If you've been outside at all recently you will have noticed that spring flowers are popping up all over the place. If you've taken part in this season's WildSquare survey you'll almost certainly have seen some.
Snowdrops - Nature's colour calendar starts with the first white snowdrops peeking up their heads. They appear from January in the south to March in Scotland.
Primroses - Pale yellow primroses flower in wooldands and hedgerows from Christmas in the south to May farther north, but March is their main flowering time. Look at a hedge full of primroses during the day and you may be surprised at how rarely insects visit them and how little scent they have. go back at night and the primroses seem to glow in the dark. They want to attract moths to transfer pollen between the different plants. You may also be able to smell their delicate night scent as well.
Bluebells and violets - Carpets of bluebells in woodlands are almost unknown outside the UK, so they really are very special. But bluebells aren't only found in woods and hedgerows - they can be out in the open on remote islands. Bluebells don't spread very quickly, so they are a good indication that the soil hasn't been disturbed much over the years. Because of this, most bluebell woods are also great for other wildlife. Alongside bluebells, on woodland edges or paths, you might find violets. These flowers have a very sweet but delicate smell, but you can only detect it for a short time. The chemical that our nosed picks up as a scent also deadens our sense of smell. so even if teh flower is puttting out as much scent as it can to attract insects, we - and other mammals that might want to eat it - can't smell it for long.
By May, the countryside will be alive with butterflies, bees and other insects, but there may not be enough to go around the flowers. It is hardly surprising, then, that May and June flowers are brightly coloured - they have to make every effort to bring the insects in. Just look at a field full of buttercups or dandelions for example.
The clocks go forward this weekend. This makes a big difference to people but our local wildlife will be getting up at just the same time as normal. Clocks don't matter to wildlife but timing does. There is only one reason why people need to tell the time - planning. If you intend to do nothing all afternoon, it doesn't matter if it's 2pm or 3pm, but if you have a birthday party to go to, an hour difference could mean you miss it.
Wildlife and timing - Mayflies need to hatch at the same time as all the other mayflies to give themselves a good chance of breeding. Blue tits need to lay their eggs at the right time so that there is plenty of food for their chicks when they hatch. So, nature needs a clock - a planning tool, but how does it tell the time? We measure time in years, months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds. Wildlife measures it by years, seasons, moons and days. But different animals and plants also use day length and sometimes temperature.
Like ducks to water - Mallard mums take their chicks to water as soon as they hatch, so it makes sense for them all to hatch at the same time. The chicks call to one another from inside their eggs and encourage each other to hatch all at once. Birds that stay in the nest often hatch over a few days, and generally don't call from the egg.
Trees and seeds - In some years, beech trees produce lots of seeds, but in other years they produce very few. This is called masting, and is a way of trees trying to help as many of their seeds survive as possible. In a good mast year, beech trees produce more seeds thatn the nearby predators can eat at once. If, instead the trees producec the same numbers of seeds every year, the number of predators could be higher - good for squirrels and seed-eating birds such as bramblings, but not for beech trees!
The growing season - Fruit trees, such as apples and pears, as well as nuts such as hazels, grow faster when it's warmer. But it makes no sense for an apple pip to start growing in the warm days of autumn, just after it drops from a tree, when the harsh months of winter are still to come. These trees get around this in a clever way. Their seeds need to be chilled to fridge temperature for several weeks before they will start to grow. Once they have been chilled , it is the longer day length of spring that finally triggers them to start growing.
Climate change - Our springs seem to be getting warmer earlier and the growing season is getting longer. That causes problems when different creatures use different triggers to plan their lives. Oak trees respond to warmer temperatures by groing their leaves earlier and caterpillars that feed on the leaves hatch earlier too. But blue tits time their egglaying by day-length and that hasn't changed. This means that the blue tit eggs hatch too late to feed on the caterpillars.
The big hatch - One of the strangest aspects of timing in nature is how some events all happen at once. Mayflies only fly for a single night, and most flying ants will fly for only a day. In that time they have to find a mate and lay eggs otherwise there would be no insects in the future. Insects use a mix of daylength, temperature and events such as a full moon to ge it right. A spectacular example of timing is the rare New Forest cicada that lives in southern England. These hatch every six to eight years, but the adult lives for only a couple of weeks. This makes it very hard for conservationsists to work out how best to look after them as they are only visible for two weeks in eight years! Best of all, no one really knows how they decide when to hatch.
Winter is very nearly over and some birds are breeding already. The breeding season for most birds falls somewhere between April and July. It makes sense because as there is more daylight then and it is a bit warmer, there is more food around for all the extra hungry mouths. But three of our most familiar birds break these rules.
