March is an exciting time out there in the countryside: we’ve seen our first honey bee hungrily feeding in a crocus, heard the first song thrush shouting his song from a tree top near Ben Rhydding station and, over the high pastures above Middleton, enjoyed the sight of curlews wheeling with just that beginning wisp of song. All this makes it difficult to decide what to write about. However, a dominant theme of my recent conversations with family and friends has been frogs. In Argyll and in Snowdonia frogs are already in full chorus, there’s even some spawn to be seen. At the time of writing this, in Ben Rhydding and Baildon, the frogs are gathering at garden ponds, the white-chinned males getting ready to greet the females who should arrive any day now. Last year – after that long hard winter- the first spawn locally was recorded on March 8th.
I’m able to give you this precise information because our WNS review of the year – The Wharfedale Naturalist – has just been published. A handsome 124-page volume lavishly illustrated with members’ wild life photographs, the issue contains articles and reports, but by far the most important part is the final section. This comprises reports from our specialist recorders detailing all the observations made during the year, with dates and locations. I always find it inspiring – I can’t wait to get out and view these wonders for myself.
I shall certainly be keeping a sharp look out for bumblebees (first sightings last year on March 8th in Burley and Ben Rhydding). The large, furry queens come out of hibernation as soon as the temperature rises. They have to rapidly build up their strength for egg-laying, so you can find them in sunny patches rifling pollen from available flowers: winter heathers are a great resource for them, and for newly emerged honey bees and hover flies too. It’s also surprising how many butterflies can be seen early in the year. The first is usually the peacock (first sighting last year at Otley on 25th March). It looks black or dark brown in flight but once it lands and opens its wings the orange, blue and opalescent mauve of its peacock-eye patterned wings are unmistakable. Early, too, is the small tortoiseshell – predominantly orange and brown but with a delicate border of blue spots along the edges of its wings. These once common butterflies suffered a serious decline two years ago and the last two winters won’t have helped, but last summer there did seem to be more about (first seen last year on March 18th in Middleton Woods). Some springs we also enjoy a particular treat: the bright yellow brimstone is on the move early, and even just a brief glimpse – a sulphur-coloured streak racing through the garden – can brighten the whole day.
I shall also be taking a few rambles across the upland pastures to the north of our valley. Last year I had several sightings of courting hares, chasing and whirling across the coarse grassland. An appropriate spectacle for March!