What to look for in Nature – March and April

IMG_4371The old folklore states that ‘March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’. Indeed, the weather of March is particularly changeable, poised as the month is on the cusp of two seasons. Winter can still make its influence felt, especially in the northern counties, but in my home area of Sussex, March is most definitely Spring. This is the month when the countryside, allotment and garden suddenly come alive and growth gathers momentum. Wind is often a prominent feature of the start of the month, as warming temperatures disrupt air currents whilst weather fronts are drawn in by the shifting Gulf Stream. By the end of the month things are usually a little more settled, although chilly days and frosts can damage blossom and young growth as late as the last weeks in April in the south or May in the North.

Wildlife species that began spring activities in February, are in full swing by mid March. Frog and toad spawn can be found in large quantities now if you are lucky enough to have these wonderful amphibians visiting your garden pond; by April the first tadpoles will be developing quickly. On town ponds look out for the first Mallard ducklings. Feeding ducks can be a great first introduction to nature for young children, but there are a few guidelines to follow to protect our feathered friends – did you know that bread is bad for ducks? The Canal and River Trust has produced a really handy guide ‘Why is bread bad for ducks?” which gives lots of tips on what you can feed ducks on our waterways.

March is famously the month of the ‘Mad March Hares’. This characteristic ‘boxing’ behaviour of the Brown Hare is often misunderstood. Rather than being two male hares fighting over a female, the fisticuffs are actually the female hare, known as a Jill, repelling the unwelcome advances of the amorous males (Jacks)! Hares have a very different lifestyle to the superficially similar rabbit, spending their entire lives above ground rather than in communal warrens. They will hunker down in the long grass, flattening their body to blend in with plough furrows and clods of earth. The young, called leverets, are born fully furred with their eyes open, and are left by the mother hidden in vegetation. The Jill will return to feed each of the litter regularly, leaving them alone each time so as not to draw attention to the hiding place. It is important to leave these young animals well alone if you stumble across one, as the mother will know exactly where it is and may be put off from returning if she finds the leveret has been interfered with by humans or dogs. Hares rely on excellent camouflage to avoid predators and will often stay completely still until the very last moment, when their long powerful legs will enable them to escape with a burst of speed in a zig-zag sprint across the field.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly

With the blooming of the first spring flowers, comes the emergence of the first butterflies. Red Admirals are often the earliest, coaxed from their winter nooks and crannies in sheds and tree cavities, by the warming rays of spring sunshine. Comma, Small Tortoishell and Peacock also hibernate as adults and will become active in early spring. One warm and bright day in late March will see the emergence of the sunniest butterfly of them all – the Brimstone. It is thought that the yellow colour of the Brimstone butterfly might even be the origins of the word ‘butter-fly’.
IMG_4636In April, the flowering of dainty lilac Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo-flower (Cardemine pratensis – pictured left) in lane-side ditches, and the white flowers of Garlic Mustard or jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata), signal the arrival of another spring butterfly; the Orange Tip. This butterfly seems eternally cheerful, bombing up and down country lanes and woodland edges with a fast and determined attitude. Only the male bears the distinctive bright orange spots on the tips of its otherwise white wings, the plain white females are less obvious and bold.

After their dormant winter phase, the sap now begins to rise in the trees, and buds burst into new leaf. Elder and Hazel will likely be breaking bud by mid March, whilst larger tree species such as Ash and Oak may take a few more weeks. After a few days, the new leaves of the Oak produce protective chemicals within their cells to dissuade herbivores. However, this early profusion of tender, juicy and soft leaf growth provides a boom of food for leaf-eaters. For a short period through spring the trees and undergrowth will be filled with insects, grubs and caterpillars. These tasty morsels of wriggling protein, in turn provide a bonanza of food for small birds, just in time for breeding season when nests are full of hungry chicks.

This is good news not only for our resident birds, but also some long distance travellers that arrive in our woods, gardens and hedgerows in the spring to breed. Many of these birds, such as spotted flycatchers, redstarts and willow warblers will slip in largely un-noticed, and quietly get on with the business of breeding. One quintessential bird of spring however is hard to miss. To look at, the ChiffChaff is a fairly unremarkable; a drab olive-green colour with few distinguishing markings. When they start singing however, the Chiffchaff immediately reveals its identity via a two-note song that gives the bird its name. It is thrill each year to hear the first ‘Chiff-Chaff, Chiff-Chaff’ calls, but by the end of the spring this metronomic soundtrack to the season can sometimes get a little tiring!

Two other birds that return to our countryside in spring, are of course the swallow and the cuckoo, whose arrivals often bookend the month of April. For many people these birds signal the start of summer, and are certainly a sign that the season is progressing.

Once spring gets started, it seems the season rapidly gathers momentum and there are new things to see and hear every day. From white froths of Blackthorn blossom in mid-March, to the carpets of Bluebells that begin to wash across the woodland floors in late April, flowers abound. Look out for Cowslips on sunny hillsides, and Cow-parsley along the hedgerows and banks. Trees also have flowers; Oak tree flowers are easily missed as they are golden tassels hidden amongst the new leaves, but the Horse Chestnut holds it’s white or pink ‘candles’ aloft in a beautiful display later in the season. The myriad of flowers attract a whole host of insect life from rotund and clumsy bumblebees to the unique and improbably bee-fly (more about those later). March and April are also a great time to get out and listen to birdsong – the days have not yet lengthened enough to make getting up for dawn into an endurance challenge, and the birds are at peak performance as they stake territorial claims and form breeding pairs.

After the quiet slowness of winter, the spring months are filled with changeable weather, frenzied exuberant activity, and bright splashes of colour. The only way to appreciate it all is to get out there as often as possible and keep your eyes open!

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So much to look forward to in our beautiful countryside!

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