See spring through the eyes of RSPB staff

Guide

British winters are bitter and dark but not quite cold enough to justify the amount of complaining we’d really like to do about the weather. Which somehow makes it worse. Is there anything sweeter than the sight of crocus petals coloured in Parma Violet and duckling yellow unfolding in parks and front garden pots after months of the dark descending before you finish work?

Most people know blossom unfurling on trees like living confetti is a sure signal the seasons have turned. But dozens of glorious hints spring is here could be passing you by. Spring is nature’s showtime. Savour it.     

Read this one snuggled into a comfy corner of your sofa or luxuriating in a bath. But leave some time after to follow any impulse you might feel for an outdoor adventure.  

What makes you feel like spring is here?  

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The Lodge and Fowlmere Senior Site Manager Peter Bradley: Firsts, like first song thrush singing, first bat seen, first bumblebees, butterflies. Woodpeckers drumming, plants like snowdrops, daffodils (good for bumblebees) then English bluebells coming into flower.   
 
RSPB nature friendly gardening expert Adrian Thomas: There's always a day in spring when the sun shines, when the air is still and where you feel winter, if not over, is firmly in retreat. When that happens, as if by magic the spring butterflies emerge - the brimstones, commas, peacocks and small tortoiseshells. Who knows where they've been hiding, maybe buried deep in ivy somewhere, but now they’re awakened and the males rove endlessly. 
  
Then there's the day when the first chiffchaff is singing, fresh in from the Med probably. And what a day it is when the first swallow passes over, often unable to stop himself from singing as he passes over. 
  
And those moments are all magnificent and uplifting and joyous. However, in the garden I also love the supporting cast of extras that collectively help chart the acceleration in the season. I keep a little note on the calendar hanging in the kitchen of each first, and there is almost always something new every day - the first hoverfly, the first blackthorn blossom, the first lesser celandine flower, the first frogspawn. And because it is your garden, the thing you look out at and step into every day, I believe it is just the best place to get really in touch with the spring surge and feel all its hope. 

 

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Conwy warden Tim Wallis: It’s probably mostly the obvious things for me; lengthening daylight hours with evenings where I can get outside and do things when it’s still light, increasingly mild weather. New vegetation growth; new leaves on trees, new flowers appearing. And an increasing number of insects; bees, butterflies, dragonflies on the wing. 
 
Minsmere Visitor Experience Officer Ian Barthorpe: I’d say that the first signs of spring actually start around Christmas when my favourite songster, the song thrush, starts to sing. The first chaffinch, which I heard last week, is perhaps a truer guide to spring being just around the corner, and the arrival of the first chiffchaff in mid-March is the cue that spring has arrived. This usually coincides with the first primroses (wild, not garden varieties), and bright green clumps of Alexanders sprouting yellow-green flower clusters in the road verges and the white blossom of cherry plum in the hedges. Oh, and being able to drive home in daylight again as the short winter days finally lengthen.  

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Wildlife team advisor Karolina Roszkowska: For me it’s when I start hearing great tits singing ‘teacher teacher’. I love seeing birds carrying nesting materials. This is amazing to spot. It’s the smell of early morning and I would strongly suggest trying to get outside earlier, before all the cars are out on the road, even for five minutes: you never know what you will see.  

Tim Wallis: I think the most exciting thing about spring is the arrival of spring migrant birds back from their wintering grounds, mostly Africa. Here at RSPB Conwy we have a really nice variety of warblers which gradually begin to arrive back, filling the reedbed and scrub areas with bird song – reed and sedge warblers, chiffchaffs and willow warblers, blackcaps and common and lesser whitethroats. Spring also brings many passage waders to the lagoons such as black-tailed godwits and whimbrels as they head north to breed in Iceland, and at times is likely to produce scarcer species such as spotted redshank, little ringed plover or wood sandpiper to name a few. Hirundines are always a very welcome sign of spring and can often be seen feeding over the lagoons in their hundreds, particularly sand martins when they first arrive back.  

