The Hungry Gap
It’s cold outside. We thought it had snowed overnight, but it was frost, lying over everything like a layer of glistening, frozen skin. It was quite beautiful really. At least it was beautiful seen through the window with a steaming cup of tea perched on the heater next to the chair next to the window…
Starting to keep what amounts to a natural history blog in mid winter might seem to be a bit of a fool’s errand because there really doesn’t seem to be very much going on. Our birds are relatively quiet: the local crows are drifting over and calling (Jo recorded them the other day), but singing takes up precious energy and there really aren’t the territories to defend or the mates to attract right now. There are no insects around at all: no bright-coloured butterflies, no beautiful hoverflies, no dragonflies prowling the garden. Even the winter midges we were seeing a few weeks ago (and which tempted an out-of-season Pipistrelle bat from its winter hidey hole) have flourished and fallen back to earth. Without the insects to pollinate them or the sunlight to fuel them them few flowers – very, very few flowers – are blooming. Without the flowers, pollinators can’t collect nectar. Without the pollinators (and there are usually huge numbers here) our insect-eating birds have nothing to eat – which is why right now our local Barn Swallows are in South Africa, our Chiffchaffs are somewhere down near the equator...and why (we hope) our Pipistrelle is back tucked up under the roof, its heart rate slowed to just a beat every few seconds.
There’s a circularity in all of this, developed over thousands of years, and this is the time of the year when that circle is broken.
Not all our birds rely on insects of course. Many are generalists. Thrushes will look for berries, finches will undress seeds to get at the starches inside, Robins largely switch from swallowing up earthworms to picking up whatever they can find – fruits, seeds, and hibernating insect larvae if they can uncover any. If, that is, those things are actually available to them.
We’re all lucky here in that we have woodland nearby (which provide shelter and the opportunity to find food), and the local fields are flanked by high, tangled hedges. The hedgerows here are old, so made up of different species. And many of those species are berry bearing: hawthorn, spindle, bramble, wild rose. Our own garden is almost enclosed on one side by an enormous yew that leans and sighs and droops as if its own weight is a little too much to bear. Yew berries are small but plump and high in carbohydrates (and very sticky: birds sometimes carry them off and have to wipe them off their bills - each sideways swish of their heads is potentially a new Yew, though obviously many never germinate or we’d be fighting our way through a forest of Yews when we wanted to leave the house).
The point of all this musing, though, is that by early January this natural larder is largely empty We stopped treading on fallen or half-chewed yew berries back in November. The hedgerows are thin and bare, and the ground is solid and cold. Food is very hard to find
This, then, is when our wildlife find themselves in what is known as ‘the hungry gap’. A lean, mean, dark, empty time of year when those of us without windows, heaters and cups of tea struggle to keep warm and nourished (which of course means the vast majority of us here on the common ground).
Can we do anything to help our wildlife get through ‘the hungry gap’? Well of course we can: we can feed them. Hurrah.
And as there is (as I’ve already said) relatively little going on, filling feeders and talking about what finds the seeds and suet balls and whatever else we can put out seems like a really good way to start a blog about being here, on our little patch – and sharing our love and what we learn.
So, tomorrow, I’ll start doing just that. Right now, though, there’s a cup of tea going cold and I stayed up late to watch the fireworks light up the Thames and my head is full of new beginnings and leaving old uncertainties and bad habits behind...and I really want to read what Jo has to say about her walk out this morning (Jo didn’t stay up late to watch the fireworks and is far clearer-headed than I am at the best of times anyway).
2021. It’s going to be an interesting journey and I’m looking forward to getting started - though perhaps not right now..