The extremely mild weather at the end of February has given spring an early start, albeit winter is not yet over, and birds that have started to nest may suffer if the cold returns. March brings the start of spring, and there is much to anticipate in the natural world, as early butterflies such as brimstone and speckled wood emerge, adders will bask in the sun, and summer visitor migrant birds will arrive. However, emerging early from hibernation may put many species at risk, as their food source may not yet be available, and period of cold or wet weather will challenge their survival.
The song of blackbirds and song thrushes is now a welcome sound in the mornings and evenings, as our resident birds proclaim their territories. On moors and meadows skylarks will sing noisily as they rise high into the air.
Herons are early nesters, and they may be found noisily guarding their chosen spot within a tree-top colony. However, a few pairs of have taken to nesting in the reed beds at Shapwick, in individual nests. It is uncertain why some birds have abandoned their colonial instincts, but they seem to do well, raising noisy clacking chicks in April.
By the end of March, sand martins, among the first migrants to arrive from Africa, will appear. The smallest hirundine, white and brown in colour, huge flocks may be seen over the Somerset levels, feeding on flying insects before dispersing around the country. They will be followed around two weeks later by house martins and swallows. The very striking wheatear will normally arrive early in March, and may been seen on the Somerset coast as they arrive.
Bitterns are already starting to call on the levels, their loud boom resonating across the reed beds, the volume increasing over time as their throat muscles build up. If you are lucky, you may see a male chase a female, circling in pursuit for some long time. They are not the most elegant birds in flight, and tend to land clumsily with huge feet outstretched. But their remarkable camouflaged plumage is superb for blending into the reeds. They are a major success story in conservation terms, having naturally repopulated the Somerset reed beds provided for them, and the population has risen from zero to nearly 50 calling males in just ten years. The county now hosts the largest population in the UK.
Bats are emerging from hibernation, and may be spotted in daylight seeking to take on some food after the winter. Frog and toad spawn appears in ponds. Dunnocks will trill noisily from the tops of hedgerows. Rowdy rooks are busy rebuilding their communal nest sites after the ravages of winter. Therefore there is a lot to look out for, and many good reasons to explore the county as the days lengthen, and the sun warms the ground.
Blackthorn is starting burst into flower, the bare branches covered in prolific blossom, while goat (or pussy) willow will produce their characteristic furry flower heads.
And 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 and alder trees are hanging with yellow catkins, releasing clouds of pollen in the breeze.
By the end of the month male adders will emerge on sunny days, taking time to wake from their dormant state prior to starting to hunt for food. The sight of an adder, coiled on dry leaves at the bottom of a hedge is a breathtaking, and the first time I found one at Shapwick is etched into my memory.
You may see brown hares chasing each other in the fields, sometimes 'boxing', while rearing up on their hind legs. These contests involve the does (or jills) seeing off an over-attentive buck (or jack), when they are not ready to mate. These pursuits may erupt suddenly, a group may appear to be feeding quietly when there is a sudden burst of activity.
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.
March sees major movements of migrant birds, from goldcrests to greylag geese, as the wintering population starts to leave our shores for their breeding grounds further north and east. 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. Large flocks of woodpigeons head back to eastern Europe. But as they depart, our summer visitors will begin to appear.
One of the first birds to arrive is the wheatear, a striking bird with grey, chestnut and black, and a noticeable white rump. The wheatear is fairly approachable, and can be seen along southern shores, often feeding on flies on the tideline seaweed. Bridgwater Bay is a good place to find them, and they arrive from the second week of the month on. Our resident noisy Cetti's warbler is joined by chiff chaffs and willow warblers, plus blackcaps, albeit a few 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
Blackbird, Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush
Blackbirds have a lovely melodic song, some say the best, 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.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.