March 25th 2020
The Coronavirus Pandemic continues however the wet and windy winter has changed totally. Today I awoke to a demure, clear, blue sky with an absence of vapour trails. Here, we appear to be on a major flightpath to the south and also for intercontinental east-west traffic … but not now.
With the clear night the temperature dropped and the main lawn was coated with a white crust at dawn. It was an air frost too, for the solar panels were glistening as well. Beautiful.
The dawn chorus, while thin now, was at 5am and had petered out by 5.30. As you are aware, these are (mostly) male birds proclaiming their fitness and threatening other males of the same species to keep well away. Once that job has been completed, they must hasten to feed and so maintain their breeding condition.
Several types of birds are currently prospecting for nesting sites. Blackbirds are ahead of that game for we had a female collecting nest lining materials yesterday. Blue tits are making a claim on one commercial nest box, long-tailed tits keep exploring the laurels near the house and a wheezy greenfinch is calling from the hedge. It is all go with wood pigeons, stock doves and sundry others joining in.
A mistle thrush called in yesterday and we have constant companions of red kites and buzzards, while I encountered a sparrow hawk drinking from the pond last evening.
In the dusk bats divebomb our patio two nights back, but I was too slow in waking up the bat detector to check on the species. That can wait for another evening.
The cherry plum blossom finished several weeks back and the blackthorn (sloe) is past its crest. We are on the edge of the damson trees showing their best and our huge wild cherry trees are showing huge, swollen buds. Even the hawthorn bushes (may trees) are expressing willingness to flower – which would be incredibly early.
My early morning walk at Picket Twenty was delightful. The frost had mostly departed by 7.30, but no sign today of buzzards feeding off the worms on the football pitches today. The resident fox had been around earlier and had left his pungent marking scent. There is always a flock of gulls around – probably lesser black-backed gulls. House sparrows, pied wagtails (Polly Dishwashers, my Dad called them.), and many robins are present.
There are multiple piles of late-summer hay stacked around the garden perimeter for hibernation sites of queen bumblebees. They have done their job now and the insects are busy collecting both pollen and nectar. The pollen is protein-rich and has a spectrum of mineral nutrients, the nectar is almost wholly sugar (plus a touch of amino acids) and is an energy source.
Beeflies are now about. Their ultra-long proboscis is used to probe into nectaries. The ability to achieve this puts us humans to shame – I never achieve that success when attempting some dextrous manoeuvre.
Forest Edge’s garden is too small to be the permanent home to many mammals. A few years back I carried out an extensive Longworth trapping scheme and I suggest the results would be similar today. A small population of long-tailed voles occupied the flower borders and employed underground burrows. Short-tailed voles, in higher density, had occupancy of the longer grassy area – the Summer Meadow. Both species were low in numbers in the spring, reaching a maximum in the mid-autumn when the long-tailed species spread onto the patio, living beneath the low-growing conifers. We have both shew types but only in passing as they are seldom encountered.
Woodmice are always around, and we do have yellow-necked mice but no sign of dormice even while they occur within a kilometre. Squirrels, of course, are common and one is currently nesting in the owl box.
Of foxes, badgers and hedgehogs we have no signs. Moles! Well, we never see one but there are several around as we see their unmistakable signs. A weasel popped its head out of a mole hole a while back.
Stoats come and go. If the rabbit population bounces back they will return; until then, there is a lack of food (except the tonnes of pheasants the country has to put up with) and predators will be in decline. Our single rabbit seems content to live with us, but no hares so far this year. Female hares sometimes come here to give birth to their leverets.
Our slowworms are not around now. The frogs have come and gone, staying around for a couple of days only. Their donated spawn has hatched, and the tadpoles are slowly moving from their clusters to start spreading around the pond. They are hunted by a dozen or more palmate newts, but those creatures take anything small enough that they encounter. They need all the food as they are sexy! The males constantly pursue the ladies and will soon be actively wafting their pheromones on them.
Within the pond we have at least two obvious algae: Chara and (probably) Spirogyra or Zygnaema – both filamentous in their growth. Chara is biologically interesting in that its cells are relatively huge and the movement of their cytoplasm clearly visible under a good light microscope.
The pond’s surrounds are currently showing snake’s head fritillaries and our marsh marigolds are starting to flower. A single marsh orchid is showing … we once had dozens of them … must be a change in the soil or some selective predator working underground.
