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Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Week by Week SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

Week by week

The following nature tips appeared on this website during 2009. I have adapted some of them to make them more generally applicable to other years, but of course timings of events may vary in any particular year, depending on how cold or wet the weather is.

3 Jan: Amazingly, there are a few signs of spring to be seen already. Look for tiny green shoots on forest floors and the edge of paths. These are spring flowers such as cow parsley and celandines starting to establish their territories. Listen out also for the see-saw song of the great tit, the first mating call of the year.

17 Jan: You might see an early snowdrop about now, although they don't come out in force till the end of the month. Continue to listen also for the see-saw song of the great tit, the first mating call of the year: birdsong in general is increasing.

24 Jan: As January draws to a close, you should start to see snowdrops, and also hazel catkins lengthening into yellow “lambs tails” – the first flowers of spring

14 Feb: The sap is definitely rising for male chaffinches, who have suddenly burst into their cascading song. You might also hear song thrushes or blackbirds too, along with the usual robins and great tits. Meanwhile, crocuses are flowering, as is the odd celandine. Spring is definitely coming...

27 Feb: There are now more signs of spring for the sharp-eyed: lesser celandines (little yellow flowers) are coming out on verges, and alder catkins have joined hazel ones (alder is the only tree with catkins and cones at the same time). The first daffodils and cherry blossom in parks should also appear about now.

14 Mar: Spring is really starting to spring now. Yellow celandines are now out in force on many verges, and various other flowers too. Look out for wood anemones (white stars, closing to bells at night) on woodland floors.

22 Mar: Notice this week how hawthorn and some other bushes are starting to come into leaf - the start of a tide of green that will spread from smaller bushes to larger trees over the next month. Also listen out for the chiffchaff, the first summer visiting bird to grace our shores, whose ponderous three note song sounds like its name ("chiff-chaff-choff").

29 Mar: The first week of April sparks off a positive flurry of wildflowers. Newly appearing now are flowers such as wild strawberry and cuckoo flower, while daffodils, celandines, primroses and wood anemones are at their best. Notice also the green fuzz of new leaves spreading through bushes and undergrowth, and green shoots on fields and path verges.

5 Apr: You may just see some early bluebells next weekend but on past form they won't be out in force for at least another week, and not at their best for two. While you wait, feast your eyes on the tide of bright green leaves that is spreading upwards through the treescape, and enjoy the white blackthorn blossom that is bursting out on hedgerows.

14 Apr: Catching bluebells at their best is always a bit tricky. You may be lucky this weekend, especially on south facing downland slopes, but most bluebell woods will not be at their best for another week or so. Meanwhile the tide of new leaves has spread up to mid-sized trees, turning woodland an eye-aching bright green, and road and path verges are adrift with flowers such as stitchwort, hedge mustard and cuckoo flower.

20 Apr: Bluebells will be at their best for the next two weekends - and so will everything else in the countryside. Nearly all trees are now in vibrant new leaf, with ash being the last to come out. Field and path verges are alive with flowers, especially stitchwort, hedge mustard, cuckoo flower and the humble dandelion. Note also the lush new grass, and oilseed rape which is turning fields bright yellow. This is spring's perfect moment - make the most of it!

30 Apr: The early May bank holiday weekend is usually the last reliable one for bluebells, so make the most of it. Otherwise, there is apple blossom (not just in orchards, but on wild crab apples) and bright yellow fields of oilseed rape to enjoy. Those quintessential May flowers cow parsley and buttercups are also coming out in force.

7 May: It is always sad to say goodbye to the bluebells, but May has plenty of other delights. At present, notice the hawthorn blossom (also known as "may"), which looks like great dollops of ice-cream. The humble cow parsley also makes every wayside a drift of delicate white, and buttercups are turning meadows yellow.

17 May: We are now in the exuberant phase of spring when there seems to be almost too much in flower. The hawthorn blossom is fading a bit, but wild roses are replacing them in some hedgerows. Buttercups carpet meadows, and cow parsley lines every path and road. Note also ox-eye daisies on verges, and lots of smaller flowers such as delicate vetches and fumitories.

