Yes, spring really has arrived, but shows itself in varied ways on the different reserves!
Out on the heath
On heathland, flowering plants are scarce in early spring and there may be little more than common dog violets under foot and bright yellow gorse bushes to catch the eye. Nevertheless, enjoy the heady smell of coconut from the gorse flowers in the April sunshine and watch bees searching for nectar and 7-spot ladybirds sheltering between the spines.
Although flowers are scarce, stonechats and flocks of linnets returned to our heathlands in numbers in late March and now join the yellowhammers, meadow pipits, dartford warblers and woodlarks in transforming the heathland soundscape. Male stonechats proclaim their territories with short staccato songs and make brief vertical flights above the gorse, whereas the linnets nest in loose colonies and engage in ceaseless twittering conversations.
This month they will be joined by early summer migrants, and in particular the cuckoo, whose simple song confirms the coming of spring. Having heard it, look for a greyish, long tailed bird with a direct flight whose pointed wings beat below the horizontal. On heathland, female cuckoos usually lay in the nests of meadow pipits but I have seen an agitated yellowhammer fly repeatedly at a cuckoo which was perched on a tree, surveying the area for signs of nest activity.
To the woods, to the woods!
Once into deciduous woodland, the much wider range of spring flowers produces a striking contrast with the local heathland reserves. Early flowering enables woodland plants to take advantage of the spring sunshine filtering through the branches before the canopy of tree leaves closes over for the summer and restricts the light.
Already, DWT reserves with woodland such as Kilwood and Stonehill have early dog violets, moschatel (or ‘clock tower plant’), primroses, wood sorrel and wood anemones on display. Later in the month the smell of ramsons (or wild garlic) will become overpowering as sprays of pure white flowers appear above the carpet of bright green foliage on the woodland floor.
Downland plant paradise
The sheltered south-facing downland valley on Stonehill has close-cropped turf, dotted with the blue flowers of yet another violet, this time hairy violet and towards the end of the month Stonehill and many other downland sites around Dorset will have impressive displays of cowslips.
The false oxlip, a hybrid between the primrose and cowslip, is now starting to flower and is quite widespread in Dorset in habitats frequented by the parent plants. It usually gives the appearance of a large vigorous cowslip in which the flowers borne at the end of the flowering stem point in all directions, whereas those of the cowslip all hang in one direction.
Watch out for butterflies
Our overwintering butterflies, including brimstones, peacocks, small tortoiseshells and commas appeared on warm days in March and should be flying more frequently through April, but it seems unlikely that any red admirals will have made it through the harsh winter. We must await their arrival from southern Europe later this spring.
However, with the bright purple flowers of honesty appearing in gardens and nearby hedges, we can look forward to orange-tip butterflies emerging from the chrysalis this month and visiting this and also their main foodplant, garlic mustard.
The bodies of orange-tip butterflies contain bitter mustard oils, so the orange wing-patches of the active males are a warning to birds, but once the males come to rest with the less active females on their foodplants, the green and white patterning of the hindwings offers perfect camouflage.
The return of the summer migrant birds
And finally, the next month or two will herald the arrival of millions of migrant birds whose varied life-styles and songs will add to those of our resident birds. Numerous waders and warblers, terns and turtle doves, redstarts and ring ouzels, house martins and hobbies, swallows and swifts, will pass through Dorset, intent on finding suitable breeding habitat here or further north.
Whatever your level of expertise, get out and enjoy this annual spectacle for there is ample pleasure to be had from seeing your first swallow or an unexpected rarity.
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer
Stonechat by Ken Dolbear
Linnet by Ken Dolbear
Early dog violets by John Wright
Wood Anemone by John Wright
Orange Tip by Ken Dolbear
An unexpected rarity! Hoopoe by Ken Dolbear