In April, there is so much happening in the natural world. If any month surely deserves two editions of ‘What to look for’ blog posts it is this one! In ‘What to Look for in Nature – March & April’ (published March 16th 2018) we looked at the signs that spring was gaining momentum; frogspawn and tadpoles in garden ponds, ‘Mad March Hares’, the first emerging butterflies, hedgerow blossoms, and migratory birds. Of course, we also talked about the weather.
The weather has been the main topic of conversation wherever I go the past few weeks. Compared to the last few years, this spring has been notably cold and wet, with copious amounts of precipitation either as snow or rain, sometimes even hail! Although it has perhaps been unpleasant for us, it shouldn’t be disastrous for too much of the wildlife, which given a plentiful summer, should bounce back without too many lasting effects. The species group that will be hardest hit however, are the spring butterflies and insects. Any reduction on insect numbers in our already depleted environment will have a negative impact on the breeding success of the birds that rely on the bounty of spring caterpillars for example, but large brood sizes are an evolutionary coping mechanism to allow for some losses in hard years.
The breeding activity of our most familiar bird species is now picking up pace. You might spot Blue Tits collecting moss and other nesting material in your garden, or spot the flocks of pairs of Rooks gathering at their traditional communal sites called rookeries, often in the top of ash trees. Magpies, Blackbirds, Robins, Starlings… many birds will nest in our public parks and our back gardens, even our buildings. The frenzy of activity is most obvious at dawn, when the birds can be heard staking claim to their territory with a cacophony of song, the dawn chorus will build and become louder and busier over the next 6-8 weeks, only beginning to quieten as birds enter the summer moult in late June or July. Listen for the Song Thrush, and the Robin, the Great Tit and the Wood Pigeon.
At least with all this rain there will be plenty of mud available for the House Martins and Swallows to use to build their nests when they arrive. Due to reach our shores in late April, these birds will have already set off from southern and western Africa, and will be relying on the weather warming and drying enough to allow a population explosion of flying insects (flys, midges etc) for them to feed to their chicks.
One insect that these visiting bird might be greeted by, is the St Marks Fly. These ungainly, long legged, black flies have the curious habit of emerging on mass at the same time, often around St mark’s Day on 25th April. You’ll see them ‘dancing’ in dark clouds over low bushes or vegetation on warm sunny days.
My favourite insect to look for this month is another curious looking fly. It is called the Bee-Fly and it certainly lives up to its name. At first glance you might mistake this bee-mimic for an actual small brown furry bumblebee, but notice its dangling legs, long proboscis (basically a ‘straw’ for drinking nectar) and patterned wings.
The cold weather may have slowed the growth of some of our wild flowers, but it hasn’t halted their progress. The trees are becoming active, already soaking up some of the excess moisture in the soil to begin the process of pumping out leaf. In Sussex, along the lanes and hedges, I have already seen Hazel and Hawthorn busting bud.
The Bluebell leaves are well on their way to forming a wide carpet across open woodlands and uncultivated banks, and a haze of blue should begin to develop by the end of the month. For now however, the principle colour scheme seems to be a canvas of green and grey, scattered with white, and highlighted with gorgeous yellows. Primroses, Cowslips, Daffodils, Coltsfoot, Lesser Celandine are all flowing now in various shades of yellow.
The highlight of April, in the southeast of the country at least, comes at the end of the month with the arrival of another migrant from Africa; the Nightingale. It’s population now reduced to a few hot spots spread across the southern counties from Dorset to Norfolk, this rural, secretive bird has long been the poets’ favourite. A bird of woodlands and thickets, the Nightingale is largely brown and unremarkable to look at, and more often heard than seen. Good news then that this is a bird that is famous for its song. Hard to capture in words, although many have tried, the repertoire, complexity and richness of Nightingale song makes it well worth making a species pilgrimage to hear. I will be heading to Pulborough Brooks RSPB Reserve in West Sussex to hear them this summer (warm and still evenings, between April and June is best) but check out the RSPB website or the Wildlife trusts to discover a location you might be able to get to or to find an organised walk or event.
April is still a good time to see mammals, before the dense cover of summer vegetation hides them away.Now the clocks have changed to British Summer Time, the evenings are lighter for longer, leaving plenty of time to get out and enjoy a sunset walk. Keep your eyes pealed for Roe Deer in woodlands and at field edges, Foxes crossing streets, fields or parks, or the soft fluttering of the first bats of the year.
Next month we look forward to welcoming the Cuckoo and the Swift, the first dragon and damselflies, and many more flowers. The first fledgling birds will be hopping out of their nests… and we might even see some sunshine!