Sunday, 10 April 2016

White frost


White frost in the Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)
It was the last day of March and as we watched a small group of male Great Bustards on the plains south of home, it was clear that with the rather heavily overcast skies and an unusually chilly westerly wind, they were unlikely to start performing their extraordinary rueda or lekking display. Instead they hautily strode off out of view, leaving us bracing ouselves against the breeze and gazing across an empty field. It must have seemed a crazy suggestion, but stood unchallenged, when I proposed that we drive up high into the Villuercas Mountains, extolling the spectacular landscapes that we could discover there. Thus, we headed east, a relatively short journey, stopping for coffee en route and then climbing through belts of cork oak, cherries and sweet chestnut before entering the gaunt shapes of the bare Pyrenean Oaks.

It was as if we had moved back in time by six weeks or more. Half an hour's drive away were deciduous trees in full leaf, Bee-eaters and Nightingales. But at this altitude the trees stood lifeless, moss-wrapped, and clinging onto the broken debris of ancient scree slopes, the woodland floor dressed with the grey-sandy tone of weathered fallen leaves. Nature seemed silent. Galls as large as snooker balls and appearing curiously armoured adhered to the branches. The road, now narrow and twisting, climbed even more steeply and as we looked ahead at the progressively more stunted trees coating the high ground, we were stuck by the beauty of white blossom, for it seemed that the elfin woodland above us was in full bloom. We stopped because this sight puzzled me. I knew this woodland well and this knowledge strongly contradicted what my eyes had been suggesting. The trees above us were the same deciduous oaks as those around us, but they would be even less advanced in their annual cycle, and besides they do not have white blossom. Despite this reasoning, it still took us time to work out what it was we were indeed looking at.
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White Frost (Martin Kelsey)
With growing anticipation we made our way uphill until we were amongst these very same trees. We stood in  awe. What we had stumbled across was the phenomenon of a white frost.   The unappealing conditions that had dissuaded the Great Bustards to lek thus forcing us to look for alternative distractions, had at this much higher altitude (we were now about 1400 metres above sea-level) by a combination of high humidity, a steady but not too strong wind and a sudden drop in temperature had gifted us something quite remarkable and certainly of subliminal beauty. Only the branches and twigs of the trees and the upper layers of the shrubs on the mountainside had been affected, and all in the same way, with a layer of white ice on the leeward side of the surfaces. Close to the ground there was no icing, whilst above there was this magical coating. The ericaceous moorland appeared caressed by broad brushstokes.

Ice as brush strokes (Martin Kelsey)
What we were witnessing was precious, but also ephermeral. For even whilst we stood silently, the white frost started to crack and groan. Little sections were dropping with the miniscule incremental rise in ambient temperature. Slivers of white ice landed on top of others, thus forming small piles below each tree and shrub, growing audibly with every chinking sound.

We took a road that made a gentle descent, into woodland of slightly higher stature, but still seemingly clenched by winter. We could hear the ice falling from structures over a kilometre away across this still landscape. Here we encountered a winter foraging party of titmice, behaviour which weeks ago their congeners at lower altitudes had forsaken. And then looking down amongst the carpet of the large dry Pyrenean oak leaves, there were hints of yellow. Somehow, rising against the frost and dessicated leaves were winter aconites and tiny narcissi. Three species of the latter would be seen from where we stood: two of them widespread species which I had seen flowering at lower altitudes for over two and half months, but here were emerging nascent and fresh. The other was a diminutive form of the Rock Narcissus (Narcissus rupicola), a species I know from this same mountainside but closer to the peak and only then from mid-April onwards.

Hoop Petticoat Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)

Rock Narcissus (Martin Kelsey)


Two simple experiences had left us profoundly touched that day: to be present during the brief climax of the white frost (its only human witnesses that day) and the seemingly delicate but immensely powerful statement made by the yellow markers of spring amongst the leaf litter and lichens of the elfin montane woodlands.

Angel's Tears Narcissus with dew drop (Martin Kelsey)

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