Signs of Spring
Sunny days were scarce in February, but when the sun did break through it was encouraging to hear some dartford warblers singing on heathland and diminutive goldcrests confirming in song that they had survived the winter.
One or two male brimstone butterflies also appeared from hibernation as temperatures rose, giving us confidence that there will be further signs of spring as March arrives.
A tiny bird with a distinctive call
If you have large conifers in your garden or visit coniferous woodland, then listen for the high-pitched and oft repeated ‘dee-dee-dee’ song of the goldcrest. To me it sounds like a miniscule sewing machine!
Goldcrests lay 7-10 eggs in tiny moss and gossamer nests suspended under a branch and normally have two broods each year to offset the inevitable losses to predators and harsh winters.
Spectacular courtship displays
No one would claim that Dorset is blessed with many lakes and gravel pits but they are worth a visit in March as great crested grebes perform their spectacular courtship displays.
The black and chestnut plumes on the head and neck of both sexes are used to great effect as they face each other in ritualized head-shaking and engage in synchronised ‘dances’ involving beakfuls of water weed collected from the depths.
Pussy-willow: a magnet for insects
The long male catkins (lambs-tails) on both hazel and alder are now shedding their pollen and relying on the wind to find the minute red styles of the female catkins. In contrast, the male catkins (pussy-willow) of the grey willow, once fully open, provide yellow pollen and strongly scented nectar which attract queen bumble-bees and other early insects at a time when few other flowers are available.
These insects not only obtain energy for themselves but also transfer some pollen to the female catkins, which occur on separate trees to the male catkins in members of the willow family.
Simple pleasures are sometimes the best
By the middle of March, some of the insects which have fed on pollen and nectar will fall prey to newly arrived chiffchaffs as they pick their way through the willow canopy and replenish their energy stores after crossing the English Channel.
Although the song of the chiffchaff is rather mechanical and is simply a repeated ‘chiff-chaff’, it always gives us simple pleasure because it is our first summer migrant to sing and reminds us that the huge invasion of summer migrants is starting all over again.
While some are leaving others arrive
Through February and March another massive and largely unnoticed spring migration is also underway the northward movement out of Britain of the wildfowl, waders, winter thrushes and finches that have overwintered with us to avoid the worst of the northern European and arctic winter.
With hardly a thought in their direction we are more inclined to enjoy a spring walk along the coast to look for more of our early spring migrants such as wheatears, sand martins and sandwich terns.
Female hares "boxing" their way out of trouble
Large open fields along the coast and throughout the South Wessex Downs are ideal locations to look for hares indulging in courtship behaviour this month. Apart from impressive chases involving two or more individuals, their famous ‘boxing’ behaviour can seem quite bizarre.
In truth, these matches are usually between a male and a female who is unreceptive and therefore intent on rebuffing his advances. Later on, when leverets are born, they have a full coat of fur, their eyes are open and they are mobile because unlike newborn rabbits, they live above ground.
Sharpen up your identification skills
Although the range of spring flowers is still quite limited, now is the time to enjoy a walk and improve your observation and identification skills because in a month or two, new species will be flowering on a daily basis.
As the month progresses, verges and hedgerows will be enhanced with displays of primroses, lesser celandine, common dog violets and greater stitchwort, and white blackthorn blossom will be splashed along hedgerows, before these spiny shrubs come into leaf.
Weird and wonderful
Finally, toothwort, a parasitic species which lacks chlorophyll and grows on the roots of hazel and a few other trees also flowers in March. It occurs in old deciduous woods, preferring steep slopes on calcareous soils in north Dorset but also in our DWT Stonehill Down reserve in Purbeck.
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer