Have you seen these five wildlife species in Devon this April?
PUBLISHED: 11:42 18 April 2016
Naturalist Tom Rhys Williams suggests five things to look out for in Devon this April
The swallows are back, though as I write this in the first week of April, I must confess to having seen only one and we all know the rest of that beautifully English proverb.
In early April I often feel bad for these dainty little birds. Watching them buffeted around in biting winds full of drizzle and chill always makes me feel guilty as though somehow I am partly responsible the UK climate that greets them. Their return to from Africa seems to be one of the most popular seasonal markers. We celebrate them in a way that might be envied by wheatears and black caps had they any comprehension of such things.
It must be the combination of their grace and nesting habits that endear them to us. In rural areas they use our homes and outbuildings to build nests in full view so we can watch as gaping yellow mouths protrude from within. As the adults come into feed and perch on wires close by, their chatter is incessant but in the most pleasant way.
So many of Devon’s birds are catching the eye this month. To single out the swallow was easy because nothing else is quite so iconic but why single out the grey heron? It was purely down to personal experience. More specifically it was a walk I had enjoyed at Arlington Court. The heron is very prominent at this stately home and statuettes found on roofs and the many gateposts that welcome you depict a heron with an eel in its bill.
It is no surprise therefore to discover that on this estate there is a large heronry sat up high in the oaks of a wooded valley. A heronry is the name given to a communal nesting area of herons. It’s is a noisy place. Birds call loudly as they approach the nest and then make a great deal more noise on arrival. There are greeting calls made by paired birds and feeding calls made by the young. I appreciate you have to use your imagination somewhat with the next bit but for me there was something so prehistoric about the herons. The calls just don’t sound like other birds and watching them soar high on enormous wingspans I could only think of pterodactyls.
This butterfly makes a most welcome appearance in April. Anyone who is aware that brimstone is an alternative name for sulphur will appreciate that this is a very well named butterfly, (at least for the males anyway). The males are a glorious yellow similar to that of the primrose that they can be seen feeding from in April. The females are more washed out and are paler with a green tinge. Their wings are a joy to examine in closure detail. The camouflage you will find is exquisite as they mimic the veiny underside of a leaf perfectly. This allows them to do something that most British species don’t. They overwinter as hibernating adults and once warmed by the April sun, they emerge. Hedgerows and the edges of woodland are great sites to look out for males as they patrol. They seek out nectar and females and once they find the latter they start a courtship flight. This is a flight that climbs high into the air before tumbling back to ground. If the flight is satisfactory, the two then mate.
It would be hard to find anyone who didn’t love this instantly recognisable flower. When you come across a glade of bluebells in April, it’s easy to see why. Their effect on mass is breath taking. The term ‘carpet’ is used to describe the way the blue can occupy the entirety of a deciduous woodland floor.
At this time, the trees above are just budding or young pea green translucent leaves have emerged. These catch just enough of the sun to glow green but allow the bluebells their share below. It’s magical and will have you reaching for your camera even if it’s the phone in your back pocket. What you phone won’t capture is the fragrance that can be particularly strong in the evening.
Fox cubs are emerging from their dens. If the den is in the woods, they often appear from within the aforementioned bluebell carpet. To get a picture of a young fox in the bluebells is one of those clichéd wildlife photos that many seek out and one unfortunately I can’t offer (yet). The fox and cub in the photo I can offer are from a family of well-known foxes up here in North Devon. They live on the Saunton Sands golf course and are incredibly approachable. Most baby animals are cute but fox cubs are especially so. They are also incredible fun to watch as they wrestle, tumble, chase and pounce on one another. They bite and snarl and can appear very vicious but as with most young predatory animals, they are just honing their hunting skills.
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.