Nature Notes for March, by Malcolm Cox: Friday, March 4th

Colourful lesser celandine
Colourful lesser celandine
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It’s difficult to start this month’s notes without some reference to the dramatic scenes from Sunny Hunny and those stranded whales.

I have only ever seen one whale in UK waters, alive and swimming that is. About three decades ago, with a friend, I spent a couple of weeks as volunteers on Handa Island off the coast of Sutherland.

Flying high, a  pallid harrier

Flying high, a pallid harrier

The RSPB gave us free lodging in exchange for whatever duties the warden Reg Thorpe had lined up. The whale appeared between the island’s eastern edge and the mainland. It was easily identified as a Sei whale and we shouted loudly as it cruised unseen behind an angler in a rowboat. Do not imply that he was in any danger, just did not want him to miss such a rare visitation. The cetacean eventually dived and was lost to view, the angler remained oblivious. A memorable record.

It will be some time before science reveals details of this spate of strandings, twenty nine in total along British and European beaches. Sadly we may never learn of the causes, although a report on Newsnight (10 February 2016) concerning beached dolphins suggests that polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) were the cause. We can only hope that the cause was truly natural and not due to human influence. I suppose it is comforting to note the human reaction to these sad events.

Creatures that were once commercially hunted now spark empathy from those who ventured onto the beach or watched on TV screens. Sadly some species are still hunted but I had better leave it there before getting bogged down in an angry rant against continued greed and disregard for non-human creatures which share our planet.

As expected much of February was wet n’ windy but as with the rest of the winter temperatures were again above the norm. Storm Imogen was horrible but could have been worse I guess. March is often a month of tightly packed isobars, will it be a “normal” month? By the time you read this the Spring equinox will be approaching. How we eagerly await this event.

"Lords and ladies"

"Lords and ladies"

In our garden arum lilies (“Lords and Ladies”) are well advanced and in many places the blossom of winter flowering prunus are already fading. Those in Lynn’s Tower Gardens are always a joy. Spring bulbs are up, some narcissi varieties now spent. Other garden cultivars, primrose varieties especially are showing well and anyone lucky enough to have wych elms in their garden might catch that unique scent. Several years ago I attempted to grow some of these, both failed. Those at Anglesey Abbey in the village of Lode five miles NE of Cambridge is worth a view for anyone unfamiliar with these lovely trees. The rest home in Terrington St Clement produced its usual glorious display of snowdrops and aconites, they too are now well past flowering.

As usual a couple of hibernating small tortoiseshell butterflies emerged all too early from their wardrobe dormitories. Every late winter this happens and despite our best efforts to relocate the insects to a cooler spot they perish.

A major disappointment so far this year is silence from our local tawny owls. I have reported previously on what comfort we feel when their hooting begins. Sadly I presume they no longer hold that particular territory. To compensate however at least one green woodpecker has been “yaffling” away on the small green opposite our house. An apparently insignificant birch seems to attract them. Dunnocks, those reliably cheerful songsters are now in good voice, so easily overlooked as they seek out scraps that fall from bird tables, they often produce rooftop warbles. Other regulars such as great and blue tits are now more active along with the odd robin.

“Throstles”, how I love that old English word for thrushes, are also making the most of increased daylight. I mentioned the slightly mournful song of mistle thrush in last month’s notes but now at least one song thrush is singing. Such an exuberant song and quite different to that of its larger cousin.

Lesser celandines are showing off their tiny golden stars along dyke banks while I note that this year’s coltsfoot seem less evident, no idea of why that should be. And of course down in the dyke’s chilly water common toads are already set upon spawning, common frogs will be just as active within weeks.

In mid February the weather forecaster mentioned that dreaded phrase “a North-east wind.” In this part of the world that usually brings all outdoor activities to a halt for delicate souls like us. Many birdwatchers though welcome anything from the east in the hope of European visitors. At this time of the year however a rush to the coast many not be quite so interesting. Checking the regions bird observatories reveals a juvenile pallid harrier over Roydon Common. This will bring many ‘twitchers’ to the area.