Nature is on the move and so will you be when you read what Chris Chappell has to say about garden birds and grebes
March is a really dramatic month in the natural world. Hibernating hedgehogs and dormice will emerge from their leafy winter refuges. Frog and toad spawn are appearing in garden ponds, frogspawn in single clusters, and the toad spawn in strings attached to vegetation. Garden birds are starting to build nests, you will see blackbirds gathering grasses and plant stems, blue and great tits prefer to make a base of mosses, then a cup is formed and filled with feathers. It is not too late to put up bird boxes, wildlife is remarkably adaptable. I have seen blue tits investigate a nest box while it was on the ground, waiting to be wired to a tree.
Migration, inward and outward
On the levels, the winter ducks will start to leave, heading north and east for their breeding grounds. Migrant starlings, thrushes and jays will disperse. But as they depart, our summer visitors will start to arrive. Huge flocks of sand martins, and then house martins will be seen feeding high over the levels and moors. Our resident Cetti's warbler is joined by chiff chaff and willow, reed and garden warblers, blackcaps and others. The striking wheatear is one of the first migrants to arrive, often first seen feeding on flies on the shoreline. Initially migrant arrivals concentrate on finding food to build up their weight after the migration. You may see mixed warblers clustered around a sheltered pond where there is a good source of early flying insects. Look out for brown hares chasing each other in the fields, sometimes 'boxing', while rearing up on their legs. These contests frequently involve the does seeing off an over attentive buck. Towards the end of March the blackthorn hedges come into flower, profuse mists of white flowers on bare thorny stems.
Great Crested Grebes
Great crested grebes are now starting to display in preparation for the breeding season. These beautiful creatures were hunted to near extinction in the mid 19th century for their feathers, for use in hat making, but populations have now recovered well, and they are now widespread. These grebes do however suffer from mink predation, and from the recreational use of waterways, as the wash created by boats will swamp their nests. They build a small raft for the nest, often rather exposed until the reed growth provides some cover, and lay a clutch of elongated white eggs. The birds are emerging from their subdued winter plumage, and the distinctive head ruff and crest are re-grown. The sexes look identical, and can only really be distinguished by their behaviour. The courtship is very elaborate, and involves a lot of head wagging, passing of nesting material, and sometimes they will run across the water in parallel. It is quite a show, available on most ponds and lakes. They can be very noisy, have a variety of harsh grating calls including a loud bark. Great crested grebes are fairly tolerant of human interest, but do avoid disturbing them as any time spent away from the nest leaves the eggs vulnerable to corvids and others.
Butterflies and flowers
As the days warm up, early butterflies will appear. Species you may see are peacock, comma, brimstone, speckled wood, small tortoiseshell, orange tip and small and large whites. Lesser celandine, wood anemone and sweet violets will come into flower. The brimstone is an important pollinator of primroses, now flowering in woods and copses.. On Exmoor gorse is in full flower, the strong coconut-like smell attracting insects, while the dense prickly foliage provides good cover for birds such as linnet to nest. Hazel trees are hanging with yellow catkins, releasing clouds of pollen in the breeze. The goat willow, colloquially known as pussy willow, displays large furry silver catkins with yellow covered pollen bearing strands.
Blackbird and thrush song
Blackbirds have a lovely melodic song, and they will be heard singing from a high point, the cock bird claiming his territory at dawn and dusk, challenging any rivals. They are well adapted to suburban gardens, taking advantage of food, shelter, and shrubs and bushes for nesting sites. The song thrush population seems to have made something of a recovery, having become rather scarce in recent years. The song thrush will perch up in a tree, and their song is quite distinctive, repeating short phrases two or three times, but at best this pattern becomes quite fluid, and very musical. The larger and rarer mistle thrush has a loud and rather tuneless flutelike song, repeating longer phrases than the song thrush, they are often heard on heavy cloudy days, when rain is imminent.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Great Crested Grebe