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Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more April tree and leafing shrub photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

7 April 2020 Nature transforms itself in so many wonderful ways in April. Obviously your ability to enjoy that at present depends on how much of it you can find on your daily local walk. But one of the great changes this month is visible almost everywhere except in the most urban of city centres - the greening of shrubs and trees.

It helps if you have access to a bit of woodland or green space, but even a normal park will give you lots to look at. Failing that, suburban streets can have a surprising range of native trees in among more exotic ornamental ones.

You might broadly say that the tide of greenery starts in shrubs and smaller understory trees (the lower level in a mature woodland) and spreads up to the big trees, but it is not quite as simple as that. One large tree that has been in leaf since early in March is the weeping willow, while horse chestnuts - a very common street and park tree - have been at budburst stage (the buds opening and the leaves starting to emerge) since late March, as I mentioned in my last blog. Some now have limp green leaves hanging down.

Otherwise the main action at present is in trees such as hazel and hornbeam, and shrubs such as elder, bramble, hawthorn and cherry plum. Elder starts leafing very early and was about two thirds out by the end of March. Many hawthorns were also tempted into leaf by our mild winter and that sunny week we had at the end of the month. Cherry plum leafs after its blossom fades, which it did in late March. Bramble has been tentatively putting out leaf shoots for some time too, but they are now growing bigger, an important contribution to banishing that brown winter look from the landscape.

Hazel and hornbeam produce leaves which when small look fiendishly similar. (Did I read once that the two trees are related?) They are quite different when fully grown, but this does not happen till later in the month. Normally at this stage of April you can tell the two apart because hornbeam starts the month with a mass of male catkins on it. This year, very unusually, there have been hardly any male catkins at all: instead hornbeams have gone straight into leaf (photo). In woods where they predominate (Queen's Wood in Highgate and Coldfall Wood in Finchley come to mind), the result is a wonderful fuzz of new greenery (photo). Hazel is producing the same effect in some hedgerows.

The action then moves up a notch, with crack and white willows putting forth leaves and catkins. Round my way they already have a haze of green on them. A number of mid-sized trees should shortly follow. I have seen field maple starting to put out its leaves and flowers (the latter are rather yellowish), while birches are producing catkins and leaves. Some sycamores are also starting, and limes and poplars won't be long delayed.

Oh, and notice Norway maple, which is already producing a mass of yellowish-green flowers (photo), though from a distance you could easily mistake them for leaves. This is a fairly common street and park tree, and it really shines out at this time of year because of its bright cheerful hue.

On an even bigger scale, oak trees are definitely thinking about coming out in my area: in places they are showing budburst. Past experience says that a run of warm weather brings them on apace, and this week should do the trick. Beeches generally trail a bit behind, but I don't have any in my area so I can't comment on how they are doing. Ash is currently in flower, though the blooms look more like frizzy lettuce than any kind of flower you might be familiar with (photo): again, it is very common, so easy to spot in parks or suburbs. Last year it did not flower all, so it is nice to see it is back on form. It generally does not have any leaves till very late in the month, or even early May.

In general, if you are not very good at identifying trees, this is a great time of year to learn. Each one flowers in a different way, which makes it easy to tell them apart than it is when you have only leaves to go on. These photos may help you and this page has more information. And even if you don't have the patience for all the detail, look at the overall effect. Day by day the tide of green spreads upwards, banishing all memories of winter as it does so.



25 March 2020 As a result of the coronavirus, many of us, I am sure, are finding our access to nature severely restricted - and at the time of year when it is all bursting into life too. But painful though this is, it is still spring. You can still enjoy it if you have the right attitude of mind.

Our inspiration here should be Gilbert White, a late eighteenth century clergyman whose Natural History of Selborne is still in print to this day. Like us, White was somewhat restricted by his circumstances. The study of nature was a common passion of the educated in his day, but it tended to focus on the rare or the exotic, on specimens gathered overseas or extraodinary examples.

White was just a humble curate - a stand-in paid a small salary for performing parish duties, while the official vicar of the parish lived the high life somewhere else on the revenues it produced. So the only nature he could observe was the rather humdrum and everyday stuff around him. But he did something unheard of in his day: he studied what was around him in great detail. No one had ever done this before, and it is what makes Gilbert White the father of ecology and why we still read him with delight to this day.

An example of White's observations is his description of the common field cricket (doubtless much more easy to see in his day than it is now). He makes the very obvious point that they are hard to study because as soon as they sense your presence they jump away. Yet despite this he manages to fill two or more dense pages about their habits, behaviour, approach to mating and so on. Reading it you think he must have spent simply hours patiently sitting in fields watching them.

Focusing on what is around you in this way is the key to enjoying nature in this lockdown. In the spirit of Gilbert White, here are some tips.

