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Spring Diary 2010

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Spring was very slow to arrive after Britain emerged from the harshest winter for many decades.

Normally I enjoy looking for the first signs of spring as early as December. Snowdrops at Christmas can be delightful, but not this winter. In fact there were still no snowdrops in bloom in my garden in January but some were still blooming in the churchyard on April Fools Day!

Coltsfoot in March

Coltsfoot, primroses and celandine were perhaps no longer than a week late, but cowslips are only just beginning to show, so are probably two weeks later than last year.

Frogs usually appear in my garden pond before the end of February, but again, not this spring. The first frogs only appeared on March 12th and spawning did not really start in earnest for another week.

Goldfinches on Niger Feeder

The RSPB garden bird watch confirmed our worst fears that many small birds had not survived the harsh weather. Coal Tits have disappeared from my garden despite my offering a constant supply of food and Wrens were absent for most of the winter but seem to have returned, albeit in lower numbers.

The biggest surprise visitor to my bird table was a Buzzard that swooped in to take some beef trimmings from the table before the resident Jackdaws could get the chance. When I recited this story to a friend of mine he looked at me very sceptically, but then, the following day he saw the Buzzard perched on a telephone pole one hundred metres from my rear hedge, with its eyes firmly fixed in the direction of my garden!

Despite the late arrival of spring nature has a way of catching up, but this can sometimes cause problems too. I was in discussion with a dairy farmer who has adopted the "New Zealand" approach to farming. This is based on keeping the cows out on grass for as much of the year as possible and rotationally grazing paddocks, so that in theory, there is always a good supply of grass in front of the cows, whist the recently grazed paddocks have time to re-grow. The problem this year, he told me, was that there was absolutely no growth in February and March, during which time he had to feed the cows on expensive purchased food, but by mid April nature was playing catch up and the grass in all the paddocks was growing away quicker than he could get his herd around to graze it. His problem is that the grass will soon grow beyond its palatable and highly digestible stage and his only solution is to close some of the paddocks off for a cut of silage, after which the paddocks can be returned to the grazing cycle.

As I write the spring migrants seem to be returning about on queue, the exception being Sand Martins which by mid April were still very thin on the ground. Wheatears and Chiffchaffs all arrived during March with my first Swallows bang on my long term average of April 5. A Blackcap took up residence in my garden on the 1st of April and is still here.

Barnacle Geese

Some of our winter visitors showed a marked reluctance to leave. I noted over a hundred Whooper Swans along the River Blackwater valley in Ireland in late March and unusually, for the east coast of England a flock of genuinely wild Barnacle geese arrived at Frampton Marsh nature reserve in Lincolnshire, where they hung on until early April.

White Fronted Goose
At one point they were joined by a few White-fronted Geese also quite unusual, enabling visitors to the reserve to see six species of geese (wild Pink-footed and Brent geese as well as feral Greylag and Canada Geese) in a day. At the same time Avocets had returned and migrant Black-tailed Godwits en route to their arctic breeding grounds were already coming in to their glorious summer plumage.

A Redwing in my garden in early April should have returned to its Scandinavian breeding grounds but maybe it sensed that spring is slow to arrive there too.

Fallow Deer

Despite the harsh winter Fallow Deer locally have survived the winter rather too well. The absence of their natural predators, means, that if unchecked their numbers will continually increase. They not only damage crops but also by over-grazing and browsing prevent the natural regeneration of woodland. When I told one of the forest rangers that I had counted over 100 deer in a single herd, he was mortified!

We have four species of deer within ten miles of where I live. A small herd of 30 -50 Red Deer are confined to one particular area of woodland, whilst Fallow Deer and Muntjac are widespread and numerous. The fourth species, my favourite, is our native Roe Deer which bizarrely, is most often seen in the local fens. It might be that it is reluctant to compete with the larger Fallow Deer in the wooded areas to the west of the fens.

Muntjac are probably the most versatile and we still have one regularly visiting our garden. It might be worth you checking your shrubbery for this small but strikingly handsome deer.

The cold weather in March meant sightings of butterflies and bees were very few but now April temperatures have reached double figures a few Brimstones have appeared along with the odd Small Tortoiseshell which has emerged from hibernation. The large bumble bees I have seen are probably prospecting queens.

As I write my attention is distracted by the constant coming and going of a pair of Song Thrushes with beaks full of snails, worms and grubs. They are clearly feeding young in a nest in the corner of my garden, out of the reach, I hope, of the local cats.

Mid-way through spring with the worst of the winter weather behind us I expect the best is yet to come. I look forward to carpets of bluebells, Orange Tip Butterflies and the rich and varied songs of Nightingales.

Ian Misselbrook
April 2010.


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