This month is an exciting time of major changes in the natural world, as spring gets under way, and winter recedes. Chris Chappell gives us the lowdown on what we can see.
Blackbirds will be seen building nests as the hedgerows start to turn green and the first blossom starts to show. Frog and toad spawn appears in ponds. Dunnocks start to trill from the tops of hedgerows. Noisy rooks are busy rebuilding their communal nest sites after the ravages of winter. In the levels reed beds bitterns are starting to call, their loud boom reverberates through the red beds, as the males advertise their presence.
Buck roe deer are re-growing their antlers, a process that consumes a great deal of energy, as the new bone is deposited from a layer of 'velvet' that covers the new growth. While the trees are still largely bare of leaves, the deer may be seen browsing, while keeping humans at a safe distance. A small group are often seen at SWT Catcott.
March also sees major movements of migrant birds, from goldcrests to greylag geese, as the wintering population leaves our shores for their breeding grounds further north. In turn the influx of summer visitors will start from the south. On the levels, the winter ducks and waders will also start to leave, heading north and east for their breeding grounds. Migrant starlings, thrushes and jays will also disperse. But as they depart, our summer visitors will begin to appear. One of the first birds to arrive is the wheatear, a striking bird that is fairly approachable, and can be seen along southern shores, often first seen feeding on flies on the shoreline. Bridgewater Bay is a good place to find them, and they arrive from the second week of the month on. Huge flocks of sand martins, and then house martins can be seen feeding high over the levels and moors. Our resident noisy Cetti's warbler is joined by chiff chaffs and willow warblers, plus blackcaps, albeit these species increasingly over-winter here. Initially migrant arrivals concentrate on finding food to build up their weight after the journey. 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 involve the does seeing off an over-attentive buck, when they are not ready to mate. Towards the end of March the blackthorn hedges come into flower, profuse mists of white flowers on bare thorny stems. Male adders will appear on sunny days, warming up after the winter hibernation.
The curlew is our largest wading bird, distinguished by the long curved bill, long legs, and not least the mournful call, so evocative of our moorlands. In winter they gather in large flocks on our estuaries, feeding on worms and shellfish found deep in the estuarine mud. At this time of year they start to move inland to their breeding sites. Historically a good number have bred in Somerset, and under the protection of the wildlife organisations, a number of pairs continue to breed on the levels. As ground nesters, they are very vulnerable to predators, and have been much affected by changes in land management and human disturbance. As such they have declined significantly, and are now red listed as near threatened. The UK hosts 28% of the European population. However, conservation measures in Somerset are helping them to breed and flourish.
Great Crested Grebes
Great crested grebes are now starting to display in preparation for the breeding season. In the mid 19th century these beautiful creatures were hunted to near extinction 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 butterfly 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 Song Thrush
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. You may hear several singing in competition in your town or village. 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 thrush has a great liking for snails, and often uses a favourite stump or rock to break their shells. 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, and have a traditional country name of storm cock.
Photographs © Chris Chappell
Great Crested Grebe