NATURE NOTES: Lambs in the midst of spring awakening

Lambs enjoying the spring sunshine
Lambs enjoying the spring sunshine

The local countryside scene in March is reviewed by John Almond with the help of the members and friends of Alnwick and District Natural History Society.

Lambs were in the fields at Morpeth on March 3, while the first hawthorn came into leaf. The blossom of both blackthorn and bird cherry produced a sea of white along the hedgerows. The first summer bird visitors arrived and their winter counterparts prepared to leave.

There were two frogs in a Belle Vue Gardens pond on March 3, and frogs returned to a Callaly garden pond on March 6. The first clump of spawn was found in Belle Vue Gardens on March 13, and four clumps had been laid by 15. There were 10 clumps at Fontburn on March 22, while on March 24, the water and spawn was frozen in Belle Vue Gardens as the temperature dropped to -5degrees.

Frogs eggs initially contain a black dot which changes to comma shape as the tadpole develops.The tiny tadpoles eat the jelly and then begin to eat algae and other green plants.

Depending on the temperature, the eggs hatch in 10 to 14 days and lie on the jelly, making a huge black mass. As they grow their diet changes and they begin to eat small invertebrates. They breathe through gills and are mottled brown as they grow older.

For comparison, toad spawn is laid in long strips around vegetation and is usually in deeper water.

Toad tadpoles are black and can form shoals.

Small tortoiseshell butterflies began to emerge from hibernation and many had to be released from the sites where they had spent the winter. It was interesting finding small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies had been hibernating in owl nest boxes. A small tortoiseshell butterfly was flying by the coast at Craster in March 13.

A honeybee was flying in Belle Vue Gardens on March 9, while a garden bumblebee was on the grape hyacinths.

The garden bumblebee is one of 24 species found in the UK but numbers have declined dramatically in the last 80 years.

The main reason for this is that there are now fewer flowers in the countryside to provide the bees with the pollen and nectar that they need to survive.

The catkins continued to develop on the hazel, alder and willow, while the male and female flowers appeared on the silver birch. In some places, the elm and ash flowers emerged.

Winter flowering heliotrope was spotted near Alnwick Golf Course on March 9, while, on March 13, the coconut smell of the gorse filled the air at Boulmer. On March 19, the daffodils on the roadside between Whittingham and Bridge of Aln were particularly attractive.

There were wood anemones in flower on Howick Long Walk on March 27, while, by the end of the month, lesser celandine, dog violets, primroses, wood sorrel, opposite leaved golden saxifrage, barren strawberry, marsh marigolds, early purple orchids and moschatel appeared in woodland areas.

The latter is also known as town hall clock as it has a tight head of five green flowers at right angles to each other.

Forestry plantations are often looked upon as mono-cultures of conifers but in Thrunton Wood on March 19, Scots pine, sitka spruce, European larch, Japanese larch, Corsican pine, lodgepole pine and western hemlock were identified.

In a month when the house sparrow was declared the commonest garden bird in Northumberland followed by chaffinch and blackbird, the following were among the observations made by correspondents.

On March 5, nuthatch, wren, robin, chaffinch, blue tit, great tit and coal tit were feeding at Riverside, Rothbury.

In Belle Vue Gardens, blackbird, brambling and sparrow hawk were present on March 7, followed by a pheasant on March 10, and a male bullfinch was eating the pear tree buds on March 15. On March 20, up to 10 siskins, four greenfinches, six goldfinches and two pairs of chaffinches were present.

There were over 50 jackdaws in the highest tree.

The resident local birds, particularly the robin and blackbird, had already started their dawn chorus before they were joined by the likes of the three chiffchaffs singing at Howick on March 13.

A big influx of chiffchaffs occurred later, while swallows and sand martins put in an appearance before the end of the month.

Puffins and sandwich terns arrived back at their breeding sites, while large numbers of gannets were seen from various points along the coast as they headed for the Bass Rock.

There were nine starlings in Belle Vue Gardens on March 5, one of which was collecting nesting material. There were three active rook nests at Harwood Gate on March 22, and four at Ellington on March 25. Readers may wish to make a count of the number of nests in their local rookery before the leaves appear on the trees.

A great-spotted woodpecker was drumming at Alnmouth Station on March 24, and a pair of pheasants were nesting in an Alnwick garden on March 26.

Greylag geese, barnacle geese, pink-footed geese and a few white-fronted geese remained in the area. There were around 900 Brent geese in Budle Bay on March 5, but as the birds dispersed, two birds were present on Alnmouth Village Golf Course and pond on March 17. Whooper swans were seen at four sites around the area.

On March 19, 100 fieldfares and 20 siskins were at Thrunton Wood. A flock of six crossbills flew through the conifers.

Abbeylands always provides an interesting collection of birds and, on March 23, three pairs of tufted duck together with pairs of greylag geese and mallard were on the pond. There were a further 50 each of greylag geese and mallard in fields adjacent to the pond, together with a pair of lapwings and a grey partridge.

Kestrels were seen at five localities and a sparrow hawk was carrying prey over Belle Vue Gardens on March 7. Buzzards were seen at Longframlington, Longhorsley Moor and Forestburngate.

Merlins were seen at the Long Nanny and Lucker, while barn owls were at Hadston and East Forest on March 19.

The most unusual bird of the month was the swan goose, of unknown origin, which was on the rocks at Hauxley Shore on March 6.

The next field meeting of the Society will be held at East Chevington Wildlife Trust Reserve today.

A walk will take the group behind the dunes to look at the spring flowers and visits will be made to the bird hides to look for summer arrivals. Meet at the end of the minor road leading east from A1068 near Red Row at NZ256993 (OS Landranger Map 81).