Rook - You'll probably hear a rook before you see it, they are very noisy birds (to listen to one click here). Sometimes up to several hundred pairs of rooks nest alongside each other in groups of trees. A clump of nests is called a rookery, and it is easy to spot high among the tree tops at this time of year before the leaves obscure them. Rooks actually begin to build their nests in the autumn, but winter gales often wreck their efforts, so there is plenty of restoration work to be done. It is not helped by the fact that rooks are terrible thieves, ganging up to steal their neighbours' sticks. The reason that rooks nest so early is that they feed on earthworms in the open fields. If they nested later, it would be harder to find enough worms as the crops grow and the earth dries out.
Grey heron - You can probably find herons by checking out the nearest river, lake or reservoir. However, seeing them at one of their nesting sites - called heronries - is not so easy, but is well worth the effort. The breeding season starts as early as December. At this time, herons return to the woods where they nest every year, and start repairing their huge stick platforms. It is quite a scene. These are big, ungainly birds to be flapping about in the tree tops, and they make plenty of noise as the males try to attract the females and see off their rivals. They call loudly and snap their bills, plus they do all sorts of showing off such as stretching and squatting and raising their crests. Herons nest early because finding fish to feed their chicks is easiest in spring before all the weeds grow in ponds and ditches, making fish harder to see.
Raven - This giant of the crow family starts breeding in February. Ravens don't have a dramatic mating display and they don't nest in colonies, so you have to be extra sharp to spot their breeding behaviour. The best thing to look for is signs of nest building. Ravens are master builders, using sticks a metre or more long to form a strong base for the nest. Into this they make a bowl of earth and grass, and then line that with moss, leaves, fur and wool. Don't worry about trying to look for the nest, which will be hidden high in a tree or on a cliff. Instead, watch for them flying to and fro with beakfuls of all those building materials. You would that assembling a nest a metre wide and a metre high would take ages, but ravens often complete it in a week. They then usually lay their eggs and it all goes quiet until the chicks hatch. It will take the youngsters over six months to reach independence, which is why they are born so early. It gives them plenty of time to learn all about survival before the next winter comes. Many ravens nest in the high hills and moors of the north and west, where cold weather arrives earlier than elsewhere.
Normally hares are shy animals that you will be quite lucky to spot. This all changes in the spring though. Spring is the time of year when hares in the fields start to behave very strangely. That's why we use the phrase 'Mad as a March Hare'.
Playing tag - You may see hares running around and around, chasing one another. They look like they're all having a big game of tag. What you are actually seeing is a male hare chasing off other males and keeping them away from "his female". March is the mating season, and every male wants to keep a female for himself.
Boxing - Hares are well known for boxing. They stand up on their hind legs and hit each other with their front paws. When hares box, it is actually a female boxing a male, telling him that she is not ready to mate. It is not two males as many people think.
Running - Hares have long and incredibly strong legs. They can reach speeds of 45mph when they are sprinting.
How to tell hares and rabbits apart - Hares are brown whereas rabbits are mainly grey. Hares are a lot bigger than rabbits, some people even mistake them for small deers. Hares have black tips at the top of their ears and they lollop along rather than hop like rabbits do. Hares do not live in burrows like rabbits do, they make nests above ground called 'forms' and live either on their own or in pairs.
One of the most exciting times to go out looking for wildlife is the the hour before darkness. At this time of year this is around the time you've just finished your tea. So take a brave adult and go on a journey into the unknown.
Most mammals are active at night , rather than during the day. They come out at dusk and they will be hungry after sleeping all day. Tuck yourself somewhere along the edge of a field or park where you are less likely to be seen. Stand quietly and see what you can spot.
Nervous bunnies - There might be rabbits scuttling about when you arrive, nibbling grass and chasing each other. They can see all around them in the daylight and there are many bunny eyes watching for predators. But as the light fades, they seem to get nervous. For a rabbit, danger lurks in the shadows. You might just find out why the rabbits are scared. See if you can spot a fox prowling aroudn teh degge of teh field. Foxes patrol thier territory every night, hoping to strike it lucky.
Out in the open - You might see a deer walking out into the open. It's been sleeping in the wood - perhaps under a bramble bush. Now it will be eating grass aor plants in the field. You might see a roe deer, or, if you live in southern England, the smaller muntjac is just as likely.
What, no colour - Something amazing happens while you're watching and you don't quite realise it. Everything turns to black and white. That's because your eyes need bitght light to see colours. Cells in your eyes called cones can tell one colour from another. As it gets dark, they stop working. The grass looks grey instead of green adn even your colourful clothes are now different shades of grey.
The ghost hunter - One creature stands out in the murky world. The barn owl is so dazzilingly light that you can see it even as darkness falls. Over field it flies, broad wings beating silently. It's worth braving the darnesss to catch a glimpse of this amazing bird.
Don't forget, there's only 3 more days to submit your results for the 'Birds and their song' WildSquare survey. Our next survey starts on Thursday and is all about the signs of spring.