New life sprung forth this March at St Nicks – as always. Despite inevitable difficulties, the Wildwatch team was still able to enjoy some great wildlife sightings.
Wildwatch groups met as usual on the Wednesday mornings of the 4th and 11th of March – seventeen of us on the latter date. (What a long time ago this now seems). Eight of us were still able to meet on the 18th for a socially distanced session. Since then wildlife recording at St Nicks has had to become much more fragmentary. Fortunately several Wildwatch volunteers and members of staff live close enough to regularly walk through the reserve. They have been sharing their – often fascinating – sightings with the rest of us.
This was a fairly typical March, though rather dry – in contrast to the deluges of February. It was cold and drizzly during the session on the 18th, but the month ended with some beautifully warm sunny weather.
Tawny Owls are occasionally heard hooting at St Nicks after dark, but have never bred here before. Everybody on the Wildwatch session of the 18th was therefore thrilled to see an owlet near the top of a tree. At this stage they are called “branchlings”: still unable to fly, they are nimble climbers, and this is the best place for them to sit out the day, waiting for their elusive parents to feed them by night.
Otherwise, March was a fairly normal month for spring-time birds at St Nicks. Normal for the birds, but always providing fresh delights for those Wildwatchers who could attend. A total of 30 species were recorded this month, with a maximum of 25 on any one day.
None of the regular winter visitors were seen this month. However Treecreepers and Goldcrests, which usually vanish from here during the summer months, were still around in the second half of March. Perhaps they, too, will breed here soon. Chiffchaffs were the first summer migrants to be heard, repetitively singing their names on the 18th – unusually early for this site.
Many of St Nicks’ resident birds could be seen – and heard – on most visits, including Woodpigeons, Carrion Crows, Magpies, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Wrens, Robins, Dunnocks and House Sparrows. As always, Blue Tits were one of the most frequently seen birds, though Coal Tits were scarcer. One Great Tit was observed laboriously pecking open a hazelnut; and a beautifully snug nest of Long-tailed Tits was found deep inside a prickly bush. All four of our finches were conspicuous: Goldfinch, Bullfinch, Greenfinch and Chaffinch. Mallards and Moorhens could usually be seen on Tang Hall Beck.
A Sparrowhawk and Collared Doves were observed once or twice. So too were Great-spotted Woodpeckers – two of these were heard drumming simultaneously on the 4th. We saw Greylag and Canada Geese, Herring Gulls and Jackdaws flying overhead.
Grey Squirrels can be seen on almost any visit to St Nicks. Rabbits and Brown Rats are shier, but can be spotted fairly often. More exciting were sightings from a lone Wildwatcher on 25th March. Not only did she see a Fox, but also noticed signs – footprints and spraints (faeces) – that an Otter continues to pass along Tang Hall Beck, as has been reported before. And on the 30th two Water Voles were observed by a member of staff. These are present further upstream on Osbaldwick Beck, and continue to appear on the reserve, if only rather sporadically over the last couple of years.
A single Smooth Newt was found hibernating under a log on the 4th. We would normally expect to have seen several of these swimming around and spawning in the Environment Centre pond by the end of March; St Nicks staff report that this is the case.
Butterflies and bees are just as much harbingers of spring as singing birds. Despite an increasing lack of experienced observers as the month wore on, several of the expected species of both were recorded. Butterflies emerging from hibernation – as adults or otherwise – included Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Brimstone. A Green-veined White chrysalis that was seen every week over the winter had disappeared by 25th March. An adult of this species was noticed nearby shortly afterwards: we Wildwatchers fervently believe that this was a case of metamorphosis, not of predation by Blue Tit.
Buff-tailed Bumblebees were commonest of their kind this month. Red-tailed and Tree Bumblebees were also seen buzzing around, either nectaring on flowers or seeking out suitable nest sites. One of our most distinctive solitary bees, the Hairy-footed Flower Bee made a welcome return to St Nicks on the 11th. Just a decade or so ago these were rarely seen in northern England; unlike so many other organisms, these are benefiting from climate change.
We saw two fly species that mimic bees. A type of hoverfly, sometimes called a dronefly, Eristalis sp., frequented Blackthorn blossom in particular. Dark-edged Bee-flies also darted about; females lay their eggs whilst hovering near the entrance to the nest chambers of mining bees, where their larvae feed upon the bees’ offspring and food stores. These remarkable insects are described more fully in a recent St Nicks Spotlight post.