29 May: Cow parsley has now faded, and but meadows are now at their best, and elderflowers and wild roses are appearing in hedgerows. Make the most of these last gasps of spring, however, for late June brings a more ragged, patchy look.

11 Jun: Wild roses and elderflower are now out in full in the hedgerows, and this is also peak time for poppies. But in general, lowland meadows are starting to take on a seedy summer look. Downland flowers are starting to come into their own, however, among them clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and much else.

20 Jun: Make time to listen to the lyrical song of the blackbird sometime in the next week or so, because soon they will soon fall silent until next spring. The same is true of chaffinches, chiffchaffs and thrushes who can all still be heard. By mid July, an eerie silence descends as the mating season comes to an end.

29 Jun: July does not have the striking displays of May or early June, but has perhaps the widest range of wildflowers of any month. Notice rosebay willowherb on odd bits of waste ground at present, and honeysuckle flowering in hedgerows. On the downs, you can find wild thyme and majoram.

6 Jul: It seems a long time to autumn, but note that in all sorts of places fruits and berries - as yet unripe - are starting to appear on trees and shrubs. For example, while bramble is still in full flower, some bushes already have unripe green blackberries, and on rowan and elder berries are starting to appear. Horse chestnut trees have dimunitive conkers, and you can even sometimes see ripe wild cherries.

15 Jul: You can start to see some ripe blackberries about now, so keep your eyes peeled (most are still unripe, however). Inedible ripening berries of other kinds are also noticeable if you look. Among flowers, note the thistle-like knapweed starting in grassland, and the great drifts of rosebay willowherb now at its height. Birdsong has died down, though there is still the odd blackbird at dusk.

26 Jul: Summer has not long to run: wheat fields are being harvested, berries are ripening, and the last wave of summer flowers are now appearing - for example, common fleabane, common toadflax, harebells and bellflowers. Many other flowers will quietly fade away in the next few weeks, though some continue well into the autumn.

6 Aug: Notice the almost total lack of birdsong now the mating season is over. One exception is the cheerful trilling of greenfinches. Later in the month, robins will join them: unusually for birds, both males and females are territorial, and as soon as the rearing of young is finished they start to defend their patches. Up in the sky, note house martins swooping overhead catching insects.

11 Aug: You might be surprised at this time of year to see dead leaves on the ground, or even some yellowing on trees. It can seem as if autumn is starting early, but in fact this happens every year. As summer draws to a close, trees slowly start to shed leaves, and continue doing so right through September. But true autumn colours don't start till late October or even early November.

17 Aug: As well as blackberries, all sorts of other berries are ripening at this time, including elderberries (edible, but rather tasteless), plums, and such inedible fruits as haws, hips and sloes. If you are sharp-eyed, you may also see some hazelnuts.

24 Aug: This is sort of open season for wild flowers. In theory they should all be fading, but all sorts of July stalwarts persist in favoured spots well into September. Meanwhile, some spring flowers have a second go: for example, buttercups, dandelions, white deadnettles and others

1 Sept: If you are trying to learn the names of trees, this time of year is a good time to start. The various seeds, nuts and berries hanging off all of them at present are a useful aid to identification. Note also a wonderful array of berries ripening on shrubs and hedgerow climbing plants, such as black bryony, with its red berries and heart-shaped leaves - the only native member of the yam family.

9 Sept: It is hard to pinpoint exactly when insects disappear for the winter, but even in the last two weeks wasps, bees, butterflies and flies have become a lot scarcer. House martins also start to head south, as the small insects they feed on die off. But look at ivy, whose sickly flowers perversely appear about now, and you can still see lots of bees feeding well into October.

21 Sept: You can see trees showing quite a lot of tinted leaves by this point in the year - for example, birch, hornbeam, lime and willow. Many other trees are quietly thining their foliage. But it is usually at least a month before the leaves turn en masse. That generally happens at the end of October, with the best colours in early November.

