Summer migrant warblers put on a good show while Red Kite surprised everyone. Beetles, Hoverflies and Bees were the stars of the insect world. St Nicks’ trees sprung into leaf and flowered as beautifully as ever, whilst cowslips and fritillaries led the way in brightening up the meadows.
After an exceptionally warm February which broke UK records, March was generally cooler and duller. During April we had several frosty mornings which led to sunny conditions for the rest of the day. May was mostly warm and sunny. There was only one rainy morning (8th May) throughout the period.
March 13th saw the departure of the last of our winter visitors – a Redwing. By then we had already heard (amazingly early – 27th February) the song of the first of our summer migrants: a Chiffchaff. By mid-March several of these birds had been joined by another regular summer-visiting warbler, a Blackcap. Thereafter the songs of these two species were heard all over the reserve, with up to five singing males of each every week throughout our warm spring (no freezing blasts from the east this year). During May more migrant warblers arrived. Up to two singing Whitethroats were heard regularly from May 8th, and at the end of the month a Garden Warbler was heard and seen singing at the Dragon Stones. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs breed on the reserve every year…. might they be joined this year by Garden Warblers and Whitethroats? Last year’s Whitethroats didn’t stay to breed, so we are holding our breath for this sason.
Treecreepers are more often seen during the autumn and winter, and two on March 13th were the last this spring. Maybe older more mature woodland is more to their liking for breeding habitat.
All of our regular resident birds were heard and seen most weeks. Song Thrushes were in particularly good voice throughout, with Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Dunnocks, Great Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinches providing a supporting chorus, not to mention the ever-present Woodpigeons and noisy Magpies. The quiet calls and songs of Bullfinches were also heard every week in many places (at St Nicks we always have quite a number of these normally scarce birds) and Chaffinches heard until early May. Goldcrest sightings have increased at St Nicks since the autumn, but seemed to disappear for six weeks from mid-April until seen again on 29th May. Great Spotted Woodpecker sightings have been very scarce. Fledglings of four Tit species were seen on the reserve during May – Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit and Long-tailed Tit.
Collared Doves and House Sparrows cross into the reserve regularly from adjoining gardens, while Carrion Crows are early breeders in the taller trees. Mallard and Moorhen are often seen and heard along the becks, though Grey Wagtail and Kingfisher have been disappointingly absent this spring.
Birds flying over the reserve have included Greylag and Canada Geese (from local feral populations), Jackdaws, Sparrowhawks, Buzzards, Grey Herons and four species of gull, with a nice surprise for the staff and volunteers when a Red Kite flew over the Environment Centre on 9th April.
After the unseasonal warmth of February, Spring’s arrival was a cold shock. Winter’s frosts returned, though butterflies which hibernate as adults enjoyed the sunshine which followed frosty mornings. By mid-March we had seen a larger number than usual of Brimstones plus an occasional Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell. Brimstones continued to show well until late April, and by mid-April we were seeing Orange Tips, Small Whites, Green–veined Whites, Holly Blues and Speckled Woods. Orange Tips were in considerably larger numbers than in recent years, attracted by the early-flowering Garlic Mustard plants, abundant on the reserve, and the few Lady’s Smock plants in flower. Disappointingly, in the last two weeks of May very few butterflies were seen on what were warm sunny Wildwatch walks.
Day-flying moths were scarce, though in early May we were treated to swarms of the Green Longhorn moth Adela reamurella in mating flights. These delightful moths, males with ‘impossibly’ long antennae, put on a great show this year. Buttercup and Ox-eye Daisy flowerheads (among others) hosted dozens of tiny Cocksfoot Moths Glyphipterix simpliciella in the last few weeks of May while other moths in residence included adults of Mint Moth Pyrausta aurata, Common Plume Emmelina monodactyla, and tortrix moths Ancylis badiana and possibly Notocelia trimaculana. We also found larvae of Timothy Tortrix Aphelia paleana and a healthy number of the striking yellow-and-black larvae of the Six–spotted Burnet Zygaena filipendulae. Adults of these were scarce on the reserve last year, so we hope for better numbers this summer.
