Wildlife at St Nicks has been flourishing this spring. Wildwatch volunteers would normally be meeting every week to record – and enjoy – this. Alas, this is impossible right now. However, several Wildwatchers have been able to visit individually and share their sightings with us all. And of course staff members continue to do essential work around the nature reserve. Inevitably wildlife recording and monitoring has been patchier than usual. As is this blog post. Even so, there were still some exciting finds this April that are worth sharing.
This month was warmer and sunnier than average. It was exceptionally dry – to the extent that some light rain at the end of April was rather welcome. Many flowers and insects appeared earlier than usual.
Summer migrants continued to arrive this month, joining the Chiffchaffs recorded in March. Blackcaps were first seen on 10th April, and a single Willow Warbler had made its way from sub-Saharan Africa to St Nicks by the 23rd.
Most of the birds seen all year around were recorded. The larger birds seen on the reserve were Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Sparrowhawk, Carrion Crow and Magpie, with Mallard and Moorhen on Tang Hall Beck. One lucky Wildwatcher had a close encounter with a Kingfisher down there too. All of the usual tits and finches were observed: Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits; Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch. Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Robin, Wren, House Sparrow and Treecreeper were also recorded. Including Herring Gulls and Greylag Geese flying overhead, 28 bird species were recorded for April.
Words cannot capture the beauty of the birdsong heard here this month. There is, however, a great video of the dawn chorus at St Nicks to be enjoyed. And the Willow Warbler can be heard (but not seen) in the above clip, taken by the Sustrans cycle path in May.
Grey Squirrels and Rabbits were the only mammals seen here this month. However an Otter continues to make secretive visits, regularly leaving behind fresh fishy faeces, or spraints.
Smooth Newts have been recorded by members of staff as doing well in the Environment Centre pond. The bones of another amphibian, Common Frog, were discovered in the owl pellet mentioned above. It took some dedicated work by Wildwatch volunteers to work this out. Frogs have been recorded alive at St Nicks before; but this one might have been caught elsewhere, and only digested here. Tawny Owls mostly eat voles and mice, but it isn’t unusual for them to catch an occasional frog as well. And isn’t it sad to see a piece of plastic litter in the owl pellet? Hope the owl is OK.
The warm weather brought plenty of butterflies out of hibernation. All of the species to be expected this early in the year at St Nicks were recorded, sometimes in good numbers: Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Speckled Wood, Brimstone, Orange-tip, and Large, Small and Green-veined Whites. The caterpillars of some of these butterflies have rather specific dietary requirements, well-catered for at St Nicks. For example Orange-tips prefer the Garlic Mustard abundant here, and Brimstones need Alder Buckthorn shrubs. The same applies to moths (few of which were spotted this month); the silky tents on Bird Cherries were probably woven by the caterpillars of the Bird-cherry Ermines.
Most of the common bumblebees were buzzing about in April: Buff-tailed, White-tailed, Red-tailed, Garden and Tree Bumblebees, and Common Carder Bees. A single Vestal Cuckoo Bee was observed sunbathing near the Dragonstones; she rapidly flew away when disturbed, together with a (probably harmless) mite hitchhiker. Bees like her really are like cuckoos – they seek out the nests of other bumblebees, kill the queens and make the resident workers bring up their own broods of young. Many bees don’t live in colonies like Bumblebees and Honey Bees. Several species of such solitary bees were seen this month, including Hairy-footed Flower Bees, Tawny Mining Bees and Red Mason Bees.
Several species of flies were spotted, especially hoverflies. Many of these mimic bees and wasps to avoid predation by birds. Another, Rhingia campestris has a horn like a rhino – unlikely to have evolved to deter lions. Dark-bordered Bee Flies were common this month: their larvae parasitize the nest-chambers of mining bees.
Four species of ladybirds were observed in April: 7-spot, 14-spot, Orange and Harlequin. Another distinctive beetle seen often was the iridescent blue-black Alder Leaf Beetle. Trickier to spot were tiny Gorse Weevils, which were to be found alongside Gorse Shieldbugs on the expected shrubs.
A Duck Mussel shell was seen in Tang Hall Beck. This hefty freshwater mollusc (they grow up to 12cm long) might have provided the passing Otter with a tasty snack. Brown-lipped Snails, Cepaea nemoralis were also observed; these are much less common at St Nicks than their White-lipped relatives. They are Britain’s largest native terrestrial snail – the familiar Garden Snail having been accidentally introduced by humans long ago.
April began at St Nicks with bushes swathed in snowy Blackthorn blossom. As the month progressed it was gradually replaced by pink Apple flowers, white spikes of Bird Cherry and creamy clusters of Rowan blossom. And by the beginning of May Hawthorn, or “Mayflower”, was already well in bloom. Greenish tree flowers were equally abundant, but less obvious: Oaks, Ashes, Sycamores, Field and Norway Maples.
Primroses and other flowers of early spring gradually faded away, although their Cowslip cousins put on a good show throughout the month. By woodland paths white-flowered Wild Garlic, Cow Parsley and Garlic Mustard sprang up alongside the blues of Wood Forget-me-not and Green Alkanet, and the pinks of Red Campion. There were Sweet Violets too, although – adding to this colourful confusion – some clumps of these were actually white.
Other flowers have only yet established themselves in a few places at St Nicks, but were well worth looking out for. These include several woodland plants: deep purple Ground Ivy, yellow Mock Strawberry, white star-shaped Wood Anemone, and just-plain-weird Cuckoo Pint. The raised beds at the Bull Lane entrance showed off two brilliant gold – but otherwise very different – flowers, Welsh Poppy and Spanish Gorse. And, despite being unusually dry, the wet grassland area behind Rawdon Avenue saw Water Avens and a good number of Fritillaries nod away prettily.
Fungi, galls and other organisms
Few fungi of interest were noticed by the few Wildwatchers who could visit St Nicks this month. More surprisingly, four plant galls were seen that have probably not been recorded here before. Yew had been galled by the tiny midge Taxomyia taxi, and Hawthorn by the aphid Dysaphis crataegi. And Bird Cherries north of Osbaldwick Beck had the galls of both the mite Phyllocoptes eupadi on their leaves and the fungus Taphrina padi on their flowers.
On 1st April this remarkable photograph of a fairy was taken at this site. It joins the ranks of the smaller-than-teasel-head elves recorded earlier this year. What wonderful creatures live here. Let’s hope we can all see St Nicks for ourselves again soon, and not just rely on our imaginations.
This post was written by a member of the Wildwatch volunteer group, with all photos taken by Wildwatchers at St Nicks.