A spring encounter

As the monochromatic landscape of winter is slowly displaced by renewed warmth, a vast curtain of colour invigorates the whole countryside. The crunchy leaf litter of winter is fast becoming the provider of new growth, as the frost relents and the continual soaking from the spring showers breaks down last summer’s supply of organic matter. Although this month is noted for its ‘April showers,’ the extra daylight hours and increased temperatures offered by the sun as it reaches higher into the sky each day is a welcome sign for nature to stir and breath new life. The hedgerows and trees suddenly burst with vibrancy seen at no other time of year as they revive every strip of countryside as far as the eye can see. Woodland floors are cloaked with wildflowers, which nod, and sway in the slightest breeze, permeating the air with scent to attract insects for pollination. The audible energy of bird song is everywhere. Each morning it floods through towns and villages like a tidal wave of sound, uplifting the spirits of all. The ghostly cry of curlews calling overhead as they move to breeding grounds inland is unmistakable. It evokes a feeling of wildness, associated with the moorland areas where they will spend the coming months rearing their young families. Already the first migrants will be on hand to greet them. Wheatears are especially fond of the moorland habitat and will quickly take up territories along stone-walls, were nest chambers are accessible through gaps in the stonework. Lower down in the valleys, chiff chaffs and willow warblers are proclaiming ownership of their territories. The migrant cuckoo also makes an appearance this month and maybe lurking nearby. Notorious for burdening the duty of caring for its young with other birds, it can only be described as nature’s freeloader.
By the river, dippers are busy rearing their recently hatched young. With around six mouths to feed they make countless trips to the nest with offerings of caddis nymphs and other freshwater invertebrates. They can be observed on territory along many freshwater rivers as early as February. The characteristic bobbing of the chestnut and white oversized wren is unmistakable as it momentarily pauses between feeding among the boulders of fast-moving, shallow water. Their flight is very rapid as they skim the surface of the watercourse, calling as they go and returning hurriedly back to the hungry chicks waiting in a domed nest of mosses under a nearby bridge. You may also spot the grey wagtail, which is an unwelcome neighbour of the dipper. Both of these birds use the same habitats for breeding at much the same time of year, so the tolerance between them is quite low, often at the expense of the wagtail, which is a much smaller bird. Bramble thickets and gorse bushes are good places to look for long-tailed tits. These feisty little birds will have spent the last thirty days painstakingly building their beautifully crafted nest. Made from densely packed feathers, held together by spiders’ webs and covered with lichens, it is undoubtedly one of nature’s most impressive constructions. If you place feathers close by and wait patiently, you will often be rewarded with good views of the adult birds as they impetuously come out to collect them for fresh lining.
The warmth of April can also bring surprise encounters with snakes as they emerge from hibernation. Both grass snake and adder, which become sexually active at this time of year, and can be seen basking in the morning sunshine, which they need to do before they are fully energized and able to move at any speed. Being fairly localised due to habitat requirements, heathland and wet grassland areas are the best places to look. They often position themselves on flat ground between gaps in the vegetation that provide suntraps for maximum warmth. As they are extremely sensitive to vibration, you need to look some distance in front of you as you go. But remember; move very slowly, or they will be gone in an instant. As the month progresses, food becomes increasingly plentiful. Badger cubs that were born around mid-February are able to come above ground for the first time and forage with the adults. When fully weaned, their diets will consist of mainly earthworms, slugs and beetles, but during this time, new shoots are an added reward. The set, which is usually dug into the banks of a woodland slope, can house a number of adults and one or two litters of cubs per year, with as many as fifteen individuals in total. Badgers also excavate satellite sets, which are not always in use. During spring, fox cubs that have been moved by the adults for safety reasons will often occupy these. The satellite sets provide much safety for cubs that are still small enough to gain entrance. Badgers are not entirely at ease with this arrangement, but they do tolerate it.
Woodland flowers are particularly abundant at this time of year. Celandines, wood anemones, wood sorrel and primroses will have been in flower for several weeks already. These are now joined by the first flushes of bluebells and ramsons, or wild onions as they are more aptly named. This is the trademark scent of the British woodland in springtime and great swathes will soon fill the woodland floor, interrupted only by the occasional splash of yellow, where marsh marigolds have found the damp refuge of a ditch or muddy pool. Other flowers like the early purple orchid and cowslip are also coming into bloom around now, but have more specialist requirements. Both of these plants are locally common on the lime rich or clayey soils of old hedge banks and pastures. The early purple orchid is the only orchid in Britain to flower at this time of year and is easily recognized by its typical orchid shaped flowers, and distinctive spotted, oblong leaves. Cowslips have suffered in recent times due to the destruction of grasslands by modern agriculture, but they are now making a surprise comeback in places they where not expected. Patchworks of them can be seen by the sides of motorways where the road has carved through areas of limestone during construction. This has had the effect of unintentionally decorating the tarmac landscape with a fringe of lush creamy yellow; prelude to the oxeye daisies and red campion that will grow there shortly. With so much happening in the countryside, it’s hard to include every single aspect of it. The fact of the matter is, is that from this point on, life in the countryside will just get busier and busier.