Wildlife Diary: April 2016
Week beginning 3rd April: the flight of the bumblebee
T S Eliot referred to April as the cruellest month and that’s been about right so far. One morning there’s grey cold winds, then suddenly there are adders basking in the sunshine; one moment butterflies alight on the path and an hour later there’s torrential rain again, overwhelming the puddles. But things are gradually getting greener, birdsong more confident, flowers and reptiles emerging.
What really whips up the consciousness at this time of year is the buzz of a passing bee – a sound always associated with warmth and, ultimately, summer days. Who are these earnest early bees that we are seeing visiting the blackthorn blossom? Most of them are bumblebees; they belong to the Bombus family and there are 10 species in the UK. Several of the common types have rather helpful names – the Buff-tailed, White-tailed and Red-tailed Bumblebees. Have a good look at the tail of any large hairy bees you see.
Early in the year the bumblebees that are seen are queens emerging from hibernation and looking for a suitable nest site in which to start a new colony. With a mild winter like the one we’ve just had, there are plenty of them about.
Bumblebees, like honeybees, are colonial but their colonies are much smaller – just 50 to 200 individuals depending on the species. The queen who buzzes past you is a solitary survivor of last year’s colony and will be looking for a disused mouse-hole, a cavity in an old hedge-bank, or maybe one of the undisturbed grassy tussocks in the middle of the more open areas of Fineshade Wood. Last autumn she’ll have mated with one of the males and will have slept through the winter. Now she needs a place to lay her fertilised eggs. At this time of year, each queen is alone, so the future success of her colony depends upon her choice of site and her ability to collect nectar and pollen with which to feed her young.
If all goes well, the first young will emerge as sterile female workers. As the season progresses she’ll lay more eggs which will be nurtured by the workers. Some of these eggs will become males and some future potential queens. A few of the queens will be mated by the competing males before the autumn. Then the males, the workers and the old queen will die and the chosen ones will go into hibernation, completing the cycle.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a really good online tool to help you identify bees from photos.
Or, if you prefer something in your hand, the leaflet produced by Buglife and the Field Studies Council is highly recommended.
(Guide to Bees of Britain. ISBN: 978 1 85133 230 8)
Week beginning 10th April: Good newt news
In some Ancient Woodland blocks Palmate Newts have been found in rutted vehicle tracks on grassy rides and water-filled ditches by track edges. In both Fineshade and Wakerley Wood even small puddles where dogs have been swimming have been found to contain these tiny creatures
In 2014 Forest Holidays' surveyors found Palmate Newts in all three ponds that they surveyed. The most remarkable record was 64 found by torching the pond in front of the wildlife hide on 2nd April 2014. Even so, the county recorder was very surprised to find two males in a garden pond at Top Lodge this week, particularly as they were easily visible in the day time.
During the winter Palmate Newts hibernate underground in rocky areas or trees roots or even in old rabbit warrens. They can start emerging from hibernation and moving to watery areas as early as February. They lay yellowy-brown eggs and the female individually wraps these in a plant leaf below the water.
The eggs become tadpoles which have gills like fish. They then lose the gills and legs develop to form a small version of the adult known as an eft, leaving the water to feed up before hibernation.
Like other amphibians they do not eat vegetable matter but feed on small invertebrates such as water fleas and bloodworms.
There are three native newt species in the UK and the smallest is the Palmate Newt. It is also the rarest newt in Northamptonshire, and at one time was known only in the National Nature Reserve of Bedford Purlieus. However in recent years Brian Laney, the county recorder, has found it in other Ancient Woodland blocks including Fineshade.
The male does not have a crest like the Great Crested and Smooth (or Common) Newt. Instead in the breeding season the tail widens and a pointed filament grows at the end of the tail. The male's hind feet also become webbed, resembling the palm of a hand - no doubt giving rise to the species' English name. Unlike the Smooth Newt, the Palmate has a clear spotless throat and many less spots on its belly. All these features are clearly visible in Roger Eads' excellent photographs. However, there is another far less obvious feature which is key to its ID outwith the breeding season: both male and female have two warts on the underside of each of their hind feet. One wonders why!
