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Early migrants and spring wild flowers

The warm, sunny weekend which we have just witnessed signalled that spring has finally arrived in all its natural glory. The thermometer nudged 22 degrees Celsius on Saturday, and with it birds, flowers and butterflies are all on show, lapping up the pleasant conditions. It is a verdant and wonderful time of year to be outside.

A took an evening walk into my local wood in Wharfedale, hoping to find some newly arrived birds from Africa and sure enough before reaching the trees, I heard the distinctive two-note song of the chiffchaff. This small warbler is one of a group of similar looking species which spend the summer in Britain. In fact in recent years chiffchaffs have been staying on to winter in Britain in increasing numbers, along with their larger cousin, the blackcap.

Chiffchaffs look almost identical to the very closely related willow warbler, which usually arrives a little later into April. As I craned my neck to peer into the high tree from which the chiffchaff was singing, I could just pick out its black legs with my binoculars, the best distinguishing feature of the species. Then, rather unexpectedly, further on in the wood a heard a willow warbler too in song - my earliest for many years. The willow warbler has a delightful crescendo of a song, quite different from the chiffchaff's disyllabic notes.

Both species breed in the wood, though these birds may well have been migrants passing through on their way north. As I moved on there were other species beginning breeding activity, including a treecreeper taking nest material behind a gap in the bark of an oak tree. It crept mouse like along a branch and sneaked inside, before quietly departed round the back of the tree. Greenfinches, song thrushes and blue tits were all singing loudly in the evening light.

The woodland floor was dotted with pretty flowers in yellow and white - mainly lesser celandines, wood anemones and wood sorrel. A few bluebells were in flower too, but the main flowering period for these stunning flowers is a few weeks away. As we walked on the path I brushed past fleshy stems of wild garlic which gave off a strong aroma. As each week passes more and more flowers are new showing their colours. Soon the tree canopy will be growing strongly and the woodlands flowers will begin to wither as their light source is cut out. The baton will be passed to the hedgebanks and meadows, with the yellow, blues and purples of buttercups, cranesbills and selfheals.

Butterflies and other insects are on the wing again, busily visiting flowers. In recent years a number of more southern species such as painted ladies and brimstones seem to have become more common in the dales, perhaps due to global warming. You can readily attract butterflies to your garden by planting bushes such as buddleia. We are hoping to beat last year's garden record of ten red admirals and five painted ladies - all on a single one bush - this year, and the good numbers of butterflies already observed bodes well for a great season.

Enjoy your time in the countryside this spring, and let us know of any interesting observations.

Brin Best, 4 April 2005

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