Highlights: new arrival, emerging hibernators, and the flowers that bloom in the spring..
Our resident birding enthusiast was absent for all but one of the Wildwatch walks during March, so it is no surprise that after February’s two broken species records, nothing so exciting happened on the five Wednesdays of March. Our total species count, at 28, was six fewer than February’s. The weather was mostly chilly and often wet, with sunshine only at the end of the month. Nevertheless we still found Kingfisher, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Treecreeper, and a few late Siskins on the 9th. Unlike 2014-2015, this winter has given us good and regular Siskin numbers on the reserve, attracted particularly by the seeds in the cones of the reserve’s many Alder trees. Our winter visitors could be either British breeders or Scandinavian visitors, but the numbers seen this winter suggest the latter. In Yorkshire this species breeds mainly in upland conifer plantations like Dalby Forest.
As the Siskins departed, on 23rd March we heard our first Chiffchaff of the year, and the following week this summer-visiting warbler was well seen and heard. A few Chiffchaffs overwinter in the UK instead of departing in late summer with the rest of the British breeders, and two were seen together at St Nicks last October. Most European-breeding Chiffchaffs overwinter in North Africa. Now we wait for the first arriving Blackcap, though this bird too sometimes overwinters in Britain.
Birdsong increased considerably in March and the reserve was particularly alive with the sound of Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Great Tits. Song Thrushes performed only occasionally but more frequently heard was the distinctive short sad buzzing song of Bullfinches. St Nicks seems particularly attractive to Bullfinches and good numbers have been seen almost every week throughout the autumn and winter. It has been estimated that we could have as many as six pairs breeding each summer – excellent numbers for an increasingly scarce bird of the countryside.
Active nest-building was seen among the Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Robins, Wrens, Carrion Crows and Magpies. As well as the Siskins and Bullfinches, three other finch species were regularly seen: Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch. Blue, Great, and Long-tailed Tits were frequently seen, but Coal Tits less so. House Sparrows are regularly around the Environment Centre, while most weeks a few Collared Doves supplement the ever-present and very audible Woodpigeons. Now the breeding season really gets under way (apart from the Woodpigeons who can breed in every month!)
The only butterfly species recorded in a particularly dull and chilly March was Small Tortoiseshell, seen on a few occasions from mid-month. Honey Bees were active on warmer days, while two species of Bumble Bee were identified: a good number of Buff-tailed Bombus terrestris finding sustenance in willow catkins and the few plants in flower (particularly White Deadnettle) and prospecting for ground nesting sites, while a solitary Tree Bumblebee B. hypnorum was seen on the 30th.
Other flying insects included a few Bluebottles Calliphora sp. and the first Ichneumon Wasp of the year on the Gorse plants: Ichneumon suspiciosus (pictured). Also on the Gorse was found a small picture-winged fly Tephritis neesii, a few 7-Spot Ladybirds, and the usual Gorse Shieldbugs in some numbers, the 25th consecutive month in which they have been recorded here. A Celandine flower attracted a small Capsid Bug Anthocoris nemorum on March 16th, and the same day another example of the Ground Beetle Ocys harpaloides first seen last month. The following week an attractively marked orange and black Ground Beetle Badister bullatus was found. Several unidentified small fly species were seen in warm weather on 30th.
Other invertebrates were mostly found under logs and stones, including two Harvestman species: Nemastoma bimaculatum – frequent in this habitat, and (a first for the reserve) a Spring Harvestman Platybunus triangularis. We recorded five species of Millipede, three of Centipede, five of Woodlouse and five of Springtail.
All our January and February flowering trees and shrubs lasted through March, though by now the Hazel and Alder catkins are falling fast. With any luck the Gorse will last through April. The Aspens have a much shorter season – they came out at the end of February and are almost over. The Larch outside the Centre is in flower, and various Willow and Poplar catkins are providing a rich pollen source for increasing numbers of bumblebees.
Blackthorn is out in sheltered places, Field Maple and Box Elder are opening, and flower buds are starting to show on a range of other species, including Hawthorn, Elder and Sorbus sp.
We recorded only eight species of herbaceous plants in flower at the beginning of March but were up to 17 by the end. The Snowdrops are only just over, and the rest of the early species are at or still building up to their peak – Daffodils, Lesser Celandines, Coltsfoots, Dandelions, and Dead-nettles.
Cowslips are opening, and Primroses are in full flower. It’s good to see that some of last year’s new plantings have established. Violets appear not to have been so successful, and only one of the original clumps along Osbaldwick Beck has survived, but a thriving new patch has turned up along the Bund path. Other species newly opened this month are Snake’s head Fritillaries near the Dragon Stones, Marsh Marigolds in the Centre pond, and a few garden escapes – Chionodoxa and Grape Hyacinth particularly along Osbaldwick Beck, and a Periwinkle sp. in the Butterfly Walk. Buds are showing on another garden variety, Yellow Archangel near the Tang Hall Beck culvert. Other irregularly recorded species include Chickweed, a precocious Cow Parsley and Daisy. It’s a mystery to us why we always seem to have to hunt for Daisies. They thrive in lawns, but the play area where a reliable source of daisy-chains would be welcome has only a few plants that never seem to spread.