Spotting the early signs of spring
The dappled woodland of Holmwood Common is a lovely place to stroll through in early spring sunshine. How many signs can you spot of nature emerging from its winter torpor?
The winter rains have filled the restored Fourwents pond and the islands in the middle of the water provide ideal nesting sites for many waterfowl species. Can you see signs of nest building by the chuckling moorhens or the quacking mallards?
The majestic grey herons that frequent the pond are members of the stork family and will build their large, shambolic nests in the treetops. Listen for lots of croaking and squawking from these modern day pterodactyls.
There are over 30 ponds across Holmwood Common, many of them the residue from brick-making activities. Today the water is clean and they provide a fantastic haven for amphibians such as frogs and toads – look out for the frogspawn. There are also newts in the ponds, which will become active at this time of year.
Some of the ground will still be sticky clay after the winter, but the hardcore path around the common provides an excellent way to keep your feet dry and enjoy the surroundings.
As you stroll along look at the trees. Long yellow catkins are dangling from hazel trees, releasing clouds of pollen if shaken. Look closer to find the small, red female flowers at the tips of some of the hazel buds… they resemble miniature sea anemones. In the next few months silver birch will also put out catkins.
Keep an eye open for the buds of other trees: the sticky buds of horse chestnut; beech buds are slim and pointy; ash tree buds look like a bunch of purple grapes, and lime trees have delicate buds that break to reveal stunning bright green leaves.
The damp conditions of Holmwood Common by the streams and ponds are ideal for goat willow – a spring star performer. This shrubby bush will put out white furry buds, which then develop into the catkins. The catkins provide a vital early source of food for bees and other insects. The leaves of the goat willow are an important food for several caterpillars, including the magnificent purple emperor butterfly, and the caterpillars in turn provide food for birds. Once pollinated, the catkins develop into exquisite woolly seeds.
Hedges and undergrowth
Much of Holmwood Common may look a bit scruffy with patches of holly and brambles, but these areas offer crucial refuges for many songbirds, mice, voles, hedgehogs and other small mammals.
It is also a favoured habitat for butterflies. If you are lucky, you may spot early species in sheltered and sunny spots, such as pale green brimstone, multi-coloured peacock, attractive small tortoiseshell, dark orange comma, and the appropriately named orange tip.
In the hedges, the white blossom of blackthorn can be seen, softening the stark and thorny bare branches. On the ground keep an eye open for early wild flowers such as the delicate white flowers of wood anemones, yellow celandines and primroses, and later glorious bluebells and early purple orchids.
This is the time of year when birdsong is at its most vibrant. From February resident birds will be marking their territories, finding a mate and building nests. Listen out for the lively song of our popular residents; wren, dunnock, robin, blackbird and the thrushes are all fine singers. The spotted woodpeckers will declare their presence by drumming on trees. From March the very distinctive sound of chiff-chaffs will herald the arrival of the summer migrants, followed in April by willow warblers and the aerobatic swallows.
This is certainly a time to savour. Spring has arrived and we can begin to look forward to summer!