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Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more March bird photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

20 March 2019 It felt like spring today and not because today was officially the equinox. Not because of the weather either, which has been decidedly grey and disappointing recently. But going for a dusk run today, for the first time this year I could hear half a dozen blackbirds singing. Add in oodles of robins twittering away and there was a real feeling of being surrounded by birdsong.

This is one of the elements of spring that has been curiously lacking so far. It is as if having got over-exuberant in the hot weather at the end of February, birds have decided they will not get fooled again. Since that wonderful February week I have barely heard a chaffinch singing, for example. They should be audible everywhere by now. Have they all left the country?

I have also barely heard a greenfinch, while nuthatches, which were quite vocal at the end of February, are making no more noise than they would in January. I heard a couple of song thrushes on my dusk run but once again there seem to be markedly fewer of them about than there were earlier in the year.

It is possible, of course, that they have just deserted my area and gone to breed somewhere else. I had the big surprise yesterday of going to Knole Park, near Sevenoaks, and hearing not one but at least three (and possibly four) green woodpeckers competing with each other with their hysterical laughing call, known as a "yaffle". They were at it much of the afternoon. This was more green woodpecker action than I usually get the whole spring.

Even more surprisingly I heard mistle thrushes in four or five different locations. In the average year I hear mistle thrushes singing barely half a dozen times, but Knole Park seems to be a hot spot for them (unless it was the same bird trying out various different territories). It is a strange song, which always sounds a bit distant and is easily confused with an unimaginative blackbird (sound file here). The key to identifying it is that they utter short phrases which are quite repetitive, something a blackbird never is.

Just south of Knole Park I also heard a chiffchaff, only my second of the year. As I mentioned last time, I heard one nine days ago, but that proved to be an isolated example - possibly one of the very few chiffchaffs that overwinter here. I am hoping yesterday's is the start of the big invasion of migrant chiffchaffs. If so, you will soon hear them everywhere, the audible evidence of spring.

On the flower front wood anemones are coming out in force. They are a plant of ancient woodlands and can completely carpet woods in which they are found. But to see them at their best you have to catch them on a sunny day, when their flowers fully open and all point the same way (photo). Otherwise they hang closed in demure little bells (still cute) or if open, point every which way, as if searching for the sun. Such an economical plant they are too: they emerge from the ground, produce three leaves, flower, seed and die away all in the space of six weeks, leaving no trace they have ever been there. If you are looking for a walk that features wood anemones, you will find a list on this page.



12 March 2019 Looking out the window as I write at the rain lashing down, driven by a cold north westerly wind, I can't help a little wry amusement at all those who responded to the late February heat by predicting we would have a weirdly early spring.

While 20 degrees in late February was very unusual, March weather is notoriously fickle. As Dickens observed, it can be summer one moment and winter the next. Just now it feels like winter and as if spring will never come.

But look closely and you can see that it is on its way and proceeding much as might be expected. There are signs of this particularly on trees and shrubs, some of which are putting forward new foliage. It is little enough at the moment but is the start of the big greening of the treescape that will take place in April.

Exhibit A here is elder, which, as is normal, has been putting out very tiny and tentative leaf shoots since January, but now is more generally starting to produce little clusters of leaves (photo). Except when it has flowers in later May or June, or has berries later in the summer, elder is not a shrub that is much noticed. But there is as lot of it in the countryside and its greening up is a significant step towards spring.

The same can be said of bramble, which typically starts to produce new foliage (it keeps some all winter in sheltered places) in a big way later in March. Look carefully and you can see this starting, with green showing ("budburst") on the little shoots protruding from its stems. Again, not much to look at yet, but it will soon have a big impact on the landscape.

New foliage is also appearing in a small way on snowberry (a sort of semi-wild shrub) and traveller's joy (the wild clematis climber that straggles across hedgerows on chalk soils). Garden privet hedges keep quite a lot of leaves all winter, but look closely at them and you can see lots of new leaflets starting. Wild privet is a bit slower to leaf, but has definite budburst already. Some hawthorns can also be seen in leaf, but they generally don't come out en masse until April.

More noticeably you can also see forsythia (photo) bursting into its lovely yellow flower. This is always a cheerful sight and we owe it to some Victorian naturalist who imported the plant from foreign parts. Being non-native, it is quite variable in its flowering and sometimes does not come out in force till April. But to see it now is not unusual.

Large trees do not generally join the party until April, but an exception is weeping willow, which starts to put out its catkins and new leaves in March. This produces a lovely lime green tint to the tree when seen from a distance, which is already evident in places.

