At this time of year the weather is often unpredictable with frost and flurries of snow, heavy rain and flooding mixed with warm, sunny days that reminds us that spring is almost here. Wildlife also reflect this ‘in-between-the-seasons’ character with winter visitors from Scandinavia such as waxwings feeding on the last of the autumns berries at the same time as the drumming of woodpeckers establishing their breeding territories can be heard. Here are some activity ideas to help reawaken your senses and look for those cheerful first signs of spring.
- Sound mapping: Find a quiet spot to sit and listen. Woodlands are full of mid-winter birdsong. Blackbirds are very vocal and their song announces the season’s gradually lengthening days. Where there are plenty of large, old trees listen out for great spotted woodpeckers – their drumming travels a long distance across the leafless woodlands. Try drumming your fingers at that speed! Close your eyes and count the number of different sounds you hear; what direction are the sounds coming from?
- Early colour: The bright yellow lesser celandine is one of the first woodland wild flowers to appear. On hazel trees look for ‘lamb’s tails’ the pale-yellow catkins that hang down and look like caterpillars. Gently tap the catkin against your hand to release its tiny pollen grains. Check out the Woodland Trust’s website for these spotter guides: early signs of spring and blossom and catkins.
- Insects awaking: Overwintering butterflies such as brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral will soon be on the wing. They are a welcome sight and add a splash of early colour to our countryside. Look out for pussy willow catkins – an important pollen and nectar source for awaking insects; often your attention will be drawn to the buzzing of bumblebees and the flutter of butterflies and other insects. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars for great close up views.
- Go pond-dipping: Frogs have begun their life cycle and masses of jelly-like spawn can be seen from the end January onwards. Although the best times are from April to June, there’s always an interesting variety of hidden life to be found in ponds. On warm sunny days look for frogs, toads and newts around the pond edge, and deeper in the pond you’ll find dragonfly larva at varies stages of growth. Mother nature’s cycle of life is always comforting to observe.
- First bud burst: As winter ends the tiny buds made by trees during the late summer are now beginning to swell and grow. Many birds enjoy snacking on the juicy, energy rich buds and are easy to watch amongst the trees bare branches. Look out for elder trees; their dark red buds are one of the first to burst open. To force buds on to reveal how their leaves unfurl, simply cut a small hazel twig and place in a vase of water indoors. Over the next few weeks watch the buds burst into leaf – magical!
Happy spring wanderings.