The joys of spring: 20 reasons to be cheerful
Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, the days are getting brighter. Michael McCarthy celebrates a special time of year
Saturday 26 March 2011
It's because everything is doing something – singing or displaying or flowering or mating or hatching or hunting for food to feed the family – that spring is such a special time in the natural world. Never mind the improvement in the weather; in the three months which stretch roughly from mid-March to mid-June, living things are at their most vividly, and sometimes dramatically, alive, and observing them gives us the most intense pleasure.
It has to be said that many of the aspects of the British spring are so well-known as to be almost commonplace. That they are so familiar takes nothing away from the song of the first chiffchaff, or the sight of a bluebell wood when the flowers are at their peak, but it is worth reminding ourselves that there are other, perhaps lesser-known aspects to our springtime which provide less familiar but just as invigorating sights, and sounds, and smells.
So here we present a short catalogue of 20 of spring's less celebrated attractions. Some, perhaps even a majority, you will know; others (such as the dance of the mayflies) may be unfamiliar. But they're all examples of wildlife at it most intense, and reasons to be cheerful.
1. Wild garlic
Provides the most pungent smell of the spring, often surprising you before you see the plant and its flowers, which appear as beautiful clusters of white stars and occasionally cover a whole wood. The Old English name for the plant is ramsons; the leaves are fantastic in salads.
2. Water crowfoot
A member of the buttercup family, water crowfoot is particularly associated with chalk streams, those limpidly clear small rivers whose waters are purified by being filtered by the underlying chalk. The crowfoot flowers dot the surface of the stream in a carpet of white buttons.
3. The birdsong explosion
The singing of male birds proclaiming their territories and seeking mates, which has been building up since the turn of the year, reaches a climax in the next two months with the return of the singing migrants from Africa, such as the warblers and, of course, the nightingale (but only in the South-east).
4. Queen bumblebees
You may have noticed that the bumblebees you are seeing at the moment appear particularly rotund and fat: this is because they are all queens, as only the fertilised queens survive the winter. Each year they found a new colony and start laying eggs, and female and then male bumblebees gradually emerge.
5. Orange tip butterfly
In flag design, "colours" – red, blue, green, etc – must always be placed next to "metals" – gold and silver, and by extension, yellow and white, so that they stand out. The wing pattern of male orange tips, bold orange next to bright white, obeys these rules, and makes them the spring's most brilliant butterfly.
6. Lesser spotted woodpecker
It's hard enough to see anyway, but now, before all the leaves appear on the trees, is the best time to glimpse this scarce, minuscule, magical bird, the size of a Mars bar with a brilliant scarlet crest. Lesser spotted woodpeckers are tumbling in numbers all over Britain; no-one really knows why.
There is a period of about 10 days after the new leaves emerge on certain trees when their green is of a quite stunning iridescent brilliance, which soon fades and is not seen again till the following year. You can see it particularly on horse chestnuts, and in young hawthorn leaves.
8. Rising trout
Rivers sometimes look lifeless from above, but in spring, brown trout begin to rise to the surface to take the aquatic insects which are hatching from the water. They make rings in the river, and occasionally will jump clean out; with big hatches of river flies they virtually develop a feeding frenzy.
9. Hawthorn in flower
In contrast to the frosty white blossom of the blackthorn, in flower now, hawthorn blossoms are a rich creamy-white, and when they flower in big hawthorn hedges which stretch right across fields, the countryside appears to have been garlanded for a wedding. It also has a heady sweet scent.
10. Early purple orchid
This lovely deep blue flower is the first of our 50-or-so orchid species to appear. They're not exotic-looking like tropical species (with the exception of the very rare lady's slipper); they're elegant spikes in pastel colours from pink to pale yellow, and the early purple gives a taste of what is to come.
Bouncy and breezy, and heading for the uplands to nest, this is one of the first spring migrants to arrive back from Africa and one of the most handsome, with its contrasting plumage of a blue-grey back and a buff breast; its white rump gives it its name, which originally was "white arse".
12. Fox cubs
In the next few weeks fox cubs will begin to emerge from the earths where they have been born and tentatively start exploring the world outside. If you're very fortunate, you can sometimes glimpse them playing, tumbling over each other in mock fights, while the vixen stands guard nearby.
13. Boxing hares
Hares are at their most active now and if you are very lucky indeed you may glimpse the famous "boxing", when two animals rear up and appear to punch each other. It used to be thought this was males fighting; now we know it is females who are not ready to mate, giving males the brush-off.
14. Daubenton's bat
Bats are starting to appear from winter hibernation and one of the most identifiable is Daubenton's or the water bat, which specialises in catching insects over water. At the Wetland Centre in Barnes, south-west London, you can take a bat walk and see them over water, picked out by torchlight.
15. Dance of the mayflies
The mayfly is our prettiest aquatic insect and one of Britain's great natural spectacles in the mating dance they perform on the riverbank: the males, sometimes in swarms of thousands, fly up into the air and parachute down, which is their way of attracting females.
16. Blackcap singing
If you can't find any nightingales, this is the next best thing. The blackcap is one of the warblers, related to the whitethroat and the garden warbler, and used to be known as "the lesser nightingale" for its song, which is an exquisite, high, sweet, liquid fluting. Once known, it's not forgotten.
17. Male sand lizard
The sand lizard is the rarest of our three native lizards (the others being the common lizard and the legless slow-worm) and is mainly found on sandy heaths in a few southern counties such as Hampshire and Dorset. In his spring breeding uniform the male is a quite spectacular green.
18. Grass snake
Our largest snake is a handsome green creature and is a specialised frog hunter, and just now is beginning to slither through wet and marshy places in search of an amphibian dinner. Grass snakes are not impossible to find if you look hard enough; they will sometimes come into gardens.
19. Holly blue butterfly
Most of our blue butterflies appear in high summer, but the holly blue arrives in spring and is easily identified because its underside is sky-blue (other blues are brownish beneath). It's the blue you're most likely to see in your garden, especially if you've got clumps of holly or ivy: it likes both.
20. Sweet violet
Often overlooked besides better-known spring flowers such as primroses and wood anemones, the common or sweet violet is small and lies low down, but has a beautiful scent which has been used for perfume since Ancient Greece. It's food for the caterpillars of fritillary butterflies.
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