Another very noticeable large tree event in March is the appearance of male catkins on hornbeams (photo). My local ones are fully out already, which is perhaps a little earlier than expected, but only a little. I am also seeing some budburst (green showing through the buds) on field maple, while sycamore has had green buds since February.

One last little treat for the sharp-eyed are the pink female flowers (looking like the cones they will become) now starting to appear on larch. The tree also produces little green tufts (very soft to the touch) that will become its needles, it being the only conifer to lose them in winter.

I intended to finish this post by telling you to listen out for the song of the chiffchaff, the first migrant bird arrival of spring. (The song sounds exactly like the bird's name: an audio links is on this page.) This event - often in the third week sometime - is the reliable start of spring. Once chiffchaffs arrive, the winter never returns (or never has in my experience).

But then to my surprise, I heard my first one yesterday, not two hundred metres from my house: a bit tentative, but definitely singing. I also received reports of one singing in Alexandra Park, north London.

So does this mean the chiffchaffs have arrived, or are these two just isolated early arrivals (or even one of the few chiffchaffs said to overwinter here)? We will find out in the next week, so keep your ears peeled.



1 March 2019 It is normally very exciting to see the calendar change to March, with its promise of imminent spring, flowers, butterflies, warm days. But this year its thunder has rather been stolen by the last week of February. Never mind spring being around the corner, for a few days it felt like summer was already here.

There is rightly a lot of concern that there was such heat so early in the year, though a bit of perspective is useful. It was static high pressure over Europe drawing air up from Africa that brought our warmth, and it was static high pressure over Scandinavia that brought the Beast from the East last year. So the same type of weather system, basically, just differently positioned.

Both weather systems were arguably intensified by a weakening jetstream due to polar warming and this seems to be becoming a trend due to climate change. But on the other hand high pressure in February giving way to mobile westerly lows in March is fairly normal, and summer-like temperatures for a period in mid to late March are not unknown either. So in other words the heatwave was a little abnormal, but not quite so off the scale as first appears.

The big effect of the warm weather from my point of view was that it brought the butterflies out. I have always read that some can be seen in late February but have never until now seen any myself. But last week I saw all five possible species - lots of yellow brimstones, the traditional first butterfly of the year, and two each of peacocks, red admirals and commas.

Most gratifying of all was to see small tortoiseshells, however. This supposedly common butterfly has been doing very badly in recent years and in 2018 I only saw five or six the whole year. Last week I easily surpassed that total. Whether it is good for them or any other of the butterflies to be on the wing this early, I do not know, but cross fingers they have a successful season.

Otherwise last week was marked by cherry plum blossom finally coming out widely. There are two types of this, the pink cultivar you see in parks (photo) and the wilder white shrub that dots the countryside. The great thing about cherry plum is that it marks the start of five months of flowering in the hedgerow, with cherry plum succeeded by blackthorn, then hawthorn, then dog rose and elder. From now on there will pretty much always be something in bloom.

My learned friend might argue that some of the cherry plum you see is blackthorn: it is indeed very hard to tell the two apart, as both produce lots of white flowers before the leaves on a rather thorny-looking shrub. But blackthorn mainly flowers in April. You get the very very occasional early one in March but no more than that.

Looking forward, the great theme of March might be said to be yellow flowers on grassy verges. You can now see some lesser celandines (photo), daffodils and primroses. All three will build relentlessly in numbers as the month goes on until near its end there is a veritable riot of them. Dandelions also slowly pick up, though they peak more in late April and early May.

Birdsong is now "complete" in that all the native spring songsters are now in voice. Chaffinches joined the party this week, though they are a bit patchy, singing more in some places than others. Most days you hear one or two blackbirds and they will soon increase in number. Listen out too for greenfinches, green woodpeckers, wrens, dunnocks and nuthatches.

Meanwhile great tits and blue tits continue to sing, though I notice they are now more confined to the late afternoon, perhaps because they have now mated up and are just defending territories rather than trying to attract a partner. It seems to me that song thrushes became less vocal during the hot weather too: I don't have an explanation for that.

All these birds have the countryside to themselves for the next few weeks: it even empties out a bit as overwintering birds go back to the continent, Scandinavia or Iceland. But then at some point from mid month onwards the chiffchaff, the first migrant, turns up from the south. Once you hear its "choff-chiff-chaff", then it really is spring.









































































15 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...

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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

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