The signs that spring is on the way are many and varied. Changing bird behaviour is one obvious indicator, and plants bursting into life is another. Here we take a brief look at things to spot and listen out for.
Woods everywhere are starting to wake up to the sound of spring. Pick a sunny day in February and you can begin to start to think, spring is definitely on the way. The loud ‘teacher, teacher’ call of the great tit is one of the most obvious and generally indicates males calling away in their selected territories. If you have a nest box in your garden you may have seen great tits or blue tits checking them out. Although they won’t lay their eggs for a while yet, they are keen to find a home for summer.
Woodlands are also alive with the drumming sound of great spotted woodpeckers just now. Male woodpeckers use drumming on wood to proclaim their territories; the more resonant the tree the further the sound carries, up to half a mile if conditions are perfect. Frustratingly they have a knack of moving around the tree trunk so can be difficult to spot ! You can tell male and females apart as male birds have a distinctive red patch on the back of their heads.
Our upland and farmland birds are stirring too. Known as the lapwing, peewit, or green plover, and in Scots as ‘teuchit’ or ‘peasie’, the sight of this charismatic bird on our farmlands is a harbinger of spring, and flocks will be beginning to gather now. From a distance the lapwing appears to be black and white and it is easy to identify by its ‘peewit’ call, tumbling flight and rather splendid crest. Numbers of this popular wader have been falling in recent years, indeed lapwings have declined by around 56% between 1994 and 2013
The oystercatcher is often heard calling at night and their harsh piping call makes a welcome return inland after a winter spent on the coastline. The same applies with the curlew which any time now will be making its presence felt with its bubbling call on our uplands and moorlands.
Occasionally known as ’The Spring Messenger’, the lesser celandine is one of the first flowers to catch the eye as winter heads into spring. Lesser celandine flowers sometimes close up for part of the day, especially in cold weather. A member of the buttercup family it is poisonous but that didn’t prevent it becoming a firm favourite of literary giants such as D. H. Lawrence and Wordsworth, the latter writing a trio of poems about the little yellow flower. We would love to hear when and where you spot lesser celandine.
Purple saxifrage meanwhile signals the coming of spring in our mountains. It is by far the earliest montane plant to flower in Scotland and brings great pleasure to many hill-walkers. It is one of the hardiest arctic flowering plants and vies for the accolade as the most northerly growing and has been recorded on the north coast of Greenland. The flowers are nectar rich and in Scotland the only recorded pollinator is a blow fly.
Another plant to look out for is coltsfoot. Also known as Horsehoof, the name derives from the shape of the leaves as they resemble a hoof. One of spring’s first flowers it can be mistaken as a dandelion due to the close resemble of each plant’s yellow flowers.
Out and about along river-side paths, one of the earliest flowers which you might find is butterbur. The purple flowers appear before the leaves and in some places most of the plants seem to be male, in others female. There is a suggestion that the hand of people might have been involved in moving the plants about. One reason for doing so is that the early flowers might provide an early source of pollen (the male flowers) and nectar (the female flowers) for bees. A second reason might be that for a long time the plants have been used by herbalist as a cure for illness. The name butterbur is thought to come from the large leaves being used in olden days to wrap butter!
Some woods and areas of waste ground now have large populations of non-native white butterbur. The white butterbur can be a bit of a pest as its large leaves effectively shade other species out.
Data from our trends indicator which shows lapwing have declined by around 56% from 1994 to 2013. http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/B536405.pdf.
We also have our Farmland Bird Trend Note which provides information on possible reasons as to why they have declined http://www.snh.gov.uk/docs/A1075307.pdf.
Images (c) Lorne Gill / SNH.