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23 March 2017 Even though as I write the weather has taken a step backwards, spring is now coming thick and fast. Some years the start of spring proper is delayed a bit into April, but this year it is already going full steam ahead.
There are so many milestones that we are passing. Lesser celandines (photo) are now out in big quantities, though when the air is cooler they remain tight shut (photo) and can be almost invisible. They have this in common with wood anemones, those lovely flowers of ancient woodland, which are now also coming out in force. Catch them on a warm or sunny day and they look like this, but otherwise they are closed up into little white bells.
One of the characteristics of spring flowers is they seem to like to form big mats - probably because they have evolved to make the most of available space and light before tree foliage comes out and taller summer plants smother them. For example, notice the way that red deadnettles can form large colonies on odd bits of bare verge and wasteground (photo). Primroses can do the same on favoured banks. The humble dandelion also can completely dominate fields in April, but for the moment is only around in isolated examples.
The other big spring change is the greening up of shrubs and trees. What I call the "green tide" really starts in April and in two to three weeks it completely changes the landscape from one of brown twigs to bright green foliage.
But look closely and you can see ever so many signs of it now. Most noticeably, weeping willows are a bright lime green from their new leaf shoots and catkins, and also among the big trees you may notice horse chestnut starting to leaf, its new foliage looking positively alien at first (photo).
We are also starting to see new leaves on hazel (photo), and on shrubs there is a positive riot of activity. You might start with the humble privet hedge, which borders many a garden and which now has tiny new leaf shoots all over (photo), joining the older ones that have been there all winter (for privet is semi-evergreen). There is a wild version of this plant with narrower leaves which does the same.
Then again, in just the last ten days or so, buddleia, another semi-evergreen, shrub has bulked up its foliage dramatically, and elder is also adding leaves. Snowberry foliage is out, while on cherry plums the lovely white blossom is giving way to leaves, or - in some cases - leaves are appearing without the plant flowering at all.
Replacing the cherry plum blossom in a few places is the very similar looking blackthorn and in my locality at least there is mass budburst on blackthorns meaning many a hedgerow will soon be a riot of white flowers. Wild rose - dog or burnet roses - are also putting out leaf shoots and so is bramble. The latter is a very important plant because it is so ubiquitous and soon will be contributing lots of new greenery to the landscape. The same is true of hawthorn, where leafing is now spreading from smaller, younger ones (which often leaf early) to the more mature bushes.
Cross fingers, the weather forecast is currently forecasting more settled weather from the weekend onwards. Introduce a bit of warm sun and just see how everything lets rip.
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16 March 2017 For two days this week it was definitely spring - not springlike, but actual spring. And that was not just because it was sunny and the temperature was into the high teens, but because I heard my first chiffchaffs of the year.
A nondescript bird, whose song would definitely not win any talent contests (sound clip), it is nevertheless the most exciting sound of the year because it is our first migrant, arriving from southern Europe or northern Africa.
I heard my first one this year on Monday 13th near Shalford, Surrey, just outside Guildford. There was just the one brief outburst of song, and the thought occurred to me that a few chiffchaffs do overwinter here and it was just possible that this was one such bird, enthused by the warm weather. But yesterday just to the north of London I heard eight of nine of them, three singing at once at one point. That suggests to me that the main invasion has arrived.
Famous last words, but I have never known chiffchaffs to be wrong about the weather. That is, they never arrive and then get caught in some Arctic cold snap. When they arrive a bit early (as this year), spring starts early, and when they are late (eg in 2013 when they did not come till mid April), it is because spring starts late. Heaven knows where they get their weather forecasts but the Met Office could learn something from them.
The other great sign of spring is the return of butterflies. My great nature passion is for wildflowers, but butterflies almost equals it, and I am bereft in autumn and winter when none are to be seen. Having them back is a big delight.
The butterflies you see at this time of year have hibernated. Or to be exact - and I am grateful to the BBC's Winterwatch for this explanation - they have not. Hibernation is a thing some mammals do, slowing their metabolism down dramatically, but insects are much cleverer. They diapause. They simply switch off their metabolism altogether, not aging at all. Amazingly they can flick back into life in a moment if disturbed, but generally they stay inactive all winter.