Of the Dragonfly family, Broad–bodied Chaser Libellula depressa was seen in mid-May out on the reserve (with reports also of a mating pair on the Environment Centre pond), and Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula, usually the first damselfly of the year. By the end of May we were finding Azure Damselflies Coenagrion puella.
True Bugs were best represented by the ever-popular shieldbugs with no fewer than eight species seen from mid-April onwards. Gorse Shieldbug Piezodorus lituratus is found in every month of the year, and their fascinating barrel-like rows of eggs were seen in some numbers on the gorse bushes. From mid-April the other seven species appeared: Common Green Palomena prasina, Hairy Dolycoris baccarum, Hawthorn Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, Parent Elasmucha grisea, Pied Tritomegas bicolor, Red–legged Pentatoma rufipes and Woundwort Eysarcoris venustissimus. Female Parent Shieldbugs can be found sitting on clusters of eggs on Birch and other leaves. Near them we saw large numbers of Birch Catkin Bugs Kleidocerys resedae. Birch Shieldbug has yet to appear this year. A good find in mid-May was the bright red Cinnamon Bug Corizus hyoscyami.
Beetles put on a good show this spring, too many to list all of them. Six species of ladybird were found: 7-spot, 10-spot, 14-spot, 22-spot, Cream-spot and Harlequin. Red-headed Cardinal beetles Pyrochroa serraticornis were seen from mid-April in larger numbers than ever before – large and bright red, with antler-like antennae. Among other beetles the small but pretty Willow Flea Beetle Crepidodera aurata was seen on several occasions, as was Thistle Tortoise Beetle Cassida rubiginosa. We also found Strawberry Leaf Beetle Galerucella lineola, Rosemary Beetle Chrysolina americana, Green Dock Beetle Gastrophysa viridula, Alder Leaf Beetle Agelastica alni, Malachite Beetle Malachius bipustulatus, many individuals of the soldier beetle Cantharis rustica, ground beetle Badister bullatus, False Blister Beetle Oedemera lurida, Lesser Stag Beetle Dorcus parallelipedus, and larger numbers than usual of the Wasp Beetle Clytus arietus, (one of the longhorn beetles). Tiny Red Dock Weevils Apion frumentarium were on their food plant most weeks from early March, and from late April several other weevil species were found: Gorse Exapion ulicis, Green Nettle Phyllobius pomaceus and some without common names including Liophloeus tessulatus and Rhinoncus pericarpus.
Common fly species have been increasingly abundant since the early part of the year, but hoverflies made a slower start and it was April before we started seeing them in any numbers. However, by the end of May we had identified over 20 species of hoverfly with Syrphus ribesii and Marmalade Episyrphus balteatus leading the way in volume, and Eupeodes luniger not far behind. Myathropa florea with an unmistakable ‘Batman’ mark on its thorax was found frequently, as was Leucozona lucorum and better-than-usual numbers of Narcissus Bulb Fly Merodon equestris. Other interesting finds were of Alderflies Sialis sp. by Tang Hall Beck, and three species of Crane Fly: Nephrotoma flavipalpis, Tipula fascipennis and Tipula vernalis. Soldierflies included Broad Centurion Chloromyia formosa and the legionnaire Beris chalybata. The parasitic Dark–edged Bee Flies Bombylius major were in particularly good numbers this spring, as were their major hosts – Tawny Mining Bees Andrena fulva, females of which are a lovely rich orangey red colour.
We saw far more fly species than can be listed here, and the same can be said for members of the Wasp and Bee families. Sawflies of various species were frequently seen, especially of the Arge and Tenthredo genera, while parasitic wasps (Ichneumonids) of various kinds proved hard to identify, though we did manage it with some. There are over 2,600 on the British list, which makes it difficult to identify these swift-moving insects which rarely pose for a photo.