Rooting around in leaf-litter and under logs revealed other beetles such as a Black Clock Beetle, Pterostichus madidus, another ground beetle, Nebria sp., and a rove beetle, Quedius sp. These dark and damp habitats are home to many other arthropods (basically, segmented animals with limbs and tough-but-flexible body-armour). These included various springtails, bright red velvet mites, the centipede Lithobius fortificatus, and the millipede Cylindroiulus caeruleocinctus.
As well as the five species of woodlouse commonly found at St Nicks, another one was recorded this month, perhaps only for the second time here. This was the translucent and rather pretty (for a woodlouse, anyway) Rosy Woodlouse. Another local rarity, a Woodlouse Spider, Dysdera crocata, was also seen. This handsome little beast has fearsome jaws powerful enough to penetrate its prey’s armour.
We saw plenty of molluscs, too. These included Girdled, Strawberry and Garlic Snails – the last of which really does live up to its name when sniffed. Several slug species were recorded. These can be challenging to identify; for example, we had to remember that Arion distinctus has orange mucus only on the sole of its foot, whereas Arion subfuscus has this only on its body. Except in appearance, these creatures are rather like the (human) recycling team at St Nicks: both do vital, but easily overlooked, work for their communities.
Snowdrops, Winter Aconites and other early flowers were still looking pretty at the beginning of March, but soon withered. Lungworts and Wild Daffodils lasted longer, though were past their prime by the month’s end. Several clumps of a naturalized garden plant, Glory-of-the-snow, did well this year; also known as Forbes’ Squill, this attractive flower is better known by gardeners as Chionodoxa ‘Pink Giant’, although it has recently been reclassified by botanists as a Scilla. (Take your pick for the name: just please don’t pick the flowers!)
Coltsfoot was at its best this month, shining brightly around the Dragonstones especially. Primroses did well this year in the grassland area near the steps up to the southern end of the Bund; their close relatives in the Primula genus, Cowslips, also flowered in increasing numbers as March progressed. After a slow start, Lesser Celandines became abundant, notably around Osbaldwick Beck. This was a good place to see Sweet Violets, too, including clumps of its white-flowered variant. Some sleuthing was required to find Early Dog-Violet, Viola reichenbachiana, under the hedge around the Environment Centre (appropriately enough, as Sherlock Holmes fans might appreciate from its scientific name). Wood Forget-me-not and Green Alkanet added their blue flowers to the floral palette, as well.
Wood Anemone is still rather uncommon at St Nicks, but by the end of March it was flowering in a few clumps next to woodland paths. Another plant more typical of ancient woodland, Wild Garlic, aka Ramsons, was flourishing pungently, but was not yet in flower. Only a single Fritillary was seen at the end of the month, but many more of these distinctive lampshade-shaped flowers are to be expected in April.
Through most of March Blackthorn was by far the most abundant tree blossom at St Nicks, whole bushes being awash with its foamy white sprays of flowers. We could be in for a bumper crop of its fruits, sloes, this autumn. Wild Cherry continued to bloom throughout the month, as did the catkins of Alder and willows. By the very end of the month the inconspicuous but plentiful greenish flowers of Ash and Norway Maple were opening.
It’s easy to overlook weedy little plants. Some, such as Hairy Bitter-cress, are tricky to identify. Others, like Dandelion and Red Dead-nettle are much more obvious, but are so common that it is easy to take them for granted. Undeservedly so, not just because of their intrinsic beauty, but also because they are important sources of food for pollinating insects. For those of you with plenty of time to tend your gardens: go easy on the weeding and lawn-mowing!
Not many of these were noticed by Wildwatchers this month, apart from some of the usual ones such as Willow Bracket and Velvet Shank. Many fungi are hard to identify, and easily dismissed as mere mould. However one dedicated Wildwatcher took up the challenge of finding out more about a resupinate poroid fungus found underneath a log. She took some home, put it under a microscope, and discovered that it was probably Ceriporia viridans. Perhaps unfairly, this organism doesn’t (yet) have an English name – any suggestions?
The wildlife of St Nicks is thriving. In coming weeks many more wonderful plants and animals will be seen by those still able to visit this urban oasis. The rest of us can imagine, and look forward to returning.
This post was written by a member of the Wildwatch volunteer group, with all photos taken by Wildwatchers at St Nicks.