Spring sights and sounds to discover in Hertfordshire
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Early flowers, returning birds, and mammals and insects beginning new cycles – some of the sights and sounds that spring is beginning in the county.
Pops of colour begin to appear in woods, parks and gardens up and down the county. Soon after, the tentative sound of birdsong builds to a symphony that peaks in May. Until then, there are mates to win, nests to build and food to gather now that spring is on it's way. The signs of spring are appearing.
Leading the way in the flower world is the snowdrop, its pretty white flower with three inner petals, called tepals, hanging from a green stem. Its Latin name Galanthus nivalis means 'milk flower of the snow'.
In recent years, the flower has become an indicator of a changing climate. In the 1950s, snowdrops usually flowered towards the end of February, but as a result of milder winters, they are now appearing far earlier, sometimes even before new year. As snowdrops are active at a time when many pollinators are still dormant, the flower speeds along its dispersal by splitting its bulb, enabling new flowers to grow and multiply.
Another spring herald to look out for is the beautiful lesser celandine. A member of the buttercup family, it is similar to daffodils, and its bright yellow star-shaped blooms emerge from February to late April. It has many colourful local names, including 'golden guineas', 'butter and cheese' and 'spring messenger'. Lesser celandine opens and closes its petals in response to slight changes in temperature, enabling them to be open during the day and closed at night. This mechanism, known as nyctinasty, is thought to be a way of protecting the flowers from pollen loss, weather damage and predation by slugs.
The early spring days are also when badger cubs take their first tentative steps outside under the watchful eye of their mother. Badgers are born in the deep of winter and spend their first months in the safety of the sett, ready to start building up their fat reserves in spring. Badgers do not hibernate, but their activity is significantly reduced during the coldest months.
Spring is a good time to see them, when vegetation is still low and the warmer temperatures bring earthworms back within reach. When trying to spot badgers, look for well-worn paths, mounds of fresh soil and latrines filled with droppings, although always be careful not to disturb them.
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For a stunning balletic performance on water, visit a lake in early spring where you'll witness the extraordinary courtship display of great crested grebes. During early morning and late evening, pairs will perform elaborate movements that often begin with sharp head turns from side to side before they stretch their long necks back to preen their feathers. They will duck underwater and reappear beak-to-beak with their mate, rising up until they are almost out of the water while rapidly ruffling their feathers. Sometimes they will offer a pile of weeds to one another, which they shake left and right as they tread water. It appears as if the two birds are in a trance. This display strengthens the bond between male and female in preparation for breeding. Great crested grebes can be seen at many sites across Hertfordshire including Tring Reservoirs. Other spring visitors at this Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserve are sand martins and yellow wagtails, as well as the occasional osprey.
From water to woods, take a walk through open woodland and listen out for calling chiffchaffs. Returning from wintering in southern and western Europe, this little olive-brown warbler is one of the first migrant birds to arrive back on our shores. Its two-tone call is unmistakable, as it's what gives it its name: chiff chaff, chiff chaff…
Rising spring temperatures awaken queen bumblebees, which waste no time finding nectar to boost energy levels after using up their reserves in hibernation. It's time for the queens to establish new colonies, which could eventually number up to 400 individuals. After feeding, a queen searches for a suitable nest site, usually a dry, dark cavity - in a remarkable range of places. When she has selected a good spot, she constructs a mound made from pollen and secreted wax from her body for her first brood of eggs. She also stores a small amount of nectar in the nest so she can continue to feed while incubating the eggs. After several days, these hatch into white larvae, which are fed on pollen and nectar that the queen brings for them until they grow into adult worker bees.
For a Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust guided walk taking in the spring wildlife in your area, go to hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/events