We had more success with the bees. We think six of the common bumblebee species were on the reserve, with many queens seen from March onwards. A colony of Tree Bumblebees Bombus hypnorum established itself in one of the bird nestboxes. Some species of cuckoo bumblebee were seen too – including Forest Cuckoo Bombus sylvestris and several Vestal Cuckoo Bombus vestalis. Hairy–footed Flower Bees Anthophora plumipes were particularly active this spring, and we identified more solitary bee species than we usually do, including Ashy Mining Bee Andrena cineraria, possibly three species of Nomad Bee: Nomada flava, N.goodeniana and N.marshamella and Blue Mason Bee Osmia caerulescens.
We found a number of spider species including two Crab Spiders: Xysticus cristatus and X. ulmi. A fuller account of St Nicks 2019 spiders will be included in our autumn blog this year.
After rather a cold start, this spring was mild and dry, with only a few late frosts. And so most plants at St Nicks sprouted, budded and bloomed at normal times… whatever the “new normal” is in this century.
Trees and shrubs, let’s remember, are big. They therefore produce a massively big number of flowers, if not necessarily very pretty ones. Their flowers’ nectar and pollen are essential food for many insects, especially in early spring when there isn’t much else for bees – and our other buzzing little friends – to feast upon. This was one of the main points made by one of the Britain’s leading bee-experts, Steven Falk, on a visit to St Nicks this spring to lead a highly informative Pollinator Workshop.
For a fairly small, young nature reserve, St Nicks does host a rich variety of such important insect-pollinated trees and shrubs. They provide a continuous source of food from February to June. This spring we Wildwatchers have seen them all come into flower, and observed many of them set seeds (themselves also a vital food-source for birds, mammals and other creatures). If you like lists, then here’s an (incomplete) one, arranged roughly in the order in which they flowered:
Gorse, Grey Willow, Goat Willow, Cherry-plum, Blackthorn, Wild Cherry, Field Maple, Bird Cherry, Hawthorn, Sycamore, Norway Maple, Apple, Rowan, Guelder-rose, Alder Buckthorn, Broom, Swedish Whitebeam, Bramble, Laburnum, Common Lime, Dog Rose, Elder, Red Osier Dogwood, and Dogwood.
Of course, the wind-pollinated trees also flowered (obscurely, unless we broaden our minds to what flowers look like). Hazel no longer dangled its showy catkins by March. But there were still Crack-willow, Aspen, Alder, Grey Alder, Birch, Oak, Ash and Elm. And, in other wind-pollinated-plant news from St Nicks: by the end of May there were about a dozen grass species in flower as well. But let’s leave these lovelies – like Yorkshire-fog, Cock’s-tail, and the tasty (some of us munched it) Sweet Vernal-grass – for another blog.
On to the ordinary little spring flowers that we see every year at St Nicks, each blooming at its own predictable time. Ordinary, little and predictable – yes – but no less wonderful for all that. Each one is an exquisite product of millions of years of co-evolution with its pollinating insects.
March, as usual, put on a good showing of flowers found in and around woodland. This is a time when small plants can thrive, before the trees above them sprout leaves and shade them out. Thanks to many years of bulb-planting, Snowdrop and Winter Aconite were still going strong at the beginning of the month. A couple of weeks later, Wild Garlic/ Ramsons was doing very well in places, together with some Wild Daffodils and Chionodoxa/ Glory-of-the-snows. The bright yellow flowers of Coltsfoot and Lesser Celandine brightened up our walks, too, together with Red Dead-Nettle and its omnipresent relative, White Dead-nettle. Primrose lived up to its name – “prima rosa” – as the first rose(ish) flower of the year. There were a few Violets and Lungwort to be seen by woodland paths. By the end of March, Cowslip and Fritillary had appeared on the meadows – and Marsh Marigold in the pond.
