Other March pages: Flowers • Trees and shrubs • Weather
Put your cursor over any photo on this page to see its caption, or click here to see more March bird, butterfly and insect photos. For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website. For information on butterflies see the Butterfly Conservation website.
March is a good month to identify common countryside birds and their songs. Most native woodland and countryside birds are now in full voice, and the lack of foliage makes them (relatively) easy to see. However if a cold wind blows from the north or east the amount of birdsong falls off markedly.
You can still hear lots of robins during the month, as well as great tits, whose see-saw song ("teacher teacher") is accompanied by a range of other calls, including one that sounds like "see-choo-choo" and a single or rapid series of strident "tseeps". Being used to singing in January, great tits are less likely than other birds to fall silent in cold weather.
The diminutive coal tit produces a similar song that sounds like "see-CHOO, see-CHOO", while the mating call of the blue tit is a soft repeated note. If you hear this, make sure it is not coming from a nuthatch, however. It has four different calls, one of which sounds a bit like the blue tit, only with more emphasis, and another of which has a halting 'de-wit de-wit' rhythm. They can be heard throughout the month, reaching a peak towards its end.
Chaffinches continue their cascading song, as well as making "chink chink" calls (similar to ones also made by great tits) and a sort of metronomic repeated tseep (about one tseep per second). Sometimes this repeated call (known as a "rain call", though it doesn't necessarily or even usually happen when rain is due) has a raspy quality while sometimes the tone is softer. Sometimes two males exchange tseeps monotonously from opposing perches. Late in the month you may just be hearing a chiffchaff, which has a similar call (see below).
The nasal "squeezh" which is the mating call of the greenfinch is also in evidence near human habitation throughout the month and they also make a range of trilling sounds. They are fairly easy to see as they tend to perch on the top of trees or bushes. In addition you can see (or more usually hear) the twittering of goldfinches. Though this sounds communal, often the source turns out to be a lone male: but goldfinches do also seem to call to each other in flocks during March.
All this is also true of sparrows. They live communally near human habitation and often can be heard cheeping from inside a bush. But surprisingly often the source of the noise turns out to be just one male.
Other birds in full voice include song thrushes – identifiable because they repeat a whole range of different phrases. They are particularly prominent at dusk, when they are usually the last bird to stop singing. You may also hear the much less common mistle thrush, which makes a kind of clipped blackbird song with phrases of just four or five notes, and which always sounds as if it is a long way away even when it is not.
Not often noticed but very widely heard are dunnocks, whose song is like a squeaky supermarket trolley wheel and who are often confused with sparrows due to their dull brown plumage. March is also an excellent month to hear the sudden trilling outburst from a wren, which is very vociferous this time of year (but devilishly hard to actually see, as they tend to hide in undergrowth). In addition you continue to hear wood pigeons ("hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo") and collared doves ("hoo-hooo hoo") in March (the latter generally near houses, the former both near houses and in woodland), as well as the throaty "woo" of the stock dove (only in woodland and somewhat rarer).
Listen out too for for the laughing call of the green woodpecker (known as a "yaffle"), a regular sound in March, and the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker. Above grassland and arable fields larks can be heard twittering – a summer sound that rather seems out of place at this time of year. Just occasionally you might also hear the strange cry of a lapwing over arable fields (watch out for their amazing display flight, in which they suddenly tumble downwards - the reason for their name).
Perhaps the most evocative of all birdsong in March, however, is the measured and melodious phrases of the blackbird, which can still be somewhat tentative early in the month but is in full stride by its end – particularly from mid afternoon onwards, but also at times in the middle of the day. Blackbirds should be laying their eggs by early March, and are followed later in the month by robins, dunnocks, song thrushes, and long-tailed tits. Nuthatches follow in early April, but great tits and blue tits do not lay till late April, and chaffinches not till May.
Beautiful though blackbird song is, however, the most exciting moment in March is when you hear your first chiffchaff. Its ponderous three note song can be heard in the last ten days of the month (as early as the 12th in 2014) and signals the arrival of our first summer migrant birds from Africa. Once you have heard one, they are soon everywhere.
Leaving the UK at the same time are fieldfares and redwings - flocks of Scandinavian thrushes which winter here and can still be seen on arable fields and in suburban parks in early March, but unobtrusively set off for home as the month progresses. The same is true of siskins from the continent - a bird more common in Scotland and Wales than in the south east, but still occasionally seen. Enormous flocks of siskins can fill trees with lively chatter, and some stay here year round to breed.
(One exception to all the above was March 2013, when intensely cold easterly winds set in from the 10th and lasted into April. The effect was to take birdsong back to early January levels, and by the end of the month to silence it almost entirely. Blackbirds did not really start singing, except in very isolated cases, and the song thrushes, mistle thrushes and chaffinches stopped by mid month. Dunnocks kept going till the end of third week, as did wrens, but great tits and blue tits were only occasionally heard. Many days the only song was from a robin or two, with perhaps the occasional greenfinch or goldfinch. Chiffchaffs did not appear until 10 April, and fieldfares and redwings were still stranded in the UK until at least the end of March.)
Insects, butterflies and frogs
One reason that chiffchaffs are returning from Africa at the end of March and native birds are breeding is that there are now more insects for them to eat. But their increase is little noticed by humans. As well as the little swarms of gnats one gets all winter (usually seen dancing in the light of a sunset), flies, hoverflies, ladybirds, myriad other tiny flying bugs slowly increase during the month. Bumble bees are easily seen buzzing around, and on blossom or flowers you can be surprised to hear the hum of honeybees or see other solitary bees that have woken up from hibernation. You also occasionally see queen wasps, looking for a place to build a nest. On the ground spiders become more active and under rotting logs woodlice seem to be become more numerous.
Hibernating butterflies also wake up on sunny days in the second half of March (usually if the temperature rises above 15 degrees or so) among them the peacock, small tortoiseshell, comma and the yellow brimstone (the original "butter fly", but brilliantly disguised as a pale green leaf when at rest with its wings closed). All of these spend the winter as adults in some cosy niche, having been born at the end of the previous summer.
More rarely you may see a red admiral, a migrant which sometimes overwinters. Towards the end of the month it is also just possible that you might see a speckled wood (some of which overwinter as adults and some as pupae) or a holly blue, small white or orange tip, all of which overwinter as pupae. The orange tip feeds on cuckoo flowers and garlic mustard, and so appears when those flowers do.
If walking past a pond early in the month you may see frogs mating, the smaller male hanging on grimly to the female's back. More likely you will see their jelly-like frogspawn. Frogs tend to lay in shallow ponds where there are no fish to eat the tadpoles, so you can see frogspawn even in ponds in parks and - occasionally and unwisely - in large puddles
Lambs in the fields
Grass on lawns and in parks is cut for the first time sometime in the second half of March, and towards the very end of the month, pastureland in the countryside is just starting to lose its tired winter look due to new shoots of grass. It is no coincidence that this is also when lambs start to appear in the fields – they are bred to make the most of the spring field growth and sadly most are meat before the summer is out.
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