Week beginning 18th April: Here come the migrants
It's been a fairly normal April so far - the odd beautiful spring day, followed by heavy rain, followed by blasts of cold from the arctic; there were even a few flakes of snow on Saturday morning. Just the weather we should expect in April.
And the other thing Fineshade expects at this time of year is the return of the migrant birds. It began on 28th March (as we reported) when the first Chiffchaff was heard and within three days there were loads of them. A week later on 5th April they were joined by Willow Warblers - very similar to look at, as Kurt Hellwing's pictures show, but they have a very different song indeed, ending with a few fast descending notes. There's an excellent ID video produced by the BTO that helps if you want to identify these two warblers by their songs and also visually. These two are easily Fineshade's most common migrant species.
There will be an estimated 2.2 million pairs of Willow warblers nesting in Britain. But where have these little migrants suddenly come from in such big numbers? Chiffchaffs will have spent the winter further south in Europe or North Africa, but the later-arriving Willow Warblers will have had to cross the vast Sahara desert from central and southern Africa.
Another migrant species that has arrived already is the Blackcap - much easier to identify visually because of the colour of their caps; well, the males have a black cap but the females'are brown. The first Bkackcap was heard singing on 10th April - a rich warbling song from the flowering blackthorn bushes.
And then, last Thursday 1th April, came the most iconic of spring migrants, the Cuckoo - tentative and distant - but certainly calling from the eastern edge of the wood over towards King's Cliffe. This was a full 10 days earlier than usual.
A Chiffchaff above and Willow Warber below
- both birds were identified by hearing their song.
Below, a male Blackcap. Pictures by Kurt Hellwing
There are still more migrants to come. Over the next couple of weeks there will be yet more birds arriving from Africa: the Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Tree Pipit and Grasshopper Warbler will all be setting up territories in the wood. Just possibly there will be a Nightingale too (one sang in 2014 but sadly not last year).
Then, later, Spotted Flycatchers and Hobbies will probably return: this small falcon has bred quietly in the wood for several years.
But one bird very unlikely to occur will be the Turtle Dove. Twenty years ago this beautiful migrant species nested commonly through the wood but it has suffered a drastic widespread decline. The RSPB report the UK population has plummeted by 96% since 1970 and they are now very seldom seen anywhere in Northants.
All these migrants join the residents forming an Assemblage of Breeding Birds that help to make Fineshade Wood a very special place and well worth protecting.
Update 19th April. Two Grasshopper Warblers heard reeling this evening.
Week beginning 25th April. The cruellest month?
"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land" (The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot)
After a patch of typical spring weather in the middle of the month, for the last few days the wood has been exposed to icy air sweeping down from the Arctic. There has been overnight frost, and snow is forecast for Thursday. In places that are sheltered from the northerly winds the spring flowers are holding their own: the picture on the left shows Cowslips protected by a patch of nettles and an old hedge line in Fineshade's Apple Orchard. Elsewhere the first orchids can be seen blooming with the bluebells in sheltered parts of the Ancient Woodland areas.
But in exposed places the flowers are battling against the conditions as indicated in the two pictures below. Again these are Cowslips, a profusion of plants as usual in the Hay Meadow just south of Top Lodge itself, but here the florets are more stunted and wind-blown. Maybe they will recover as we enter May.
The photo on the left shows, not another Cowslip, but rather a "False Oxlip". This is actually a cross between a Primrose and a Cowslip. Where Cowslips (Primula veris) and Primroses (P. vulgaris) grow together, as in Fineshade Wood they sometimes hybridise to produce this larger plant. It should not be confused with the true Oxlip (Primula elatior) which is much rarer.
This rather magnificent specimen is growing alongside the vehicle track that runs through North Spinney. It was found by Brian Laney a couple of weeks ago before the north winds began to blow.