1) Listen to the birdsong around you (easier to hear now the traffic noise is reduced), either in your garden if you have one, or on your permitted daily walk. This is a good time of year for birdsong and you can hear almost all our native species singing. Ask yourself how many of the songs you actually recognise. I find that even people quite keen on nature often can't identify common birdsong. On one nature walk last year, a man with immense knowledge of butterflies amazed me by asking what was the bird singing above us in the trees. It was a robin, commonest of English birds.

So listen to the songs you hear around you, pick one out each day, and decide you will learn to identify it. With smartphones you can often even record what you hear using the video function. There may be clever apps that can then identify that sound for you, but if not this page at least gives you a possible list of suspects. The RSPB has an online A-Z bird guide that has a sound clip of every bird, though if you want to get into the various calls and variants of songs www.xeno-canto.org has all the material you need.

There are fewer birds to learn than you might think. I would estimate there are about 15-20 different songs on an average country walk in spring. The more of them you know, the more enriched your walks will be when we are free to go into the countryside again. It is like having a sixth sense, knowing what birds are in the landscape even when you cannot see them.

2) Look at tree buds. The next two or three weeks are an amazing time of year for trees and shrubs, as their leaves and flowers emerge. Every tree species does this differently and the sight of the buds unfolding is amazing, the emerging foliage looking at first like a weird alien lifeform. For example, this photo shows you horse chestnut leaves coming out, which is happening now, and this page has pictures of others you can see. You don't have to be in a wood or the deep countryside to see this: suburban streets and parks have a wide range of native trees (as well as some exotic ones). But even if you can't identify them, just looking at tree buds and noting their variety is interesting.

3) Don't forget gardens. I am into wild plants, not garden ones, but this happens to be a great time of year to see wild things in other people's gardens. Flowers such as forget-me-nots, lesser celandines and dandelions abound in suburban gardens at this time of year. There are also plants that while technically classed as wild are usually found in and around gardens - lungwort, grape hyacinth, alkanet, creeping comfrey. Unkempt corners of parks can have red deadnettle and field speedwell, and you can also see them growing out of odd corners of urban pavements too, along with such agricultural weeds as hairy bittercress, chickweed, shepherd's purse and groundsel. Wherever you are walking, look carefully around you and you will see all sorts of flowers.

More obviously this is the time when forsythia shrubs are bursting with yellow flowers, and magnolia trees are in bloom: both to be seen in front gardens. Both will go over quite soon, but some street cherry trees are already blossoming and more will follow. These and shrubs such as barberry, viburnum and flowering currant can make an ordinary residential street a springtime delight.

4) Look out for insects. There are some butterflies about now - brimstones, peacocks and commas in particular, so you have no excuse for not knowing them so you can identify them if you see them. But look also at the numerous smaller insects. March - at least when the weather is fine - sees all sorts of bees and flies and smaller insects reappearing. You have to be quite specialist to be able to identify them, but just noticing their abundance increasing is one of the pleasures of spring. Again, it is just a case of keeping your eyes open.

Particularly easy to see and identify are big flat queen bumble bees, usually flying close to the ground, looking for nesting sites. Having mated last autumn and hibernated all winter, they carry the fertilised eggs that are whole future of the colony inside them. This is also the only time of the year when they are out flying. Once their colonies are founded, they remain inside, producing larvae.

One more suggestion I have if you are missing nature is to "like" Chris Packham's page on Facebook, if you are not one of those people to whom he is anathema. During the lockdown he has been producing a daily video about nature in his garden, and has been covering some delightfully everyday things such as lesser celandines and primroses. It is a way of getting a daily dose of nature without even leaving your house.



13 March 2020 A mix of emotions has been assailing me as I walk in the countryside this week. On the one hand this is the very threshold of spring, the long-promised moment when there is everything to look forward to. And on the other hand I look around me with the eyes of a potential exile, wondering which bit of spring I might have to miss due to quarantines or travel restrictions.

It is a slightly surreal time of year in any case, with the contrast between the rather wintry landscape one still sees and the excitements that are to come. The shrubs and trees are still a dreary, tired shade of brown, but in the next five weeks all this will be transformed to bright greenery.

You can see signs of this already starting if you look very closely - green shoots on the prickly stalks of bramble, some opening into small new leaves; tiny new leaflets on privet and (some) hazel; the huge buds of horse chestnut bursting in places to produce their triffid-like mess of new foliage; cherry plum blossom giving way to small new leaves; and some hawthorn in leaf too.

Much more obvious are weeping willow trees, which are already a bright lime-green, a taster of the delights ahead. Goat willow - "pussy willow" - catkins are increasing in number, the males ones white or yellow, the female ones green. And poplars - hybrid black poplars and the tall continental-looking Lombardy poplars - are putting out their huge red male catkins, which you tend to notice mostly when they fall to the ground (which they do almost immediately, it seems), where they look like huge red caterpillars.

