A warmer patch mid-month was sandwiched between a cooler start and end to the month. Fortunately, we managed to stay dry on all four of the Wildwatch walks! A fairly dry month, so the water level in both becks started to drop, exposing muddy banks.
Once again, numbers on the walks were in double figures on all occasions, meaning that we split up into two, sometimes three groups. Our walks often have an international flavour, with people coming from France, Spain, China, Finland and the USA!
Our first summer bird visitors arrived on the 19th, with four singing Chiffchaffs scattered over the reserve. This was the earliest arrival date recorded at St Nicks – although there was a report of one singing on the previous Saturday – the 15th. The birds were still present on the 26th.
On the 5th, distant views of a perched Kingfisher delighted many observers watching Tang Hall Beck, with a Great Spotted Woodpecker heard drumming and seen perched along the Tang Hall Beck path on the same date. Other scarce St Nicks birds included a Goldcrest near the Story Telling Circles on the 12th and a Grey Wagtail on Osbaldwick Beck on the same date.
Nest building is gathering pace on the reserve, with Carrion Crows and Magpies working on their big nests. At the other end of the size spectrum, a pair of Long-tailed Tits was watched over a few weeks, the birds carrying materials into a bush to build their incredibly intricate nests. Their nesting materials include feathers – and spiders’ webs!
Robins and Wrens are plentiful throughout the year. Now is the best time to have good views of Wrens, when they perch in the open, singing, instead of skulking in the undergrowth. Greenfinches have increased significantly in numbers compared with a couple of years ago. On the 26th, they were heard all over the reserve, with a noisy flock of about a dozen birds near the Story Telling Circles. Song Thrushes, on the other hand, seem less plentiful than last Spring.
The early flowering Alder, Hazel and Aspen catkins are over. The Black Poplars seem not to flower on their lower branches, but their red catkins are worth inspecting through binoculars. Male Willow catkins are still covered in pollen, making them a good place to look for Bumblebees on warm days. By the end of the month, the first Silver Birch catkins were just starting to lengthen, and the small Box Elders along the meadow are in flower. Blackthorn is in full blossom as other early Prunus species start to fade.
The number of herbaceous plants in flower has more than doubled. All the species recorded in February lasted well into March, and all but Snowdrop and Crocus are still flowering. The first Coltsfoots opened at the very beginning of the month, and can now be found almost anywhere on the reserve, although it needs a bright day to see them at their best. Along the bund path their characteristic hoof-shaped leaves are just starting to emerge. Lesser Celandines also need sunshine before they will open fully. February’s Lungwort buds opened early in the March, followed by Primroses, Cowslips and one or two Violet sp.
By the end of the month the first Marsh Marigolds were out in the pond, and the buds of Ivy-leaved and Common Field Speedwell were showing colour. Other species recorded (not including cultivated plants in the Centre garden) were Hairy Bitter Cress, Black Mustard, Greater Periwinkle, Dandelion, Daisy, Groundsel, Daffodil, Grape Hyacinth and Chionodoxa in at least three different colour ways. The latter two, along with large-flowered all-yellow Daffodils, are non-native species, presumably garden escapes. Smaller Daffodils with paler outer petals, very similar to the native variety, can be found near the Dragon Stones. Finally, our report that the Bramble near the junction of the Bund and Tang Hall Beck paths had finally stopped trying to flower turns out to have been premature.
Insects seemed few and far between during March, reflecting the somewhat cold, dull weather during Wildwatch walks. The most abundant small creatures were those found under logs and stones – millipedes, centipedes, woodlice, slugs, snails, earthworms, ground beetles and springtails. These creatures all behave differently when their dark world is disturbed: snails retreat into their shells, woodlice hardly move and worms slowly worm their way into the ground. Millipedes coil up where they are while centipedes run hastily away. Springtails instantly spring off and disappear, while ground beetles pretend not to be seen, posing for photographs until, aware that their cover is blown, they scuttle away.
Also at ground-level bright red Velvet Mites (Trombidium holosericeum) were seen emerging from disturbed earth on 19th and 26th March. Mites are usually tiny, but these were up to half a centimetre in size, showing brilliantly against the dark earth.
Both Seven-spot (Coccinella 7-punctata) and Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) ladybirds were seen in small numbers throughout March. Gorse Shieldbugs (Piezodorus lituratus) which have featured in Wildwatch blogs every month from last August until January in their mainly bronze plumage, disappeared in February then appeared again in a new green spring dress early in March. In the Environment Centre pond a plentiful number of Caddis fly larvae (Limnephilus flavicornis), camouflaged with small twigs and fragments of leaves, could be seen throughout the month. There too, on 12th March, a Whirlygig Beetle (Gyrinius natator) entertained observers.
An early and hairy hoverfly was seen around the prunus blossom near the Dragon Stones on 19th March. Hovering tantalisingly close but not settling, its identity could not be clinched, but it was possibly Criorhina ranunculi which is an early feeder on the nectar and pollen of Blackthorn, Willow and Wild Cherry, plentifully in bloom where the hoverfly was seen. Throughout the month queen bumblebees, not in great numbers, have been seen prospecting for nesting sites. They rarely settled but roamed restlessly over the emerging plants at ground level, making it difficult to get a good view of their colours and hence their species. The probable species were Buff-tailed (Bombus terrestris), White-tailed (B. lucorum) and Tree (B. hypnorum), the last a recent coloniser of the UK, first recorded in the New Forest in 2001 then spreading rapidly north, reaching Scotland in 2013.
A micro-moth of the Agonopterix family, possibly heracliana, was seen along the Osbaldwick Beck on 5th March, The over-wintering hibernating butterflies have started to emerge, with both Peacock and Small Tortoishell being seen on the wing. Hoped-for Brimstone butterflies (see the March ‘Spotlight’) did not appear during our walks, although one was reported to us by a visitor to the reserve
A few warm April days should tempt many more insects and other invertebrates to come into the light.
On the 19th, up to 40 Common Frogs were in the Environment Centre pond, engaged in a mating frenzy, depositing a good quantity of frogspawn. On the 26th, however, the frogs had all departed, and the quantity of frogspawn seemed to have diminished, possibly eaten by Common Newts, seen regularly in the pond.
Grey Squirrels were seen on all four visits, with Rabbits seen on only two of the walks. Along Osbaldwick Beck, one Grey Squirrel apparently had enlarged the entrance hole of a nesting box, and was sitting tight in there. We are not sure what its intentions are!
(all photos taken in the Reserve in March 2014)