The flower and shrub borders are filled with new growth and already giving scent to the air and offering nectar and pollen in quantity. Not so the Summer Meadow – it is only just awakening. Yellow rattle seeds have germinated and are seeking out the roots of grasses to parasitize them. Myriads of pyramidal orchids are clinging tightly to the soil, however, the primulas are in a more positive mode.
Primroses are plants of dappled shade and are happy on the forest’s margin. At the extreme, cowslips are open ground plants and can be found in most spots here.
The Summer Meadow’s bluebells are not in their rapid growth stage; the flowers are a month off.
The Spring Meadow and the Summer Meadow’s wild daffodils are now entering their seed phase. The Tenby daffodils, once said to be a separate species, are in rapid decline in numbers – in stark contrast to the true wild-type whose number enhance yearly.
Snowdrops and crocus are over in the Spring Meadow, with white hyacinths, anemones taking their place. Soon the delightful, delicate but pure white meadow saxifrage and strong yellow of the bulbous buttercups will burst into stunning colour.
This year these plants have been joined by blue grape hyacinths; a flower much appreciated by the small bees and flies that have emerged.
Pyramidal and twayblade orchids are present in these areas, the twayblades first showing this afternoon.
The Cut Lawn is half meadow and half lawn, with the uncut sections changing with the year. Unsurprisingly it has multitudes of daisies, yet it is biologically diverse … but little shows now as it has just been trimmed! Yet, we have our orchids here too: pyramidals, twayblades and a greater butterfly that has been here for nearly ten years.
What a delightful time of the year.
Since October, it seems like forever, we have been swamped by a deluge that I would call Biblical if it weren’t for the fact the Noah only had to put up with 40 days and 40 nights. Now the rain has eased, that burning orb in the sky has returned and the world is transformed. The hedgerows are filled with the fresh green of young Hawthorn leaves and the almost effervescent snow white of Blackthorn blossom. Everywhere the air resounds with birdsong and the first butterflies flutter joyously and bask in the slowly growing warmth.
I have visited several local sites over the last few days and, while it is only the third week of March, nature is committed to resuming normal business as soon as possible. While it is tempting providence, remember the ferociously cold snap of the end of March and first week of April of 2018 termed the “Beast from the East”, the omens thus far are good. All the species I am seeing at the moment are Hibernators, meaning that they emerged from their chrysalis state last year and over-wintered as adults, tucked away in natural hollows in trees, log piles, holes in stone walls, outbuildings, other outdoor spaces and even in cooler nooks and crannies in our houses.
There are currently four species evident, being the Peacock, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone. The first three have two or different broods during the summer but the Brimstone has only one, which takes to the wing towards the end of the season and lives for around a year. The eggs are laid on Buckthorn, through late Spring into very early summer, with the caterpillars feeding up through late May and into June and early July. The chrysalis is formed on the food plant or nearby vegetation, attached by fine but extremely strong silk. The adults begin to emerge through August and even into September. So far I have seen a number in built-up areas but, although others have been luckier, none so far at local nature sites.
The first of these I visited on Monday 23 March (2020), Rooksbury Lake, and saw 15 Peacocks, 6 Commas and a Small Tortoiseshell. The next day I went to Anton Lake and found 9 Peacocks, 6 Commas and 4 Small Tortoiseshells, while today, 25 March, I ambled around Stockbridge Down and counted 13 Peacocks and 10 Commas. These may not seem like large numbers but I have records going back to 2006 and, although I do not have like-for-like numbers for the end of March for every year, no previous counts come near these totals.
I am not sure how much I am going to be able continue to observe and record species numbers this year as I have just read today’s paper and come across a disturbing piece of news. I discover the powers that be have decided that it is fine to go out for a walk around, providing there are no
more than two of you, but apparently we are not supposed to drive to a particular location to do so. It is difficult to see any particular reason for this, certainly not one that would pertain to the panicdemic currently engulfing the Globe. In ones car your are isolated from others, which is precisely what the Government is purportedly attempting to achieve. At such sites as I wish to visit there is plenty of wide open space and no likelihood of transgressing the hallowed two metre social-distancing rule. Without some form of personal transport I cannot realistically reach such sites as Danebury Hill or Stockbridge Down, so am I supposed to buy that suicidal form of transport known as a bicycle and, in my sixties, rediscover the joys of saddle- soreness?