March, April and May 2014

Spring is a frantic frenzy of activity around the habits of Kelling Heath but the switch from winter to spring is not an event but more of a process. You may not notice, as it's such a gradual process but from about Christmas the days start to get longer and longer and temperatures start to rise. Light and warmth are the key factors that enable plants and animals to reproduce.

They allow plants that have been dormant all winter to begin the process of growth that will eventually result in buds and flowers and animals emerge from hibernation, whilst birds arrive in the woods and heath land around Kelling as part of arguably the greatest wildlife spectacle on the planet having flown thousands of miles from their winter quarters, but equally incredible are the unseen migrations of millions (or perhaps billions) of insects such as butterflies and moths which arrive on our shores during this time. For our resident creatures such as small mammals, birds, amphibians and some insects activity is already underway even as the spring equinox arrives. Virtually all our songbirds will have been singing well before that time, probably since the New Year. One of the main factors to have an impact on the coming breeding season of course is the weather. A late cold spell can play havoc with a wide range of plants and animals especially blooming wild flowers and early insects.

And it was in late March on a ramble that we found the first bees of the season. A group of us had just passed the viewing point when a white- tailed bumblebee buzzed past our heads. At this time of year the bees that we see patrolling the heath will be queens visiting the early flowers for nectar to build up their energy reserves. Once a queen's energy levels are sufficient she flies a zigzag pattern low over the ground looking for the ideal place to build a nest. Further on down towards the railway crossing in a bank we found some very small holes belonging to a digger wasp. We only had to wait a couple of minutes and the wasp flew in with what looked a butterfly caterpillar. These solitary wasps capture bugs and inject them with venom that paralyses but doesn't kill them. The prey is taken into the hole and an egg is laid beside it. Once the egg hatches it has fresh food to eat. After feeding on the prey the larvae will pupate and eventually emerge from the nest as an adult wasp. Watch out for their excavations all summer on the sandy banks and paths of the heath.

Easter at Kelling was blessed with a really warm sunny day and it seems as though spring had really kicked in. Cuckoo flower was out by the conservation pond (also known as ladies smock) these delicate lilac flowers bloom when the cuckoo arrives in the country and is the favoured food of the orange tip butterflies caterpillar. Marsh marigold was flowering too looking like an aquatic version of a buttercup along with some very delicate marsh bedstraw growing to the side of the pond dipping platform. We crossed the road and headed along the firebreak to the woods and found two large piles of feathers on the grass. A quick investigation of the feather tips showed us it was the work of the sparrow hawk. If you find a pile of feathers in your garden, you can investigate to see whether the bird they belonged to was eaten by a bird of prey like a sparrow hawk. Look at the very tip of the feathers stalk and check to see if it has a rounded or broken end. If it is still in one piece, it is likely to have been plucked. If it is jagged or rough, it may have been chewed away from the body by a land predator like a cat.

Once into the woods and heading down towards the railway line we stopped to admire the bluebells. Were you at Kelling this Easter? The bluebells were possibly the most vivid colour I have seen for quite a number of years and I challenge anyone to find a finer sight in the UK than our spectacular woodlands carpeted with bluebells. It is said that the bulk of the world's bluebells grow in the UK (maybe up to 49%) but this does not mean it is ok to pick a few as they are under threat from an aggressive hybrid variety. Many of those found in our gardens and urban areas are not the traditional British flower, they are in fact an aggressive hybrid - the product of cross-breeding between the native bluebell and the Spanish variety. This hybrid was first recorded in the wild in 1963. It's highly fertile and has spread rapidly in the UK's urban areas. Down by the track we also found greater Stitchwort and the very delicate pink herb Robert a member of the Geranium family. Four chiffchaffs were singing their song, which gives them their name, in the wood before we climbed the hill up towards the viewing point on the heath and we stopped half way up the hill to look at some amazing oak apples. They're called apples but the proper name is oak galls and it is caused by the gall wasps that lay their eggs in developing leaf buds causing them to swell up, the larvae then eat their way out.

Big camping weekend in May brought us more warm sunshine and the emergence of some of my favourite insects, the Dragonflies. The first one spotted around the conservation pond on our Sunday ramble was the Hairy Dragonfly (yes it is hairy, but only on its shoulders.) and Red eyed Damsels. If you've ever wondered how to tell Dragons and Damsels apart try and watch them land. A damsel folds its wings over its back whereas a dragon leaves them out straight. We found several common lizards on the heath on our Sunday family nature ramble and if you were one of the party I took out that day I did not train that lizard to run up my arm and perch on my shoulder!

Also in May we once again began our season of Wildlife at Dusk walks. Around the conservation pond in the evening we found Common and Soprano Pipestrelle bats, Brown long eared bats and on the fishing pond, one of my personal favourites a Daubentons bat that flies low and fast over the water taking insects off the surface of the pond. On the heath we could hear the strange ‘churring' noise of some often quite elusive birds that arrive on Kelling Heath all the way from Africa. A nocturnal bird that ancient folk used to think would suck milk from goats and so named it the Goatsucker. We know it better as the Nightjar. You can usually hear this in the summer evenings at Kelling and people often don't realise it's a bird making this curious sound! They are often difficult to spot in day time due to their amazing camouflage but once you've seen one at dusk it is a sight to remember. As I write this blog in June, we had an amazing spectacle on last Saturday night's walk when two Nightjars were fighting over territory just a few feet above our heads and we witnessed ‘wing clapping' this is where the bird slaps it's wings together behind its back in this instance to warn off the intruder but is also used to impress females during courtship.

Spring got off to an early start this year at Kelling Heath, pushed along by some very unseasonably good weather. We have had some amazing wildlife already and it's still early in the season. Kelling has so much wildlife to offer and I hope to see you on a family nature ramble or bat walk this coming summer. Look out for our guided walks on the events sheet in reception. Can't wait to see what the summer brings!

Have a great summer!