What’s Occurring? February – March 2019

White tailed Bumblebee on first Dandelions

White tailed Bumblebee on first Dandelions

Frog Spawn

Frog Spawn

First Signs of Spring

Seventy days after the winter solstice light is the major factor that is pushing almost all forms of life towards growth and breeding. Lengthening days makes temperature a contributory factor but it is normally fickle and not to be relied on. With temperatures in excess of 10ºC above the norm during the day and overnight frosts in this late February things are getting out of hand, with a record temperature in Aberystwyth in excess of 20ºC on the 25th. And that record was broken the following day on 26th with a temperature of 21ºC recorded at Kew Gardens, in contrast to a temperature of -17ºC recorded at Farnborough on 26th February 2018.

Some animals live in an environment where air temperature is not so critical, so trout have been spawning in rivers all winter with the water temperature between 8ºC and 5ºC. Whereas other animals live most of their lives where neither light nor air temperature have a direct effect, moles for instance...

A Mole's life

Moles live a predominantly solitary life, but mole’s little home is actually a discrete network of tunnels. And their position and direction can be seen most easily at this time of year demarcated by the mole hills pockmarking the turf of a field or lawn.

Extraordinarily these tunnel networks become very prominent in the first quarter of the year, so what is going on? The tunnel network is designed as a trap for any mini beasts burrowing through the soil to fall into, which the resident mole patrols at regular intervals. Earth worms are the favourite fodder closely followed by beetle larvae, moth pupa, and leatherjackets.

With February being their breeding season the excellence and effectiveness of these civil engineering projects is an important factor in moles pairing up, encouraging the ladies to come calling.

Spring behaviour

On a warm sunny day there are a number of behaviours that show that spring is well on its way.  Magpies are seen in pairs or groups divisible by two. Wood pigeons undertake their significant dipping display flight with a loud wing clap and also can be heard cooing on a branch somewhere nearby, wooing a partner with much head and tail bobbing. Collared Doves make quite spectacular vertical display flights and the robin’s weak and reedy winter song starts to change.

Courting with Worm Charming, anyone?

Anyone in the Welsh lowlands and particularly urban areas should have seen Herring Gulls tap dancing on short grass turf on road verges, roundabouts, and in parks on moist mornings or after a shower of rain.  Are they trying to emulate Fred Astaire?

Well no, they are trying to find protein rich "sausages" with a core of fine earth, they are indeed worm charming. Or at least trying to scare any mini beasts into the open for a potential snack.  And in doing so they are cementing the pair bond with their partner for the forthcoming breeding season, although I have never seen them feed each other. We will soon have that raucous head back display call which wakes everybody up in the early morning.

Still Sleeping or Not?

Some beasts are still hibernating such as your garden snails, others are being subtler about it. BEWARE of curious piles of deciduous leaves it could be a hedgehog hibernaculum.  Pat Morris’ new monograph the Hedgehog No 137 in the New Naturalist Library published last year, states that these hibernacula are built for insulation both to keep the frost out and also to keep the warmth of an early spring day out as well.

Garden Snails Hibernating

Hibernating garden Snails

Other hibernators awake earlier such as the amphibians and of course there is frog spawn everywhere.

And we are just on the cusp of our early spring flowers opening, and with that, our hibernating queen bumblebees, particularly Buff-tailed, White-tailed, and Spring/Early species [orange tailed] are emerging. All these queens are carrying the hopes and fears for the year, a full set of fertilised eggs with which to found and maintain a bumblebee colony. So please look after them carefully and release them, should they accidentally enter your home.

These flowers also feed the range of hibernating butterflies, Brimstone, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell, and Peacock, all of who have been seen on the wing in the last week.

What is Flowering?

Some flowers like the Bitter-cress family flower all winter long with tiny white flowers producing large amounts of seed to give gardener’s something to do all summer. Without many if any insects about plants in general use self-pollination or other species such as hazel resort to wind pollination.

The male yellow pollen filled hazel catkins are obvious in the hedgerows and along motorway embankments. The little red tuft of hairs that makes up the visible part of the female flower is much more-subtle at the top of the photograph.

male and female hazel catkins

Male and Female Hazel Catkins

Who is on the move?

Black-headed Gulls have gone off to moult their body feathers to give themselves some semblance of being black-headed before they breed.

With the wintering birds leaving, spring migrant birds are already arriving including Sand martins, Swallows and our first leaf warblers the Chiffchaff. The Chiffchaff being first is hardly a surprise as they have taken to overwintering in UK. If they have migrated, it is only to winter in the Mediterranean and North Africa so less distance to return, whereas their doppelgänger the Willow Warbler, with that wonderful “waterfall of notes” as a call, crosses the Sahara into West Africa and will not be back until late April.

A big dragonfly, the Vagrant Emperor, has ignored the fact that it is the end of February and arrived from the Sahara to hunt for insects over Poppit Sands in the Teifi Estuary. Together with a number of sightings of Painted Lady butterfly across West Wales, a species which also migrates here from North Africa in some years, and occasionally this early, but is also known to return south in the autumn, rather than hibernate.

With the spring equinox on 20th March, we are close to having more daylight than darkness, and the intensity of the dawn chorus will increase. Some of the wind section have been practising, but it is normally not until mid-March that the entire population of male Blackbirds all join in. And then you know it is spring...