Spring spectacles 

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Ian: Where do I start? Late February and early March sees the emergence of male adders from hibernation, and March is perhaps the best time of year to see them basking in the sun. Bitterns are just starting to boom, as marsh harriers sky-dance above the reeds, while avocets and oystercatchers begin to return to the Scrape to breed. At Minsmere, the return of the raucous colony of black-headed gulls, and the more subtle mewing of Mediterranean gulls is the real sign that spring is here. By the time the swallows, cuckoos, and nightingales arrive in March, spring is well and truly in full swing. 

Peter: Annual bird breeding season – lots of bird song everywhere, and you can sometimes spot a nest like a woodpecker using a hole in a tree, or notice a tiny moss and cobweb goldcrest nest slung across a tree branch. There’s also the spawning of amphibians like The Lodge’s natterjack toads, when first strings of eggs then tadpoles appear in our special ponds. At The Lodge we always hope to hear the song of the woodlark too-looing over the heath. 

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Tim: One of my own favourite things to do in spring is to get out into some of our wonderful ancient oak woodlands which we have many of in Wales, now often referred to as ‘Celtic Rainforest’. It’s always great to see the first pied flycatchers, wood warblers and redstarts arriving back into these habitats, as well as cuckoos, whinchats and tree pipits in the more open areas where the trees give way to more open ground in the uplands, and ring ouzels further up into the hills. Some great RSPB reserves in Wales for these habitats include Ynys Hir with its woodland trail, Coedgarth Gell in the Mawddach valley, and further down in mid Wales there’s Carngafallt in the Elan Valley, and Gwenffrwd Dinas in the upper Towy valley, all great places to explore.  

What subtle but important signs that winter is over should people look out for?  

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Adrian: The reality is that our seasons ease into each other, and a few days of spring can be followed by a few more of winter if the weather chooses. But what I encourage anyone to do is to step into the garden, stop, engage your senses, and - most importantly - listen. You can get a little birdsong in the depths of winter, especially from robins as they defend their winter territories. But it is the exuberance of birdsong in spring that really marks the season. They will tell you when they think spring is here - they're out in it all weathers and are so much more attuned to the seasons than we are. So enjoy their choral proclamation that welcomes in spring. 

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Peter: Look for some ‘firsts of the year’. Keep an eye out for leaves on trees unfurling  - oak leaf is one of the latest, but prettiest and most colourful. The lime tree avenue at The Lodge always amazes me – so very sap green, and all the leaves appear at the same time. There is of course the very welcome steadily lengthening daylight hours. 
 
Ian: Birdsong, bumblebees and blossom. Late winter is the best time to learn your garden birdsong, with few species singing and no leaves on the trees to hide them. Week by week a new species will join the chorus – robins and wrens all winter; thrushes and tits through January; finches and dunnocks in February; chiffchaffs from mid-March; blackcaps from early April before the floodgates of migrants open and leaf burst hides the songsters. Look out for bumblebees and early butterflies, like brimstones, searching for nectar in gardens – dandelions can be a really important early nectar source. Spot the first cherry plum adorning hedgerows from early March, followed by blackthorn later in the month, with hawthorn not flowering until the leaves are already out in May. Look for the delicate pink of crab apple in April too 

Struggling to peel yourself off the sofa after a long hibernation? Here’s an extra dose of motivation 

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Peter: Read the inspiring chapter of ‘Wind in the Willows’ (Kenneth Grahame) when Mole decides not to stay in and do his ‘spring cleaning’ but to escape into the wonderful spring days outside.  

Adrian: Don't forget to don a coat and hat most days - spring can still be chill. But go and get the soul-boost that spring sunshine and spring wildlife can bring. Go out into the garden with a determination to look and listen and there's a big chance you'll head back in happier and healthier for it. 

Ian: Nature is the perfect remedy for clearing away the winter blues. Whether you enjoy a day-long hike or just a potter in the garden or local park, try to find time to get outdoors every day, whatever the weather. Take in nature’s wonderful sights, sounds and scents, marvel at the intricate beauty of an emerging leaf, or even hug a mighty oak tree. If you have a camera (a mobile phone is perfect) why not take a nature photo every day, or pick your favourite view and take a picture to make your own timelapse of the seasons. 

 

You can find a full list of guided walks at Minsmere, including details of birdsong walks (sounds of spring and dawn chorus), reptile rambles and birds for beginners.