Nature Notes: March

    18 March 2019

    I know we have had bizarre heatwaves and strange sights of winter flesh laid bare in February, but now that we are properly in March, I trust it is safe to mention spring. Because what else do you call it when your broad, shaggy, year-old lambs, who all winter long have stumbled and shuffled across the field, now launch themselves into the air from standing. And it is not just the sheep; in fact, everywhere you look, as Caliban puts it, this “isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”…

    It was the Ancient Romans who named this month – no doubt after Mars, god of war – it was the first month of their year and heralded the start of spring and therefore the start of their military campaigns. (Which must be why we still have the term “marching into battle”…)

    As I write, the local farmer is flailing our hedges back to seemly heights. He is only just in time: traditionally the hedges need to be done before the birds start nesting in them, and I have already seen more than one bird flying off with a twig in its beak.


    Redwing perched on a Hawthorn bush. Redwings head North in March

    Birds are sensitive to the changes in temperature and daylight hours. The over-wintering birds, like the redwing and fieldfare from Scandinavia, come here to feast on worms and berries from our fields and hedgerows. Come March, they find themselves restless and moving back north again. Meanwhile our own song birds seem to be taking up the baton and filling the air with all those familiar songs that quickly faded at the end of last summer. Just hearing a blackbird from its tree top (or roof gable) vantage point, once more practising its legato signature tune, brings all the green and warmth of summer rolling down on your head, (while your feet are still bogged down in short, wet grass that has yet to start its “flush”). Their glorious song, for all its liquid gold, is a fair weather song; the diminutive wren, though, can sing in all weathers. Before the leaves have unfurled and while the blackthorn blossom is still only just bursting, the male wrens are already building nests in the hope of catching local talent and trilling loud and clear. As Wordsworth put it:

    So sweetly ‘mid the gloom the invisible Bird
    Sang to itself, that there I could have made
    My dwelling place, and lived for ever there
    To hear such music.

    If you are lucky, you might catch some hares up to their mad March antics. Far from being the usual macho show-down you would expect, in fact, this is the “me too” movement of the hare world being played out. The underwhelmed and over harassed doe is rearing up to beat off the over-amorous bucks. Less well-known but more dramatic is the male buzzard’s courtship display, known as the “rollercoaster”. Buzzards mate for life, but around now, at the beginning of the season, the males seek to impress their partner with daring-do aerial displays. These involve flying up high, before turning and plunging down into a spiralling dive, only to pull up and do it all over again.


    Even trees, the sleeping giants, are in Spring mode; winter-tight buds are now finally swelling and unfolding. We have a very ordinary, self-seeded willow; it is a dull tree and far too big for its boots, but just this week it is having its 15 minutes of fame and glory. Its first buds have opened into sharp, fresh, green catkins and as you approach it is positively buzzing with insect interest. Elsewhere, more dramatically, for all the gales and hailstorm showers, the early cherries are putting on their finest. Like dressing up for a wedding while everyone else is in mourning, these native trees should win awards for “glamour in spite of circumstances”. While not as full or frilly as their later flowering relatives, you can only wonder at their sheer guts for putting it all out there, while other trees are still in virtual hibernation.


    Spring Primroses

    No discussion of Spring in this country, though, is complete without mentioning our delicate native primula vulgaris, the common primrose. Long since a harbinger of spring, hence the latin clues in its name, this can in fact, theoretically flower from December onwards in a mild winter. But, no other wild flower has quite the winning combination of always being there at the cusp of the season so reliably and with such winning cheer. (I think it is something to do with its fresh, clean colours and pleasing arrangement). It does not matter whether the day you see it on is glorious and spring-laden or freezing cold, with biting north winds. It quietly sits there, among its friends, snugly muffled up in its mossy or grassy bed and smiles up at you and by its very presence signals the indisputable arrival of Spring.