29 Sept: We are about done with wildflowers for the year, but some will still survive well into October. Note September's very own flower, the purple michelmas daisy which is in full bloom along railway lines and on other wasteground. You can also see the big white trumpets of bindweed, and yellow dandelion-like hawkbits and hawksbeards in the grass. Note too the strange sickly sweet-smelling flowers of ivy, which are currently attracting the last remaining bees.

9 Oct: Dry or cool weather can encourage some leaf tinting by this time, but it doesn’t make leaves turn en masse. That usually happens in late October. The trigger seems to be a couple of sharply cold nights (4-5 degrees) in mid to late October. The best autumn colours follow a week to ten days later. If the weather is mild and wet, this month is the best one for fungi.

17 Oct: It is still a bit too early for a general turning of autumn leaves at this time, but certain trees can show fine colour. Limes, for example, can be a lovely yellow by now, and maples are often showing good colour. Horse chestnut used to make a beautiful golden show in mid October, but in recent years they have been affected by a parasite, which have caused their leaves to shrivel before they turn.

26 Oct: With luck there should be the beginnings of more general autumn colour by now. Trees tend to turn from the top downwards, or from sunny edges inwards. Later on, the tints get down to the understorey - the levels of foliage nearest the ground. Some trees - ash, hornbeam, maple - turn in big patches, while others - birch is a good example - present a mottled effect of tinted and untinted leaves. Note too how hazel leaves turn colour from the outer edge inwards.

2 Nov: The first week in November is often the best one for autumn colours. The bellwether tree in this respect is the beech - best seen in the famous Chiltern beechwoods - which turns a wonderful gold. As well as beech, wild cherries produce glorious colour, their leaves orange tinged with pink. Note also the beautiful range of hues in hedgerows on the likes of blackthorn, field maple and hazel.

10 Nov: Once the main autumn colour is over, some leaves can still hang on. For example the last leaves on birch trees make a lovely cascade of gold, and oak trees can hang onto brown leaves well into the winter (and can garden hedges of beech, though not usually the full grown trees). Larch, the only conifer to lose its leaves in winter (but not that common in the south east), also turns a lovely gold just after leaf fall is finished on other trees.

18 Nov: As the last foliage is stripped away from the trees, you can see balls of misletoe and birds' nests high in the branches. The birds themselves are also easier to spot now the leaves are gone, making it a good time to learn to identify common species such as great tits, blue tits, greenfinches and goldfinches.

25 Nov: Leaf fall is now more or less over, but some deciduous plants still hold onto their leaves throughout winter. Examples include bramble and privet, which certainly shed their leaves but never become completely bare. Buddleia has already put out new leaf shoots and the same can be true of honeysuckle. Note that ivy berries are only now ripening.

3 Dec: Nature is now at its lowest ebb, but the lack of foliage on trees can make it easier to spot wild deer. The bare outlines of the trees can be fascinating too. Note the classic rounded shape of oaks, and the way ash twigs curl up at the end. Meanwhile hazel is very distinctive, with multiple straight shoots rising up from its base and next year's catkin buds already evident on some.

12 Dec: Birdsong picks up perceptibly in December. You can hear the occasional thrush in full song, and great tits practicising a few bars of their see-saw mating song, which will get into full flood in the new year. The song seems particularly enthusiastic on frosty sunny mornings, with the birds seemingly as excited to see the sunshine as we are (or more likely, anxious to prove to rivals that they are still alive).

20 Dec: If you look closely, even in this very depth of winter the buds on trees are ready to burst forth with spring leaves. Some trees can be identified easily by their buds - ash has black ones, and horse chestnut sticky brown ones. Alder is distinctive as the only tree bearing both catkin buds and cones. Hazel also has catkin buds ready to lengthen in late January.

© Peter Conway 2009 • All Rights Reserved

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