Can you tell a willow warbler from a chiff-chaff, a grass snake from a slow worm, a little owl from a tawny owl? Chris Chappell urges you to get out and have look in the exciting month of March.
March is an exciting month for wildlife. We will see many significant changes in the countryside, as the days lengthen, and the ground begins to warm up. Our seasonal visitors; winter ducks and winter thrushes will leave, heading north and east to their breeding grounds. Most of the lapwings and snipe that have been so prevalent this year will also leave, just a small proportion, being resident birds, will remain to breed in the UK. As they depart, our early summer migrants will start to arrive from the south. Look out for chiff-chaffs and sand martins, being among the first. Chiff-chaffs are almost identical to willow warblers, but easily identified by the see-saw song. However, if you are close enough to tell, the chiff-chaff has dark legs, and the willow warbler pinky red, and the willow warbler will not arrive until early April.. Sand martins may be seen in great flocks, high in the sky above the levels and moors, feeding on insects after their journey from Africa. They predictably arrive two weeks before the house martins, and are easily distinguished from them by their brownish colour, and dark rump, whereas the house martin is bluish black with a white rump and front.
Frogs and toads are spawning in the ponds and lakes. Grass snakes, adders, slow worms and common lizards will come out of hibernation on sunny days late in March, as they seek warmth. This is the best time to spot a basking adder. Early nesting birds, such as blackbirds and sparrows will start to collect nest material. On the water, great crested grebes perform their elaborate courtship, with lots of head-wagging and offers of pieces of vegetation. Buck hares may be seen chasing the does, these strange but beautiful animals easy to see while the grasses are still short. The legendary 'boxing hares', which were thought to be competing males, are in fact does fighting off the amorous bucks.
Blossom is now appearing on the hedgerows and gardens. The first to flower are generally prunus species, which includes plums, cherries, peaches, almonds. The native blackthorn prevalent in the hedgerows, also flowers in March, the blossom appearing on bare stems. Up on Exmoor, yellow gorse will brighten up the landscape, attracting insects, and you may see a Dartford warbler calling from the top of the bush, a now rare resident warbler. On the levels, the male 'pussy' or goat willow will produce its silvery flowers, later covered in yellow pollen. These are actually catkins, and the tree uses the wind to disperse the pollen to germinate the rather less impressive female catkins on adjacent trees.
Butterflies that should appear in March are brimstone, comma, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell. They also need fine weather to encourage them out.
Somerset has good populations of our three main breeding owl species, tawny, barn and little owl.
The tawny owl is truly nocturnal, and more often heard than seen, as a pair will call to each other, the female making a high toowit sound and the male responding with the lower toowoo. A littler larger than a wood pigeon, and while basically brown in appearance, it is beautifully patterned if seen close up.
Little owls are also nocturnal , but may be seen during the day, roosting in a tree, or when disturbed. Our smallest owl, about the size of a mistle thrush, it was introduced in 1842, and has naturalised over the whole of England. They call to each other with a high screech, but have a variety of calls depending on whether they are alarmed, or are trying to attract a mate, or repel a competitor. Their introduction is thought to have had little effect on the environment, being small, and living on insects and worms.
You stand a greater chance of seeing a barn owl in daylight, as their hunting period tends to start before sunset, and extend into morning daylight, especially as the days lengthen. Barn owls appear largely white, although the back and wing top are a delicately patterned golden brown. They make a spectacular sight, gliding over a meadow like a huge moth, twisting and turning as they look for voles and mice.
Please see the webcam where you can follow the progress of a pair of barn owls, as part of the Community Barn Owl Project.
Photographs © Chris Chappell except the Little Owl which is
courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Cary valley
Mature male adder
Male Slow Worm