What's your favourite sign of spring? Seems like quite an easy and straight forward question to answer, until that is you start to think about it. You see spring means different things to all of us, the various natural manifestations that give us that feeling of seasonal joy are very personal and what they are and when they happen depends on where we are.
I'm pretty optimistic and I usually can't wait to leave the dark, cold and dimpsy winter season behind so I start looking for spring just after Christmas. It helps living in the West Country as thanks to the warm and gentle caress of the Gulf Stream, spring arrives a little earlier here. In fact if you believe that as a rough concept spring moves forth in a northerly direction at approximately walking pace, then the most southerly spot could be referred to as the origin of spring on the UK mainland.
So to give you an example I start looking for my first traditional spring-time signs shortly after we enter the new year, it's not unusual to find a ditch or puddle bulging with frog spawn as early as the first few weeks of the year and keeping an eye on a scruffy local hedge bank when we get the first weak rays of sun punching through the chilled air, it's possible to see the very first and often equally optimistic adders, having been drawn from the depths of their winter hibernacula somewhere down amongst the rocks and roots.
Adder by Moonrhino from the Springwatch Flickr Group.
But I've still not really answered the question. What is my favourite sign of spring? Well I tend to go looking for the little things. If you leave it and wait for the big in your face fanfares, the cliche and traditional harbingers and heralds of the season you may be waiting a long time as this delayed 2013 season bears testament to.
While I had to wait until mid-April to hear the first cuckoos of the year, I had already been watching my local adders frolicking in newly moulted splendour, the very welcome sight of a bumbling oil beetle and the quilted plump bloody-nose beetle larvae chowing down on the first upward clambering goosegrass stems were soon to follow.
It is these details and in the minutiae that spring is found for me. These little lives respond quickly to the warming nooks and crannies. It is these micro-worlds complete with their own micro-environment that are the place to go for the eternal seasonal optimist.
This in itself gives me so much choice, there are far more small creatures than the big and charismatic, and all of their lives are kicked into action when their microcosms seem to warm above the magic 10°C. So it could be that my favourite signs of spring would be a minotaur beetle busy burying rabbit droppings, the first tiger beetle of the year, the bursting open of my mason bee tubes and the fuzzy buzzy life of the adults on a sunny garden fence post, maybe the ten-pin clusters of eggs of the dog whelks down in the rock pools or even the frenetic dance of the water fleas in my pond. They all have a case.
For my favourite sign of spring I'll meet you half way - if I can choose one single thing that makes my heart warm a little and tells me, for sure that its life cycle has totally committed to the season and isn't, as soon as it turns cool again, going to return to a state of stupor and hide. Then it is this, the orange tip butterfly.
Orange tip butterfly by brianfuller6385 from the Springwatch Flickr Group.
The male is the best named of our butterflies, even a complete novice to the concept of butterflies can recognise this cheery little fella as he skirts the hedges and waysides, in search of floozies and flowers. He is a dazzling dancer of the warm places and give it a week and some of the females (much harder to recognise due to looking very much like a small white or green-veined white) will have fallen for his charms and will have laid their eggs.
If you fancy impressing your friends with you field skills, then go looking at the underside of the flower heads of cuckoo flower (also known as milkmaid or lady's smock). Choose those a little further away from the crowds (for some reason this seem to be favoured) and you may well be rewarded with the single, skittle shaped egg. Spotting something that stands barely a single millimetre tall may seem a bit of a challenge too far. But have a look for yourself, these little living packets containing all the information and raw materials for the life-cycle that culminates in the perfect spring time butterfly are easy to spy as they come in the same colour as the wing tips of the male - bright orange!
Every year when I test myself and find my first one, it takes me on a strange nostalgic time trip back to that first moment of revelation when as a small proto-naturalist I discovered my first one in a damp flower filled spring meadow. I implore you to find one for yourself, keep an eye on it and over the next couple of months you'll be able to return to this very same flower head and watch your egg, hatch and the incredible well camouflaged caterpillar (it looks like the green seed pod that it is busy consuming) develop, you may even get a chance to see it form its highly cryptic and lithe chrysalis.
That one little egg gives me a 'friend' for the rest of the season and into the summer and it's because of all the above mentioned joys this butterfly gives me, that it is my favourite sign of spring. All that remains is for me to ask.... What is yours?