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Esther Woolfson's urban nature diary
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  Esther Woolfson's urban nature diary
Every year, February seems like an achievement, but one I've done nothing to attain. The feeling's due I think, to the lie of the year, the effort of having to deal with Christmas and New Year at the darkest time, in the season when we feel most like hibernating, when we're entering true winter. Just getting to February feels as if it deserves some kind of reward.

This is the stillest part of the year, the slowest. There's a fear that it will never end but almost unnoticed, the hours of daylight begin to build slowly, begin to add, minute by minute. At this time of year, when I look out of my Aberdeen window, I'm glad that not everything migrates and that there are permanent residents: the gulls, magpies, jackdaws, crows; even the pigeons who come to the garden bird-feeders to take their place with collared dove and wood pigeon, blackbird, robin and chaffinch; the sparrow colony in the viburnum bush. Often, the only thing to lift the day from darkness is the sound of sparrows' voices.

I set up a benchmark of the elements by which to compare each day to the one before; and I measure against reality some magnificent Scottish descriptives dreich, loury, thrawn and note, too, the way days alter in mood with snow or rain.

Every morning, I wake in hope and sit for a while in the eerie blue of my SAD light, which I believe, possibly correctly, possibly not, fortifies me against the worst effects of depression-inducing winter darkness. (Might passers-by, seeing the glow through the curtains, think I'm running a very small cannabis factory?)

On the days when rain has washed away the snow, I release the 14 elderly inhabitants of my dovecot into the gloom of morning. (They're confined during snow in case they can't find their way home.) The floor of their house is sodden and I bale and disinfect and dry and line and once that's done, I'm free to worry about their health, about their feet (can pigeons get trench foot?), about their frailty in this bitter cold and then I look out to see them on the grass, lining up beside the large washing up bowl, which is their outside bath, jostling and pushing into the freezing water, and I am impressed again by the dauntlessness of birds. Bathed, they fly free for a while, before landing on rooftops round about to sit in any glint of sun.

By the harbour on a day of ice and freezing brilliance, we throw bread to herring gulls who turn in the air above us, showing their neat, pink feet. When they settle to gather round us, they're remarkably un-gull-like in their patience, deferring to a juvenile who begs and squeaks and flaps until we feed him. (I often wonder how I'd raise a gull if one came my way.) We don't see any seals or cetaceans today although here there are sometimes harbour porpoises, bottle-nosed and white-beaked dolphins and out beyond the bounds of the harbour, minke and humpback whales. As we walk back through the small narrow streets of the old fishing village of Footdee, starlings gather above us in a small, bare tree.

In afternoon rain in Johnston Gardens, a small public garden of Japanese inspiration set in the midst of an area of bungalows, there's no one else about. Its terraces are empty, so is its small blue bridge. The pines and leafless maples drip over paths, into the waterfall, into the stream and pond where herring and black-headed gulls drift serenely among the mallards. With a sudden dazzle of strangeness, a mandarin duck sails out from the shadows like a tiny, many-coloured galleon. His brown, purple, blue and white feathers, his stripes, white ringed eyes and feathered "sails" are astonishing. It's as if he has been skilfully constructed into a gorgeous floating duck collage. I look among the other ducks for his mate but can't see her, remembering that this species, Aix galericulata, is an enduring Chinese symbol of fidelity and marital harmony. (Mandarin ducks are probably monogamous in avian terms, which are not necessarily the same as human ones. Like most birds, they may be monogamous for a single nesting or season, for many seasons, or for life.) As I walk away, the blue bridge and the mandarin duck are the only areas of brightness.

And then one morning across the road, I see two magpies collecting twigs from the leafless sycamore, twining through the branches, picking and tugging, chatting loudly to one another, as magpies do. Will it be a new-build or a restoration? Magpies are careful, fastidious builders, adding to old nests, layering twigs to make deep inverted domes. (My own late and much-lamented pet magpie loved to hide at the bottom of a deep basket on top of a cupboard.) Seeing them is an event of some significance, the first sign, or the first I've noticed, of nesting behaviour. It'll take them three weeks or so to build, three weeks of progress towards spring and I begin to think of phenology the timing of annual, natural events, the early signs of birds' mating behaviour, first flowerings, the return of migrators the ways in which we measure and understand life on Earth.

The light, too, changes, and though no one has commented on it yet (they will soon), the nights are drawing out. Here February begins with eight and a half hours of daylight. In a week or so, the oystercatchers will be back.
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