April is the month that the woodland plants have been waiting for all through the winter. Bluebell leaves are emerging along with ramson leaves; and violets, primroses, dog’s mercury, wood anemone and celandine are all in flower. All these plants make use of the lack of light competition at this time of year before the tree leaves start to grow. As the woodland trees start to come into leaf, many spring flowering plants are coming towards the end of their life cycle for this season.
Marsh marigold is flowering in the marsh. Keep an eye out also for ladies smock (also known as cuckoo
flower) which flowers in the damp grassy areas and in the marsh. Coltsfoot started flowering on 15th March, joining the laurel blossom around the lake and blackthorn blossom in the car park. Hawthorn is the first common tree species to come into full leaf; look at the roadside plantings as these usually are the first. Apart from hawthorn, the elder leaves are just starting to grow and many of the willow and hazel buds have burst.
The first of the summer migrants have finally arrived; sand martins were recorded for the first time on 16th March, with swallows on the 20th. Sand martins are recorded in mid-March, closely followed by house martins and swallows. Chiffchaffs were first heard singing on 21st March with willow warblers due to follow shortly. Willow warblers and chiffchaffs look very similar; the easiest way of differentiation is song. The chiffchaff has an easily recognisable song – a monotonous chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff. The bulk of the summer migrants arrive in April so keep an eye out for blackcaps, sedge warblers and whitethroats. A resident population of chiffchaffs and blackcaps do overwinter in Britain as the winters have got gradually warmer, therefore the first records of the year do not necessarily mean the migrants have arrived. Stover’s birdsong is now noticeably louder and will reach a crescendo by the end of the month. The songs are used to defend territories and attract mates. The great-spotted woodpeckers are carrying on with their own version – drumming on hollow trees to announce their territories first heard on 14th January – nearly two months in advance of our usual dates. The mistle thrush started singing in January this year, followed by the song thrush in February. Long-tailed tits are now busily building their nests in the gorse, and the early blackbird and robin nesters will now have eggs.
On the lake our coots, moorhens and mallards are already sitting on eggs; usually they are still nest building. The great-crested grebe pair are getting ready for nesting. Great-crested grebe courtship is worth watching on Stover Lake – they fluff up their ruffs, shake their heads and present each other with water-weed staying beak to beak. The swans built a nest during the first half of March and the female is now sitting on eggs. The remaining 2 cygnets from last year finally took the hint and left the lake at the end of March. A maximum of 9 mandarin ducks were recorded last month and should now be nesting. The last sighting of goosanders was on 9th March (a day later than last year !) and all have now left the lake. Water rail were seen throughout last month and will soon be leaving Stover to breed. The pair of Canada geese that had arrived in January were joined by another pair on the 17th. The swan appears to have given up trying to chase them away.
The cormorant, black-headed gull, tufted duck and pochard numbers have now dropped as summer approaches, leaving the herring and lesser black-backed gulls, with the heron and kingfisher visiting frequently. Pochard numbers have been virtually non-existent again this winter apart from just over a week in February when up to 2 were seen. They are in decline throughout Europe unfortunately. Tufted duck had reduced down to single figures by the end of March. A male shovelor was recorded on 7th March, along with a single female wigeon which has remained on the lake. The first sighting of the red-eared terrapin this Spring following its hibernation was on 30th March.
During March brimstone butterflies have been out during the drier days, of which there weren’t many, joining the first butterfly of the year which was a peacock seen on 14th February. Keep an eye out for small tortoishell’s and red admiral’s which are usually on the wing also in March. These March butterflies are the ones which have hibernated during the winter as adults; peacock and small tortoishell over-winter in hollow trees and ivy thickets. Look out for silky drapes over the tips of young stinging nettles once they grow taller – within them are the first batches of small tortoishell and peacock caterpillars. Look out for orange-tips which usually emerge in April, the males before the females. They over-winter as a chrysalis and time their annual flight to coincide with the opening of the flowers of the caterpillar’s food plants. These include the pale purple-pink flowers of lady’s smock and garlic mustard. The females lay only one minute orange egg per plant, because the caterpillars become cannibals if they have to compete for food.
The wood ants should now be active – they have spent the winter hibernating underground beneath their nests which have slowly rotted down over the winter. Keep an eye out for them starting to rebuild their large nests out of conifer needles. First the ants all congregate on top of the nest remains in a seething mass using the sun’s heat to warm up their bodies. They then go back to the middle of the nest transporting this heat to its core.
The first of the damselflies will be on the wing in April. Watch out for the large red damselflies around the lake and ditches as they are usually the first to appear. St Mark’s flies emerge around St Mark’s Day on 25th April and generally swarm round the hawthorn trees.
Fox and badger cubs will start to play above ground this month. Roe deer bucks will shortly be shedding the velvet coat from their antlers. They do this by rubbing against bushes and small trees. Usually at this time of year bats, lizards, adders and grass-snakes should shortly be coming out of hibernation. The first frogspawn was seen on 1st March, a couple of weeks later than usual. There should be more frogs and toads spawning this month making easy meals for the grass-snakes once they emerge. Keep an eye out for the snakes swimming across the lake or ponds. The newt breeding season is now underway.
Sustainable charcoal, made from timber felled within the park is available for sale in the Visitor Centre should anyone be planning a Spring BBQ ! The prices are very competitive; all monies will be ploughed back into projects conserving the biodiversity of the Park.
Please ensure dogs are kept on leads around the watercourses and adjoining woodlands as the wildfowl are now nesting. Other ground nesting birds will start incubating eggs over the next couple of months on the heaths, so please keep dogs on the paths to avoid disturbance over the rest of the Country Park.