Look for three beautiful, colourful insects of early spring as they search for the year’s first flowers to feed from
Plants will flower because of day length and birds will sing in the rain, but once you have plenty of butterflies about, you know that fairer weather has returned at last. These insects thrive in warmth and sun.
At this time of the year, several species are on the wing, but look out in particular for three spring specialities. Top of the list is the exquisite orange-tip, only around between now and June (July in Scotland) in meadows, woods, riverbanks and roadside verges. Somehow the colours of the male – rich green splodges on the underside, then upper wings of chilly white on the inside and brilliant burnt orange on the tips – express the capriciousness of the season perfectly. The female, which lacks the orange, lays its eggs on cuckoo-flower and garlic mustard, two other spring stalwarts.
Much less common and conspicuous, but equally seasonal, is the green hairstreak. In this diminutive butterfly the upperside is dull brown, but the underside is vivid metallic green with a few white spots. Males can be seen spiralling around low bushes in many habitats, from woods to chalk grassland and heaths, but they are easy to overlook and the green hairstreak is not one of our better known butterflies.
The brimstone is often considered to be a spring butterfly but it can, surprisingly, be seen in every month of the year. Early spring, sightings of this buttery-yellow species will be of individuals that have hibernated; they will lay eggs on buckthorn or alder buckthorn and these will hatch later in the summer, leading to another emergence. Other species, such as comma and small tortoiseshell, follow the same pattern. Of course, the fact that they will be around all summer does not diminish the impact of seeing any of these colourful insects early in the season. Indeed, a sighting of any butterfly in April is something special and uniquely uplifting.
Stoats and Weasels
It’s never easy to see either of these two secretive carnivores, but they are both very common, and April offers as good a chance as any, especially with the ground vegetation still limited. Look for a long-bodied warm-brown animal dashing across a road or path.
People often think that stoats and weasels are very similar, but given half a view, they are easy to tell apart. The weasel is one of the world’s smallest mammal carnivores and basically looks like an elongated mouse: it follows voles down their burrows. The stoat is larger (it routinely kills rabbits) and has a much longer tail, with a conspicuous black tip.
It’s probably not at the top of your list of woodland spring blooms, but for sheer carpeting power, dog’s mercury is a hard character to beat. It thrives in the shade, and in some woodlands it can be the only plant visible at ground level for hundreds of metres. You can see its inconspicuous yellowish catkins of flowers from February to May, but the somewhat nettle-like leaves persist all year. An indicator of a high water table and alkaline or neutral soils, dog’s mercury isn’t popular in folklore. It is highly poisonous to people and livestock alike, hence the traditionally insulting epithet ‘dog’.
St Mark’s fly
Put the date in your calendar: 25 April, St Mark’s Day. If it’s warm, look out for loose swarms of flies dancing up and down over bushes, flowers or even the garden lawn. If they are solid-looking flies with long, dangling legs, they are St Mark’s flies, whose time of emergence is now. We may prefer to calibrate the spring with birdsong and showy flowers, but these invertebrates are as much a sign of the season as anything else.
What could be more romantic than a spring trip to hear that most celebrated of songsters, the nightingale? Happily, it isn’t difficult to organise, so long as you live in the south-east of England. Check the field trip schedule of almost any wildlife society from Dorset to Norfolk between April and June and there is bound to be at least one dedicated nightingale trip. Nightingales sing day and night, but evenings have glamour. Avoid windy conditions, but rain shouldn’t hinder the performance too much. And don’t go with sky-high expectations: it’s a good song, but the poets and folklore have overhyped it.
Where to hear Nightingales
1 – Pulborough Brooks
2 – Paxton Pits, Cambridgeshire
3 – North Warren
4 – Swillbrook lakes
5 – Blean Woods