Seven miles from the centre of Norwich, in the village of Little Melton, on wet spring evenings, something unusual is going on. People in high viz jackets, carrying buckets and torches, are wandering about the road picking things up. No, these are not nocturnal litter collectors but members of ‘Toadwatch.’ Starting in late February, through March and into April, is the great toad migration. When these amphibians emerge from their dormant states, there is only one thing on their minds – reproduction. They instinctively head for the ponds where they themselves were born and follow the routes that their ancestors have been using for centuries. This means that they have to cross roads that weren’t there when all this started and ‘Toadwatch’ volunteers are there to help them do it; every year throughout the country, thousands of toads are killed by traffic. Newts and frogs, which are heading for their own breeding ponds, are also carried safely across the roads. ‘Toadwatch’ operates in other parts of Norfolk and if you are interested in joining a patrol contact firstname.lastname@example.org or ring John Heaser on 01603 812472 to locate a site near you.
There are two types of toads in Britain, the Common toad, which is widespread, and the rare Natterjack, which is confined to the sand dunes in East Anglia and parts of the North West. They are easy to tell apart as the Natterjack has a yellow stripe down its back.
The toad differs from the frog in having warty skin, rather than smooth, which can vary in colour from dark brown to pale sandy. Also the frog can travel in long leaps but the toad will crawl or make short hops; the toad’s eyes have horizontal pupils but the frog’s are round. The toad doesn’t produce her eggs in a mass, like the frog, but in a strip of jelly which is often several feet long. If your dog ever picks up a toad it will be dropped pretty quickly, as a toxin produced by the toad’s skin is an efficient irritant; hedgehogs and snakes don’t seem to mind this and often feed on these amphibians. Toads, themselves, feed on slugs, worms and a variety of invertebrates which they catch by either sitting still, waiting for the prey to wander past, or stalking it until it is within reach. It will then shoot out a long, sticky tongue which, unlike mammals is attached to the front of its mouth, to secure its dinner. In the past toads were often associated with witchcraft and the presence of one around a suspects house could see her condemned. It was thought to be her ‘familiar’, a spirit or demon that assisted her with her spells.
Everything is thinking the same way as the toad at this time of year, including ‘mad March’ hares that will be boxing each other as the female tells the male that she is not yet ready to mate.
Summer visiting birds will be starting to return from their winter quarters in the Mediterranean and Africa. Sand martins, Chiff chaffs, Willow warblers and Wheatears, among others, are all species which come to Britain to nest and towards the end of this month we may even see the first swallows. A distinctive member of the thrush family, the Ring Ouzel, passes up the east coast on its way to upland breeding grounds in Scotland and Northern England; one spent a week, last year, in a friend’s garden in Spixworth, just north of Norwich. The Ring Ouzel looks very like a blackbird but is slightly smaller with a white crescent on his breast and silvery wing feathers. Bewick’s and Whooper swans, some waders, ducks and geese will also be on the move but will be travelling north to their own nesting sites in and around the Arctic circle.
Sunny days will bring out the Brimstone butterfly which has spent the winter as a dormant adult. This is one of the first butterflies that we see and, unlike the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell, which often look rather scruffy after their sleepy winters, the Brimstone is usually pristine. The male is bright, sulphur yellow, with leaf-like wings, and the female is a rather paler greenish-white. In a couple of months she will lay her skittle-shaped eggs on the underside of the leaves of Buckthorn, or Buckthorn Alder, which are the food plants for the caterpillars.
This month the bright, star-like Lesser Celendine shines along roadsides and banks. This pretty yellow flower can have 8 – 12 petals which it only shows us when the sun shines, closing up before it rains and in the evening. The poet William Wordsworth, probably best known for his daffodil poem, also loved the Lesser Celendine and had its image engraved on his tomb. It features in herbal medecine when it is known as Pilewort – no explanation needed here, I think!
March will bring Blackthorn into bloom, the snowy flowers appearing before the leaves, brightening up the hedgerows.
A moth that will be flying after sunset this month is the Engrailed, which has spent the winter as a pupa buried in the soil; this is the first brood, there is another in the summer and occasionally a third. Often resting on tree trunks during the day, it is well camouflaged and difficult to spot. The caterpillar, which feeds on a variety of woody plants, is also a master of disguise, resembling a small twig and completing the impression by standing rigid when disturbed.
The racing pigeon, which decided to come and live with us last autumn, is still here. He moved his roosting place from the roof to the inside of the stable when the weather got colder and flies down, when we go in there, to have a look at what we’re doing. He forages in the garden and nearby fields but we have been giving him a little corn during the winter. He drinks from the garden pond and is trying to flirt with a wood pigeon but she doesn’t seem very interested. Poor lonely boy. Of course, he has a name now, Homer, which seemed appropriate as he has been on an odyssey and he is a homing pigeon, except this time he decided to change his address. He’s a very handsome bird and I’m sure his owner will be sorry to have lost him.
Thank you again for all your questions and comments – especially about the squirrel!
Activities this month include:-
- Boxing hares – Houghton Hall.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
- Lichens – Blickling Estate. www.nns.org.uk
- Walk on the wild side – Titchwell marsh reserve.
- Watch with mother – children’s event – Titchwell.
email@example.com or 01485 210779.
- …and of course… Daffodil mile at Honing – meet at the church.
© Sheila Sims 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org