There were three interesting non-native plants in flower during March: Abraham-Isaac-Jacob/ Oriental Borage, Red Lungwort and White Comfrey. All three are members of the Boraginaceae family, and originate from SE Europe or SW Asia. The first two thrive around the Environment Centre garden; and Hairy-footed Flower-bees loved the AIJ. All three species seemed to be doing well near the Tang Hall Beck culvert, providing sustenance for early pollinators. Maybe these represent some sort of (interesting and useful?) ecological assemblage of plants for a globally-warmed 21st-century urban nature reserve.
April didn’t produce many new flowers, though many of March kept going strong. However Cowslip and Fritillary were doing particularly well, thanks to years’ of planting work by volunteers. About 20 of the fritillaries – with their amazing Art-Deco-lampshade appearance showed themselves one week. (As to why this plant shares its English name with some butterflies: Fritillarium [Latin] = Dice-box). By the end of April, we were graced by the first flourishing of Cow Parsley, aka “Queen Anne’s Lace” (or, more prosaically, “Keck”); this really is the plant of late spring at St Nicks.
Some Common Hogweed and Shepherd’s-Purse popped up during April. As did Meadow and Creeping Buttercup, and a few Cuckoo-flower on the wetland meadow. In the woods Garlic Mustard/Jack-in the hedge (the main food-plant of Orange-tip butterfly caterpillars) and Wood Avens proliferated.
May saw many of the plants in flower over the last couple of months still going strong. Yet high summer beckons, and many new ones appeared. Too many, really, to record in full.
Cranesbills, Geranium species, were coming into their best this month. (Their names – English and Greek alike – derive from their seed-pods’ resemblance to the long pointy beaks of the relevant birds). We saw the pretty pink little flowers of native Shining Cranesbill, Herb-Robert, Dove’s-foot Cranesbill and Cut-leaved Cranesbill – each in its own season and ecological niche. By the end of the month two big-and-bold garden-escape varieties were also doing well. One of these, the aptly named Geranium x magnificum, was, in its deep purple magnificence, a magnet for all sorts of bees.
Legumes, relatives of peas in the Fabaceae family, were beginning to look good by the end of May, although summer will yet see them at their best. Bird’s-foot-trefoil lived up to its alternative name of “Bacon-and-Eggs” in the way its deep red buds open into yolk-yellow flowers. Bush Vetch was in bloom mid-month, with its two relatives, Common Vetch and Tufted Vetch, just beginning to flower at the end of May. Red Clover began to appear, too. All these legumes possess intricate floral anatomies: these allow only a few long-tongued insects (such as butterflies and some bumblebees) to feed upon, and pollinate them.
Ragged-Robin spread its delicate petals in the wetter parts of the meadow, as did its close relatives, Red Campion and White Campion in drier areas. Germander Speedwell, with its intensely lapis-lazuli blue petals was doing well around the Dragon Stones and elsewhere. Goat’s-beard/ Jack-go-to bed-at-noon, showed itself on a couple of our morning Wildwatch walks, as did Common Poppy. And, going back to non-native Boraginaceae species, Green Alkanet was flourishing in shadier places. So was Ground-Elder, introduced by the Romans (what did they ever do for us?) as a pot-herb, and ineradicable since; and a more recent garden-escapee that originates from the north-western USA, Fringecups.
So spring sprung itself upon us. Again. And gone – again. There’s still summer, though. There are so many flowers still to see – like the spectacular Bee Orchid that we noticed at the beginning of June. Come along to one of our Wildwatch walks – every Wednesday morning. Or just enjoy a wander around St Nicks.
Besides those swimming in the ever so shrunken pond at the Environment Centre, the Wildwatch team spotted this newt hiding in a rotten log one April session.
All photos were taken at St Nicks by volunteers during the given period, including the ones taken by Lewis Outing. Text was written by St Nicks Wildwatch members who meet every Wednesday to record wildlife in the nature reserve.