How to spot Spring wildlife in Derbyshire

A brown hare on farmland in the south of the county

A brown hare on farmland in the south of the county - Credit: Archant

Photographer Paul Hobson considers what to look out for as springtime approaches

A singing wren, perching on bracken

A singing wren, perching on bracken - Credit: Archant

The spring equinox may not be a term everyone is familiar with but its significance to our mental wellbeing and to the wildlife of Derbyshire is huge. Put more simply, it’s the first day of spring when the length of the night is 12 hours, equal to the length of the day. This year it falls on 20th March.

Winter probably won’t have finished with us. There may still be a frosty or snowy sting in the tail but the eternal wheel of rebirth and regeneration has truly begun. Visually March is brilliant with the first buds just starting to burst but it is also the first month when we really start to hear Derbyshire’s wildlife exercising its vocal chords. Wrens will be tuning up and our resident blackbirds, which have now returned, are starting to practise their first, tentative liquid notes as they warm up towards achieving their full orchestral might later in April.

It’s not only our birds that are noisily making their way into spring, male frogs should be croaking from garden and farmland ponds as they amorously try to grapple with the larger females in preparation for spawning. Frog spawn is very weather dependent and in warm years can occur in late February but in Derbyshire its first appearance is normally in March.

Spring always seems to appear later on our windswept moorland tops but the first migrants will now be moving through. I always manage to find a March wheatear perching on a stone wall on one of my forays onto the moors. Many of these early wheatears don’t stay with us to breed but are moving through the county on their way to far-flung northern places like Iceland. Warm spring sunshine may tempt out a few early adders which like to sunbathe in sheltered spots near to their hibernacula – the safe places below ground where they spent the winter.

Great crested grebe, pair displaying, Podiceps cristatus, Derbyshire

Great crested grebe, pair displaying, Podiceps cristatus, Derbyshire - Credit: Archant

Whilst our first spring migrants are just starting to add a bit of continental variety to Derbyshire’s birdlife, some of our resident birds are now well into courtship. Buzzards will be wheeling in the air above their chosen breeding woods and March is possibly the best time, particularly in the farm-rich south of the county, to see them. When they court high in the air they sometimes create a bit of a stir with other birdlife, particularly the corvids such as magpies, jackdaws and crows. These mischievous, highly intelligent birds love nothing better than trying to wind-up the poor buzzards.

Small mammals such as wood mice and bank voles had a solid breeding season in 2017 and would have started winter with a healthy population. This is good, not only for themselves, but also because a number of predators such as weasels and tawny owls rely heavily on them for food. Weasels love to hunt linear systems such as walls and hedge banks because they offer cover and are usually rich in voles and mice. They are clever, resourceful animals and won’t over-hunt the same wall or hedge but will return to it a week or more later. Snowfall is not a serious deterrent to them because they can use both the night and day to hunt.

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Brown hares are widely distributed across most of the county but they do much better in the small fields of the agricultural south, particularly where small woods and hedgerows are abundant. March is probably the best month to watch them as they are very active at dawn and dusk and the vegetation is still short, which allows far better viewing than in June or July. An early start is needed and if you drive around the small lanes of farmland areas at dawn you may find hares courting and feeding in the fields. If you stay in the car and use binoculars you should be able to have a fantastic hour hare-watching.

On our rivers and lakes two of our resident water birds are now fully into their breeding season. Many of the dippers in both the White and Dark Peak will now be sitting on eggs or completing the lining of their amazingly camouflaged, mossy, domed nests with leaves. If you do see dippers building a nest, always watch from a good distance with binoculars so you can leave them the space to work without disturbance. Many of our lakes and reservoirs, such as those at Hardwick and Williamthorpe, are graced by one of our most stunning water birds, the great-crested grebe. March and April are the key months to watch the courtship and synchronised display of their nuptial dance.

Frogs in a mating ball with frogspawn

Frogs in a mating ball with frogspawn - Credit: Archant

The longer and, hopefully, warmer days of March herald the first real taste of spring. Whether you choose a woodland walk, a riverside stroll or a ramble across the moors this month Derbyshire has a great deal to offer the wildlife watcher.

Great crested grebes

Great crested grebes - Credit: Archant

Common buzzard in flight

Common buzzard in flight - Credit: Archant

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