Have you seen these five wildlife signs of spring in Devon this March?
PUBLISHED: 09:07 08 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:47 08 March 2016
March hares, wild garlic and bumblebees are on Tom Rhys Williams' list of things top watch out for this month
With such a warm start to the year, it was easy to imagine that we may be in shorts and T-shirts by now, enjoying a picnic in the March sunshine. But it rarely happens like that.
More often than not, a mild January is followed by an icy February and the chill that has dominated early March has kept the short trousers folded at the back of the drawer. All in all, we are more or less back where we should be in nature’s calendar.
March is a beautiful month full of promise and expectation and the sun on your back starts to deliver genuine warmth. If you are lucky enough to be exploring Devon’s beautiful landscape this month, look out for these five March classics.
Queen bumblebees will have spent the winter hibernating below the ground. If they selected a safe spot and have been fortunate enough to avoid the jaws of a hungry wood mouse, they will be emerging in March. One of the first species out will be the buff-tailed bumblebee.
The queens are much larger than the workers they produce in early summer and their buzzing is loud enough to hear at a distance. It is a wonder how such a large fuzzy ball with relatively small wings can fly. Some have even questioned whether it should be possible but this has always struck be as a pointless pass time. It is possible! Just like any hibernating species, a priority for them will be nourishment and this brings me nicely onto my next item.
Pussy Willows are the flowers of the willow tree. Not only do they look great, they feel great. A young immature flower is furry and soft and feels just like one of those little brushes that people use to apply eye make up. I can’t profess to be an expert here but you spot these things around the house! They offer a massive hit of nectar and pollen to a multitude of flying insects. If you bring one to your nose and smell it, the sickly perfume indicates just how much sugar it within. Many of us marvel at violets and primrose at this time of year but it’s these unassuming fuzzy flowers that really deliver the goods on the scale required. On a warm day, stand below a willow tree and listen to the buzzing above. Look up and you may see a peacock butterfly or two.
Whilst taking in the buzz of a willow tree, you may well hear a chiffchaff. The chiffchaff is a small bird belonging to the warbler family. It is migratory and most will currently be making their way back north. However, an increasing minority have started to brave the stormier but milder UK winters. The bird is fairly plain and could easily be referred to as a LBJ (little brown jobby) by the heathens that do not know any better but it’s the chiffchaff’s call that makes it a star for me.
The name is onomatopoeic after it’s punchy repetitive song that rings out throughout spring and summer; ‘chiff–chaff chiff–chaff chiff–chaff.’ It will always be my true harbinger of spring and when I hear this, I expect to smell cut grass, have daylight to enjoy after work and celebrate England winning the Six Nations - two out of three won’t be bad.
Ransoms is a plant that is often detected by the nose before the eyes. It’s alternatively known as wild garlic and with this name it’s easier to understand why. Like the snowdrops that light up February and the bluebells that charm us in April and May, wild garlic is a plant that emerges from a bulb below damp woodland soils.
In early March, the leaves are present and the flowering bud is just a pea sized swelling but come the end of the month and into April, a hemisphere of dainty white flowers will be on display. When you come across a dense swathe of these, their effect is every bit as stunning as the bluebells. They have the added benefit of being edible. The young leaves are fantastic to add into a salad and if you really want to impress the flowers can be sprinkled in too.
My last paragraph had to be saved for the brown hare. How could I not call upon the animal so commonly referred to at this time as the ‘mad March hare?’ I have heard people question whether they would be able to differentiate them from rabbits but once you have seen a couple of hares it’s easy enough. They are much larger with longer, broader, black tipped ears and bulbous eyes.
Their back legs seem so gangly and tucked up that their motion is slightly awkward at an amble but there is nothing awkward about them when they decide to use those legs to their potential.
They can explode into a sprint that is devastatingly powerful. It’s this that is their defence. They do not bolt to underground burrows when threatened as a rabbit does. They just vanish into the distance. They earn the phrase, ‘mad March hare’, with their mating behaviour. As they leap and box, people often assume they are watching fighting males but this behaviour is generally females fighting off unwelcome mating advances.
Tom Williams is a naturalist living on the north Devon coast just outside of Barnstaple. When he’s not working as a veterinary surgeon, he’s exploring the stunning Devon countryside on his doorstep.