Friday, 14 March 2014

Pink! Pink!

"Pink! Pink!" is the traditional transcription of the two-note alarm call of Chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs), whose song is a real feature of mild March days, especially if the sun is shining. While it is the male that sings, both sexes can be seen flycatching from the still-naked branches of apple trees in the orchard, sallying forth high into the air in pursuit of a tasty morsel. While many of the Chaffinches in and around the garden will nest locally, others are migrants, heading back north to breed in the forests of northern continental Europe, perhaps as far away as Russia. A few years ago we found a dead Chaffinch bearing a small metal ring on one leg. Close inspection revealed the word "Stavanger" followed by a series of numbers. A quick internet search and an email soon elicited confirmation that the bird had indeed been tagged in Norway, in early autumn, on its way south to spend the winter in the comparative mildness of a British winter.

Pink is also one of the colours of early spring, albeit it somewhat overhwelmed by the massed yellow of daffodils, primroses and celandines... Some pink flowers hit you in the eye in a none-too-subtle way; others are more discreet and easily overlooked. Here is a selection covering both extremes, with stops along the way.

Bergenia cordifolia Elephant's Ears
Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant'
Cyclamen coum – a last hurrah
Erythronium dens-canis Dog's-tooth Violet; modestly nodding flowers with gorgeous marbled leaves
Close-up of Erythronium flower – a subtle beauty
Carmine pink or red? Erupting buds of rhubarb

Monday, 10 March 2014

Toads ahoy!

After a false start a few days ago when a single female and two males appeared, last night marked the first real emergence of Common Toads (Bufo bufo), with several mating pairs in the top pond today, and some two dozen, along with a couple of Palmate Newts (Lissotriton helveticus) and three drake Mallards revealed by torchlight a few minutes ago. True to form, the spawning of toads comes six weeks after the ponds were heaving with frogs (see blog of 26 January). It seems that toads require a period of proper spring warmth to encourage them out of hibernation and I always associate the first toads with the first Peacock butterflies; a rough-and-ready reckoner that has proved accurate to within a couple of days this season. We have noticed that the toads vary considerably in colouration – from grey, through brown to markedly 'rusty' – as shown in these photos.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

More Butterflies, a Beetle, a Bat and a Box

It was exceptionally warm and sunny today and according to the Countryfile weather forecast this evening it's going to be dry, mild and benign throughout the week ahead... When did that last happen?! Stimulated by the rising temperature, more harbingers of spring were out and about in the garden this afternoon, with several individuals each of four species of butterfly. Comma and Small Tortoiseshell both put in their first appearances of the year, vigorously defending territories in the same sheltered sunny areas as Peacocks and Red Admirals. At one point we watched two Commas spiralling around each other and continuously gaining height until they disappeared from view right over the top of a large ash tree. A Seven-spot Ladybird basking on bugle (Ajuga reptans) leaves was the first of the spring for us, as was a bat (probably a pipistrelle) flying around the edge of the wood at dusk. A happy afternoon of willow pollarding, Cornus stooling and Buddleia pruning (inbetween the butterfly watching, of course), accompanied by a soundscape of resident birds getting increasingly into breeding mode. We put up a new nestbox on the fern-garden oak tree and not a moment too soon by the looks of it; many of our existing boxes, both in the garden and in the wood, are already getting thorough inspections from busy pairs of house-hunting Blue Tits.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Butterflies and Buzzards

The first REALLY warm, sunny day of March tempted out the first butterflies of the year – a Red Admiral, feeding on a bright pink Bergenia cordifolia flower, and a Peacock basking in the mid-afternoon sun. Both will have overwintered as adult insects, perhaps in a hollow tree, amongst ivy or in an outbuilding somewhere.

Red Admiral
Underside of the same butterfly
Peacock – wings spread to the sun

The crystal-clear blue skies and warming sun also provided perfect conditions for this Buzzard to soar in a rising thermal, giving its distinctive, far-carrying mewing call, high over the sweet violets and wild daffodils.

Up, up and away!
Sweet by name, sweet by nature
The iconic flower of damp meadows in March

Thursday, 6 March 2014

When Galadriel met Robin Hood

Although the main flowering period for snowdrops is now coming to an end, we still have a fair number of varieties that are looking good, among them the large-flowered 'Galadriel' (named after J.R.R. Tolkien's ethereal Lady of Lórien by Beth Chatto's nursery manager David Ward) and 'Robin Hood' a cultivar that dates back to the late 19th century. Here are both legendary characters, along with a selection of other snowdrops photographed over the last few days...

Galanthus elwesii 'Galadriel'
Galanthus 'Robin Hood'
Galanthus 'George Elwes'
Galanthus nivalis 'Greenish'
Un-named green-tipped Galanthus nivalis found in our garden
Galanthus nivalis 'Lady Elphinstone'
Galanthus 'Mrs Wrightson's Double'
Galanthus nivalis 'Tiny Tim'
Galanthus 'Tubby Merlin'
Galanthus nivalis 'Angelique'
Galanthus nivalis 'Blewbury Tart'
Galanthus plicatus 'Bill Baker'
Galanthus 'Seagull'
Wonderful 'ordinary' snowdrops around an old apple tree

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Signs of spring

While lying on the grass admiring the crocuses on Saturday (see last post), I became aware of movement in the nearby leaf litter, which turned out to be this emerging Herald moth. We watched it warm up in preparation for flight, rapidly vibrating its wings and body.

Developing frog spawn photographed on 23 Feb

On Monday, we woke to the sound of quacking Mallards gorging themselves on the mass of developing tadpoles in the lower pond; a duck (we think the same one that has nested with us for the past several years, as she has a characteristic deeper-than-normal quack) and two drakes. We have stretched a net over part of the pond to try and ensure that at least some of the tadpoles stand a fighting chance of making it to the froglet stage..
Other signs of the rapidly gathering spring include our first wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) of the year, flowering primroses (Primula vulgaris) and masses of sweet violets (Viola odora) on a sunny south-facing bank. The dawn chorus is really getting going too, with Mistle and Song Thrushes, Blackbird, Dunnock, Robin and Wren setting the early pace, joined a little later by Great, Blue, Coal and Marsh Tits, Chaffinch and Wood Pigeon. Dippers and Grey Wagtails seem to be a permanent fixture around the stream, while late morning today I watched a feeding Goldcrest tumbling through the branches of a goat willow on the edge of the wood.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

March sunworshippers

The first day of meteorological spring brought long sunny spells and the crocuses stretched open appreciatively...

Crocus tommasinianus – the original and best
I planted species Crocus tommasinianus in the main meadow several years ago and for me this is still the best crocus of all; elegant, beautifully proportioned, subtle in its colouring and deceptively tough. Each spring I make a mental note to plant more, but somehow manage to overlook the vital ordering part... The bulb catalogues arrive during the dog days of summer and there always seems to be plenty of time, until you look up and it's Christmas!

Elsewhere, several clumps of the more showy cultivar C. tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant' (left and below) are gradually expanding, having been introduced by one of our predecessors, many moons ago. This is a 'feel good' flower, through and through. As I lay down in the grass for a closer view this afternoon, I was smiling outside and in.
Crocuses and photographer sunbathing...
I like to grow other crocuses in pots, to make a cheerful display near the kitchen door – and to keep the corms away from mice, voles and squirrels... This year, the relentless wet and windy weather in February gave them a real battering, but true to form the surviving flowers opened wide to the sun today, albeit some of them from a prostrate position!
Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor'  – beaten flat by rain
Crocus 'Ard Schenk' – new to me this year.