When a day comes in spring when the sun is shining and the temperature is 15 degrees or more - and even in early March it can seem that such a day will never come - the diapausing butterflies emerge and look for mates. The ones that do this are the lovely yellow brimstone, the peacock, the comma and the small tortoiseshell (also some speckled woods, but it may be a couple of weeks before you see them).
I am happy to say that I have seen all four of these this week, as well as a red admiral. The red admiral is not officially an overwintering butterfly but some do seem to survive the winter. The assumption is that they don't go on to breed, because this butterfly is a migrant and the first wave of them does not arrive till May, and then they are already mated females. But it is just possible, I suppose, that some do overwinter and mate. Science is still considering the question.
Anyway, these five butterflies are gratifyingly easy to identify. The peacock and red admiral are familiar even to non-nature lovers and the brimstone is yellow. The comma has a jagged wing edge which is like no other butterfly. The small tortoiseshell likes to bask in the sun on footpaths and you often see one when it flies up as you approach. You can see photos of all these butterflies, and indeed all the ones you are likely to see on a walk in the south east, on this page.
I have already gone on long enough and there is still more to say. Cherry plum blossom is at its best but about to fade. Hawthorn catkins are out. Weeping willow is shining lime green in the landscape. That is another sign of spring: when there is more happening than I have room to describe.
9 March 2017 I am very pleased with the way March is going so far. For a start the weather, while it has been very changeable, is definitely coming from the right direction - the west. Spring comes from the west, while winds from the east or north mean a return of winter. So let it rain a bit so long as we also have some sunny intervals and temperatures remain on the mild side.
I am also ticking lots of the right nature boxes this year. Spring timings can be very fickle, depending on how cold or otherwise it is, so some years you expect to see things and they don't happen. Last year, for example, we waited all month to see wood anemones (photo) and hardly got any: even in April their numbers were muted.
But this year I have already seen some in flower - in a wood near Wittersham in East Sussex. That is freakishly early but in other places I am certainly seeing the beginnings of their leaves poking out of the ground. Typically you might expect to see them in flower from mid month, peaking in the first half of April.
Wood anemones are woodland flowers - nothing like as common as bluebells but found in quite a lot of ancient woods across the south east. They can carpet the woodland floor or be mixed in with bluebells. Their star-shaped flowers only open up if the weather is reasonably warm: at night or on cold days they close to demure little bell shapes.
This adaptation to cold is found in another March flower - the lesser celandine (photo). In April you will see so many of these you will get bored of them: now they are to be found in ones or twos on lane or path verges or (sometimes) in woodland. But on a cold or particularly overcast day you won't see any of them, since they close up tight into what look like yellow buds. They also have a rather charming habit of going to bed early - even on sunny days they start to close up at 4pm or so.
At about the same time you often hear blackbirds starting to sing. There is surely no sound more evocative of the season than this, and while you can hear it at any time of day, it is remarkable how often these birds pipe up around 4pm or so. They convey the lovely idea that the day's work is over and it is now time to sit on a TV aerial or treetop and sing. Of course, it is not really relaxation but deadly serious competition for territory and mates. But one likes to think that the blackbirds enjoy singing as much as we enjoy hearing it.
I have not heard a lot of blackbirds yet, but they are slowly increasing in number. You can also hear chaffinches, song thrushes, greenfinches, robins, great tits, blue tits. Wrens also occasionally, though usually they get more vocal than this in March. I also hear worryingly few woodpeckers these days (either the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker or the laughing call of the green woodpecker), and almost no mistle thrushes (their song - recording - is like a blackbird with poor vocabulary). All of these are birds you might hear on a country walk at present.
If you can't identify any of these, simply notice how the variety and quantity of birdsong is increasing. And listen out for this sound - the chiffchaff. If you hear one of those, you know spring has really arrived, as they are the first migrant to arrive from the south. Typically they turn up sometime in the last ten days of March, so keep your ears peeled.