Unlike last year, when the cold, damp spring caused everything to happen later than usual, this year things are very much advanced. Some hay-fever sufferers may be having early symptoms, as trees such as Alder and Hazel, which do not require high temperatures to flower, have already borne pollen-shedding catkins.The Hazel was one of the first trees to spread across Europe after the end of the last ice age, and remains of charred nut shells have been found by archaeologists at prehistoric sites. It is thought that the hunter-gatherers roasted the nuts to make them more palatable or as a method of preservation.
The Hazel tree has both male and female flowers on the same plant, the male is the pollen bearing catkin and the female is small and bud-like with red styles; it is wind pollinated. In the past it was grown and coppiced for the timber, which was used, among other things, for roofing, fencing and fuel, and it is still cultivated for the nuts. The tree supports a great deal of wildlife including many moth caterpillars that feed on the leaves, and mammals such as mice, voles and squirrels which eat the nuts. The Hazel is very important to the Dormouse which is now very rare. Coppicing provides shelter for ground nesting birds and deer browse on the leaves and bark.
The Blackthorn started blooming nearly a month ago, with drifts of snowy blossom decorating the countryside, and many spring bulbs have flowered early. But just a minute…didn’t you plant more than that last autumn? So where are they? The likely culprits are Grey Squirrels – they love bulbs and dig them up to eat during the winter.
Most birds will have built their nests by now and many will already be sitting on eggs. Swallows arrive from their southern winter quarters and will be looking at their nesting sites in our out-buildings. If there has not been much rain and the ground is dry, we can help them by creating a mud pool so that they can make the little pellets that form their nests. Cuckoos also arrive this month – always a summery feeling to hear that sound coming across the fields.
Toads are out of hibernation and will be making their way to their breeding places and many garden wildlife ponds will already have frog tadpoles. Other amphibians that may also be in your pond are newts that will be breeding this month.
The warm days have brought out some species of butterflies; I saw Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Commas three weeks ago.
Our Peregrines are back at the cathedral in Norwich and, at the time of publication, may have produced their eggs; you can watch them on the live web cam at upp.hawkandowl.org and see how they progress.
Cley Marshes are alive with activity; waders are nesting, including the beautiful Avocet, Marsh Harriers are displaying to their mates and Bitterns are booming in the reeds. The male bird makes this far carrying sound in the hope of attracting a female.
If you see what looks like a large, solitary gull flying over, get your binoculars and have a closer look, it could just be an Osprey, sometimes known as a ‘fish hawk’. This beautiful bird is one of the most widespread raptors in the world, occurring in every continent, except Antartica, where they inhabit large areas of fresh water, estuaries and coastal regions. However, they are rare in Great Britain, and the ones we may see in Norfolk will be on their way to their nesting sites in Scotland and Rutland Water, after spending the winter in West Africa; some have also been found wintering in Southern Iberia. There are a few that nest in Wales and the Lake District but these will probably travel up the west side of the country. Ospreys build large nests, sometimes more than a metre in diameter, constructed from piles of twigs lined with grass, moss and bark. They will choose a tree with a suitably strong, flat platform and will sometimes use man-made structures such as pylons or telegraph poles.
The Norfolk Broads would be an ideal nesting place for them and, with this in mind, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has built an artificial nest at Ranworth Broad in the hope that passing birds will decide to stay and raise a family. If they were successful they would almost certainly return every year and so would the young, once they were mature, so let’s hope they set up home; one did stay at Ranworth for most of the summer in 2011 and one was around East Ruston and Honing for nearly a month a few years ago. Although a pair will not stay together during the winter, they usually meet up again at their nesting site and tend to remain faithful to each other throughout their life, unless one should fail to return. In this case the lonely bird will find another mate and settle down to breed. There are usually 3 eggs that hatch after 35 – 42 days and the young are fed mainly by the female.
Ospreys feed almost exclusively on fish which they catch by diving into the water, wings back and talons extended. Like all raptors they have four toes but ospreys are able to move them so that two point forward and two backward. This ability, plus the spiky lumps on the underside of their feet, called spicules, gives them a firm grip on slippery fish. Once caught, the prey is turned, so that the head faces forward, making it more aerodynamic. The osprey’s wingspan can be between 5 – 6 feet (1.5 – 1.8 metres) and, like most birds of prey, the female is usually larger than the male. Records show that some birds have lived for more than thirty years. By late August or early September they are on their way back to their summer residences, so this may be another chance to see these beautiful raptors.
Things to do this month include:-
- Mini beast hunt and pond dipping – for children at Bacton Wood.
- Details: 07920 576634 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bluebells – Foxley Wood.
- Guided walks – Cley Marshes.
- Walk in the park – Felbrigg Hall.
Details: 01603 625540 or www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk
- Beginning birding – Titchwell.
Details: 01485 210779 or email@example.com
© Sheila Sims 2014.