A key harbinger of spring is normally hearing your first chiffchaff (its song sounds like its name). The first migrant bird to arrive on our shores, it reliably signifies that winter is at last behind us. I have in fact already heard this twice, but only very briefly, and I suspect that the singers were birds who had overwintered here (as a few chiffchaffs do, apparently). When the migrants turn up, you suddenly hear them singing persistently everywhere, and that ought to happen very soon.

Other birdsong continues. Chaffinches still seem rather reluctant to sing, but in late afternoons now I am now reliably hearing one or two blackbirds piping up. One sang outside my house for almost the whole day recently, but has not been back since, so maybe he changed his mind.

I also set myself to counting wrens one day and got to eighteen, not a few of them dementedly repeating their little riff (characterised by a trill in the middle) over and over again. The relentless see-sawing of great tits is also very common at present. Both birds are presumably still in the phase when they are setting up territory and attracting mates - at such times you want your song to be heard as far away as possible. Later, when territories are established and female partners secured, it is only necessary to sing to deter your immediate neighbours.

On the flower front, lesser celandines are now out in quantity along verges and in woods, and I have seen my first wood anemones. Both plants open up when it is sunny or mild and can be much harder to spot when closed. The "wooden ms" are a bit on the early side, since I normally expect them from mid March. Like lesser celandines, they continue to build in number into early April, when the best displays are to be seen.

On days when the temperatures nod up into the mid teens, keep your eyes peeled for butterflies. I saw one this week - from a train, on the platform of Shalford station near Guildford. It was a comma, and I have also seen reports of a peacock. More traditionally the first butterfly one sees is the yellow brimstone, which always seems to be in a rush to get somewhere else (they are nomadic rather than territorial), while small tortoiseshells, once very common, now seem to be scarce.

Big fat bumble bee queens are also emerging from their winter hibernation and setting off to feed up, find a nesting hole and build up their pollen store. I was delighted while looking high into a goat willow tree last week to see several feeding on its catkins. Another flew buzzing past me as I walked along a path the other day. Each one carries a whole colony-worth of eggs in her, so it is good to know they have survived the winter.

Other insects build up very very slowly. I have seen a few tiny flies this week, and some spiders, but the latter were probably disturbed by me working on my patio. Somewhat alarmingly there was also a woodlouse on my living room carpet today: I picked it up and put it outside, somewhere hopefully more congenial for its long term future.












16 comments:

Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramblinros/13649168915/

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/search/label/April-verge)….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

Sandy said...

Fantastic blog - I was particularly interested in the 19 September one about late-surviving flowers. I started noting down flowers still out in Nov/Dec a few years ago - e.g. 24 spotted on 3-4/12/2014 and 27 on 19-20/12/2015. It was astonishingly mild then of course. I don't seem to have any notes from last year but maybe I wasn't out walking at the right time. Look forward to comparing notes later in the year.

Peter C said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you find it interesting.

December 2015 was indeed the weird mild one when all sorts of early spring flowers and even blossom started to come out. But some flowers in early December are not unusual. Before writing the blog I should perhaps have checked my own December Flowers page which lists several. See http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/2011/12/november-hedgerow-and-flowers.html

Peter C said...

I don’t know why the link in the last post says November in its url. But go to the main blue button menu above the Nature Blog and click December and you will find the page I mean.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Glad you are also enjoying the sunny weather and the May/June flora display. Hope your trip to Devon went well despite the train disruptions at
Paddington the day I went to Hartlocks nature reserve. I saw the lady, monkey and hybrid orchid. Also green hair streak and grizzly skipper butterflies.
Went to Homefield Wood nature reserve in Marlow yesterday. Great day out very sunny. Saw hundreds of Military (soldier) orchids, Greater butterfly, Fly,
Spotted, Scented, Bee and broad leave helloborine orchids. Plus a Marsh Fritillary orchid which is odd. Another frittary is the Green heath and silver
wash fritillary. I shall explore Warburgh nature reserve when I get back from Scotland. Off to Newtonmore on Saturday 9th and 23rd to Mull.
Regards Monica

Mike A said...

Wild tales from the Village
For those of you who haven't seen this program, you may wish to watch it on Iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b086k8db/wild-tales-from-the-village?suggid=b086k8db
It's an animal drama that tells the story of a year in the life of an extraordinary village, hidden away in the timeless French countryside. Narrated by Tcheky Karyo, this tale reveals the parallel world of incredible tiny creatures that live side by side with the unsuspecting humans

Recommended

Sandy said...

If I may use these comments to make random observations I might have shared on walks if they were happening . . . on a walk in Essex last April I came across some unusual flowers I didn't recognise, but Mr Tiger identified them as spring beauty (see comment 3) He said he'd only ever seen them in Essex. So I was amazed to see a big clump in Surbiton yesterday, just a few minnutes walk from my house. Who knows how many times I'd walked past them and not noticed. Hopefully they won't be the only interesting sight within walking distance.

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