Highlights: First sighting of this bird since 2013.. regular sightings of this endangered mammal.. babies rescued from the pond..Met Office says sunniest April since records began, but insect life slow to appear on cold and not-so-sunny Wednesdays at St Nicks.
Weather: Variable conditions throughout the month, but with temperatures slowly rising from 7C on the 1st up to 10C on the 29th. A mixture of sunny intervals and overcast, but mainly dry on all our Wildwatch Wednesdays.
Birds: Our summer visitors have now started to arrive. A Willow Warbler, seen and heard on 15th April, was the first to be actually seen since 2013; last year’s Willow Warbler record was a single bird briefly heard, but not seen. The first Blackcaps were seen on the 1st, with two on the 15th, another on the 22nd and possibly up to three on the 29th. Chiffchaffs were seen or heard on every Wednesday; there could be three, maybe four calling birds on the Reserve.. we are now waiting for our first Whitethroat of the year!
Our long-staying, skulking rarity, Water Rail, was last seen on the 1st. It has now almost certainly departed, having been on the Reserve for about three months. A Kingfisher was seen briefly perched next to the Kingfisher Culvert on the 29th.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker was seen and heard drumming on the 22nd. This species has yet to breed on the reserve, but we live in hope, having seen two together a few months ago.
A bird which seemed to have disappeared from the Reserve for quite a few months, Common Pheasant, now continues to be seen and heard. A fine male was photographed foraging in the Environment Centre garden on the 10th.
The breeding season is now in full swing, and we expect to report breeding records soon of Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens and Bullfinches. Song Thrushes have been belting out their lovely songs, and Greenfinches continue to stage a come-back from their disease-hit low a few years ago.
By the beginning of April, a mist of colour was spreading over the trees as more species came into flower – Ash, Field Maple, Box Elder, and later on Silver Birch, Sycamore and Crack Willow. Apple and Bird Cherry gradually came into full blossom, replacing the fading Blackthorn. By the end of the month Oak, Horse Chestnut and Hawthorn flowers were in bud. The last two of these, along with Elder, have been in early leaf for a while. Other species opened more slowly, but caution doesn’t always pay, and we noticed a number of trees with slight frost damage to their new shoots.
A sudden surge mid-month took the count of herbaceous plants in flower from 16 on the 1st to 31 on the 29th. As usual, spring Dandelions have put on a spectacular show on sunny mornings, taking over from the fading Coltsfoots. The Cowslips alongside the meadow are at their best, with just one or two orange and red ones if you look carefully. This patch is spreading well, and new plants near the Dragon Stones seem to be fully established. Primroses only grow in an open area below the Bund steps, but these too are starting to produce seedlings. The tiny pale blue flowers of Ivy-leaved Speedwell are much less noticeable but can be found on path verges all over the reserve. A few garden Daffodils and Grape Hyacinths survived the warm spell mid-month, and the Lesser Celandines will carry on into May.
Early April brought the first Daisies in any significant numbers, Fritillaries, a resurgence of Red Dead-nettles, and new Wood Anemones under one of the Apple trees. We had to wait until mid-month before recording our first Marsh Marigolds, Forget-me-nots and Shining Cranesbill. Garlic Mustard, Green Alkanet, Broom, “Fringed Cups”, Red Campion, Ribwort Plantain and occasional Wood Avens opened about a week later, while Salad Burnet, Herb Robert, Ground Ivy and perverse clump of Water Avens on top of a bank near the Dragon Stones waited till the end of the month.
Having flowered throughout the winter, Gorse and White Dead-nettle are by now at their Spring best. Meanwhile the weather patterns seem to be turning it into one of those seasons where tall species such as Cow Parsley and Nettles make a spurt before the lower-growing Cranesbills and Speedwells are fully established. Weekly observations recorded against calendar dates give an inexact picture, but our overall impression is that most species are coming into flower a week to ten days later than last year.
Early in the season most flying insects need warmth and sunshine to get them going. In spite of the month being named by the Met Office as the sunniest April on record, there was not much of either warmth or sunshine on most of the five Wednesday Wildwatch walks in April. Insects were slow to appear; butterflies and hoverflies were few and far between; shieldbugs and ladybirds were hard to find and most of April’s interesting sightings were found hiding under logs and stones.
Nine species of butterfly sounds a lot for April, but Speckled Wood was the only one seen regularly. The others were scarce or just single sightings: Small White, Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Holly Blue, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. Speckled Wood (pictured) is one of the characteristic butterflies of St Nicks, loving the dappled sun-and-shade of the reserve’s pathways and wooded glades. It can be seen every month from April to October in most years, flitting ahead of you as you walk and sometimes settling photogenically on a sunny leaf.
Hoverflies were slow to appear, but by the end of the month eight or nine species had been seen, four of them pictured here. Melangyna cincta is a new record for the reserve. Several Bee Flies with their alarmingly long but harmless probosces were seen, feeding on their favourite flowers: Primrose. Bee Flies provide food for their young by dropping their eggs into mining bee nests.
April’s real stars were the hidden ones. With enthusiastic observers and log-turners we have begun seeing and identifying more and more of the ground level community, including five species of the diminutive springtails – some little more than 3mm long and therefore challenging to photograph. We will picture some of these in a future blog. Previous blogs have shown the various types of centipede, millipede, woodlouse and ground beetle, and many species of each were found in April.
Last autumn on fungus-strewn logs inside the environment centre garden we saw several False Ladybirds Endomychus coccineus (one of the so-called Handsome Fungus Beetles) a new record for St Nicks. Another turned up out on the reserve in April beneath a log, together with Hairy Fungus Beetle Mycetophagus quadripustulatus with similar eating habits, another new species for St Nicks. Both are pictured here. A lovely little Lacewing (pictured) was seen in the same place, on a damp log near the Dragon Stones. We have so far been unable to identify the species. It was about 1 centimetre long, smaller than most lacewings we see.
Water Vole sightings have been increasing, on both Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks. For the first time, sightings have been three out of the four Wildwatch Wednesdays. This is great news as work is in progress to improve the feeding habitat for this nationally-endangered species. Rabbits were only recorded on the 1st and the 8th, and Grey Squirrels on the 8th 22nd and 29th. Whilst not everyone’s most popular mammal, Brown Rat has been regularly seen in the Environment Centre garden. One was by the Kingfisher Culvert on the 29th.
Common (Smooth) Newt has started to be seen regularly in the Environment Centre pond. Common Frogs, having mated and departed from the pond, left a good amount of frogspawn behind. Given last year’s predation of frogspawn by the newts, a decision was taken to relocate a small amount of frogspawn to an aquarium located in the Environment Centre. This spawn has now started to produce tadpoles, which, hopefully, will turn into froglets, which will then be released back into the wild. The rest of the frogspawn in the pond has now disappeared, presumably predated by the newts.