sun begins its slow swing back again. Just eight days to go and you can cheer yourself with more than just the thought that spring is on its way. This time you can make a tiny dated mark at the point where the sun’s first radiance strikes the wall. You can watch (cloud permit­ting of course) the mark creep along and along each day and then stop. There will be little change for a day or so, but gradually it will begin to creep back again. Proof!

Starlings seem to think that spring has come already. They were in a huddle on the Sundibanks electricity wires a few days ago, singing their heads off. Every time another bird flew up to join them, the wires bounced a little and every bird, thrown momentarily off balance, flapped its wings simultaneously.

The same thing happened when a bird left the party. It made a hilarious sight. They were like well rehearsed clowns, feigning perfectly synchron­ised, well choreographed surprise when tripped up, flailing to regain balance and then indulging in a quick, jaunty preen to regain their composure.

Lapwings, in contrast, are con­serv­ing their energy. An odd one, startled by the impertinent approach of a stray human, rises up in alarm, giving forth an alarm cry which sounds as if the vocal chords need oiling. A sharp, rusty grating squeak is about the kindest description I can contrive, and then they return to the ground as quickly as possible.

Despite the protestations of count­less local birders, I maintain that lapwings (or green plover, pee­wits or whichever local name you prefer) say “whit pee, whit pee” here, whereas they definitely sang “pee whit, pee whit” back home in muddy Essex.

Keep a camera handy during the next few weeks. Low light, Shetland land/water/land scenery and acces­sible dawn and dusk can create successions of marvellous images.

Last Friday’s sunset was a bronze dream. Saturday morning’s shim­mer­ing cloud reflections along Clift Sound were a painter’s nightmare. How can colours merge and blend without mixing? Shafts of light crossed reflections with tidal cur­rents in endless shifting optical illusion trickery. Then against and across all the drifting and streaming, an independent element broke through.

Strange, sudden swirls seemed to erupt here, then later there and at times a mystery hand seemed to be drawing curves and trails across the surface patterns from below the water. It must have been a fish, perhaps a seal, maybe even an otter.

I was watching it from almost half a mile away, yet every ripple was sharp. Something was moving about below the waves, turning this way and that and now and again breaking the surface for a split second. The low, filtered sunlight captured and accentuated every movement.

Sadly, night clarity is not a feature of the East Voe. The same scene is gaudily illuminated by a thousand, wasteful, over radiant street lights. How long will it take, I wonder, be­fore basic economics will force changes to our spendthrift methods of lighting up urban and fringe rural areas after dark.

There must be money to be saved here, not only along roadsides, but in works areas and harbours where vast over provision of lighting blares down, whether ships are there or not.

The technology is already well advanced. Sensors can switch on lights when body heat, or detected movement indicate that light is required. Long life bulbs are increasingly used in homes, where lamp shades direct the light down where it is needed.

Surely street and harbour works areas can be lit by more efficiently hooded lights. There is so much over­spill of luridly orange light at night at the moment that the entire hillside is lit up. Stars, aurora borealis and even the moon, except when full, are hardly visible.

It would be interesting to know what plans are in the pipeline for improving Shetland’s street and harbour lighting efficiency.

There are certainly some excellent initiatives to be found in related areas. Public toilets where the light comes on only while the room is occupied; stair lights which are activated as you enter and which stay on until the stairwell is vacated; outdoor security lights which are activated only when movement is detected; and one of the most recent innovations – street lights which are activated by people’s feet compres­sing the specially designed paving slabs.

But enough on lights, now it’s back to the starlings, which have left their aerial swinging perch and are looking hungry. Time to dig out past-their-sell-by-date biscuits, stale bread and the last of this year’s grape harvest which is full of seeds rather than flesh and spread out a wintry feast. They may have been singing as spring was already here, but it was probably wishful thinking.

Jill Slee Blackadder