Seventy at Seventy

Life Begins at 70

[26] The Winter of our Discontent

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[26] The Winter of our Discontent – a Pictorial Blog about Winter

I was committed to four seasonal blogs when I started with Autumn. As I said then, it is hard to define precisely when seasons start and end, particularly with our unpredictable British weather. We can only look in general at the things that seem to mark the seasons.

I will start with some generalizations continuing as I did for Autumn.

To me winter is marked by some or all of the following.

  • Daylight hours get even shorter and we get used to darkness all evening.
  • The weather is generally worse. (I should really just say that our climate is different in winter.) We have heavier and more frequent rain, more high winds, more mist and fog and sometimes (but not every year) sleet and snow.
  • With lower temperatures we have frozen lakes and frosty mornings – but only sometimes.
  • The skies are mostly dark and cloudy but we still get some nice blue days.
  • We have the holidays of Christmas and New Year.
  • People go for winter holidays, mostly to get away from our winter weather.
  • Summer visiting birds have gone and winter birds are here. Almost all birds migrate in the winter but we don’t notice. They may fly hundreds of miles and cross the North Sea or just a few mile to change their habitat. The blackbirds and woodpigeon you see in your garden in winter will not be the ones you saw in summer. But, of course, the big difference for birdwatching comes with the little birds. They are much more visible without leaves getting in the way!
  • Insects have disappeared but they are actually hibernating somewhere. I have put my mason bees away in the garage to protect them from frost.
  • Flowering plants have lost their flowers but may keep their berries and fruit throughout winter. In the late winter this provides valuable food for birds. (As for most things, there are exceptions.)
  • Trees have a different look to them without their leaves.
  • Here’s one I only noticed this year. Moss, lichen and fungi seem to flourish without the covering of leafy canopies in trees.

Weather

Before I start here is a picture of an old thermometer that lives on our garage wall.

You can tell it’s old because it has mercury, now frowned upon by Health and Safety, but does it show a temperature around freezing point. It gets much colder than that in winter overnight sometimes.

I will start with frost. Frost, like dew, comes when the air gets too cold to hold at its water vapour. It doesn’t condense as dew and then freeze. It goes straight from water vapour to icy frost. It’s always an overnight phenomenon. We wake up to see frost.

We had our first frost this winter on 6 November and I rushed out for some pictures. It might have been my only opportunity for the year (but it wasn’t.)

Here is a selection of frosty pictures from a few other chilly days.

The last two illustrate Mother Nature at work. Moss and developing buds both need to survive light coverings of frost.

When it’s very cold, still water can freeze. With lakes it’s just a surface layer that freezes. This depends significantly on how deep the water is and how fast it is flowing. (I won’t go into the complicated science of water and ice.) At Slimbridge I sometimes find that some lakes are frozen but those with lots of waterfowl on them keep unfrozen.

(There is a species of Shelduck that used to disappear in the winter. No one knew where they went. Now we have satellite photography everywhere and we do know. They go somewhere in the frozen Arctic and keep moving enough so that the flock has a circle of water to rest on.)

I missed the opportunity to photograph some ducks and gulls trying to walk across ice but here are some frozen lakes.

When the water is relatively undisturbed it can freeze to form a mirror-like surface. This helps to make clear reflections of the sky and landscape.

When it comes to snow it’s even rarer than frost. Very occasionally we get a few inches settling at least once in the winter but often it’s none at all.

We had a light flurry this year in Mid-January and quickly I was out to photograph what I could find. The ground was not very cold so the snow settled first on bushes and cars.

Well it did just about provide a thin covering of the pavements, roads and even some rooves.

I had to wait a few weeks for another light flurry, just enough for some countryside pictures but not what you would call deep snow!

Weather does strange things with water and water vapour and winter sometimes brings mist and fog.

Here is a distant misty patch in the Forest of Dean and an almost invisible view of the street where I live in an early morning fog.

You will see more ominous dark skies in winter.

Also there are still sunny blue skies.

Although the dark clouds may bring rain the bright skies warn of cloudless nights. When there is no protective cloud covering at night the earth gets much colder so the blue skies often precede cold nights with heavy frosts.

Plants

The fruit and berries of the Autumn either stay on the trees or drop to the ground and provide valuable food for over-wintering birds (and, presumably, for insects and other animals.)

And the moss and lichen seems to spring to life as in winter they have plenty of rain and much more light than when the trees are in leaf.

The most significant and obvious sign of winter is, of course, the trees.

In Autumn we saw the leaves change from green to reds and yellows and browns but then they generally fall to the ground and leave bare trees.

Of course, without leaves in the way, mistletoe also thrives in the winter. Cheltenham is virtually the Mistletoe Capital of Britain.

Now is the time to talk a little about exceptions to rules.

We think of coniferous trees as being evergreen and other trees as deciduous but it’s not that simple. There are evergreen varieties of oak and the coniferous larch is deciduous. Smaller bushes and shrubs may be evergreen or deciduous.

Perhaps the common (or European) beech tree is most unusual. Its leaves turn dry and brown in autumn and higher ones fall off – but for approximately three metres from the ground the leaves stay on.

Perhaps this is one reason why you so often see beech hedges.

I am not quite sure about oak but some oak trees also keep their dead leaves over winter.

The other exceptions are flowers. It’s not as straightforward as flowering in spring. Every tree and plant has its own flowering time through the year starting with the snowdrops and other early bulbs.

I have a Fatsia japonica in my garden. (Also known as Aralia japonica or Aralia sieboldii.) It was given to me as a house plant and seemed to die after about a year. So I put in the garden just in case it was still alive. It grew and thrived. After surviving two or three transplants it is probably the oldest specimen plant in our garden now. It must be about thirty years old and it’s nearly three metres tall.

Wikipedia says it flowers in late autumn but to me it is early winter, generally around Christmas.


The Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is another one. (This one also has several names and is sometimes known as Berberis.) I pass several of these on my daily walks that may possibly be related species.

Anyway, Wikipedia says this flowers in early spring but the ones I have seen flowered through the winter. They have spikes of yellow flowers with some coming out in November and others in December and on to March – in spite of occasional coverings with frost.

Then there is Heather. Wikipedia says there are more than 800 species of Erica, known as Winter Heather. Some grow wild and man are cultivated as small evergreen garden shrubs. They seem to flower throughout the year. Here are some from this winter.

Animals

The reasons why animals migrate in winter are not only the inclement weather but also the changes in plants and other animals that affect food supply. Some birds change their digestive systems as they change from insects to seeds and berries for their food.

England has some birds that are here all year, some that visit in winter and some that come in summer. I have said something about winter waterfowl and may talk about other migrating birds but the animals I want to mention is the squirrel.

Our Grey Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, is an introduced species that has spread and has more or less replaced the Red Squirrel through most of England and Wales.

You see them in the trees in the winter.

And you see them on the ground – either burying nuts (or pine cones) or retrieving ones they hid earlier.


I must admit that I was surprised to see a squirrel in our garden feeding from our fig tree!

I am sure you all recognized the title, ‘Winter of our Discontent.’

It comes from the beginning of the play, Richard III by William Shakespeare.

Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun [or son] of York.

Here it has nothing to do with winter!

 

 

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

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