Chilterns Countryside spring spotter

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In the last 2 weeks Spring has well and truly arrived. As well as
bringing out the newly emerged butterflies, the warmer sunny weather has
encouraged the plants in both woodland and grassland to show their
faces.

Plants

In some of our woods, Dog's Mercury carpets the floor, and in
others bluebells - which, though not yet in flower - soon will be once
again, giving their stunning display of colour.

On some of our Bradenham grassland sites, and on West Wycombe Hill, you
can now see numerous cowslips making a splash of yellow amongst the
green of the grass. This beautiful spring flower is on the increase
thanks to over-winter grazing (Bradenham) and last Autumn's hay cut
(West Wycombe Hill). Both these forms of grassland management encourage
flowers of all species and often, with the flowers, come numerous
species of butterflies and insects.

Birds

If you've been out walking recently you may have heard the call of the
chiffchaff as it moves in and out of the tree and scrub cover. This is
one of the few birds that 'does what it says on the tin' in that it's
name describes it's song. The cuckoo is another such bird, though sadly
these days it is not so frequently heard calling.

The Bradenham Estate is a great place for hearing skylarks as you move
around the grassy headlands around the crop fields. This ethereal bird
is more often heard than seen, but if you tune your ears with your eyes
you may see a speck in the sky. It's hard to believe that such a small
bird can produce a song that is so audible hundreds of feet below.

Insects

Switching to insects, the sunny weather has brought out a delightful
creature called a bee fly. This interesting fly frequents gardens and
grasslands taking nectar from flowers. It has long legs, a rounded
furry body, and a very long proboscis which is clearly visible as it
hovers low to the ground near the flower heads, before landing lightly
upon them to feed. Many people will be unaware of it's fascinating
parasitic life cycle, however.

Without landing, the female bee fly scatters her eggs on the ground close
to the nest holes of solitary bees (sometimes known as mining bees).
When the bee fly larva hatches, it wriggles down the nearby nest hole and
starts to feed on the pollen and honey that the solitary bee has stored
there as a food source for it's own larvae.

In the next stage of it's life, the bee fly larva turns carnivore and
begins to eat the bee larva - first consuming it's non-vital organs, so
as to keep it's dinner alive that bit longer! After eventually killing
it's host, the bee fly larva pupates and emerges from the ground as an
adult, whereupon it returns to a meat-free diet of nectar!

It's quite possible that a bee fly might itself fall prey to a passing
swallow, newly arrived in Britain. It is an incredible thought that
only 6 weeks prior to crossing our coast, this same bird may have been
hunting flying insects over herds of elephant and zebra 8,000 km (5,000
miles) away on the plains of Southern Africa. It is always a joy to
see the first swallow of Spring, but what a journey it has made in order
to grace our skies!