This has been an unusual spring. As well as their effect on the flowering of many of our plants, the recent spells of sunny but very cold weather, and periods of northerly wind must have had an impact on the emergence of hibernating animals and the arrival of summer visiting migrant birds. Swallows and House Martins have been seen around the villages, but seem to have been reluctant to visit their previous nesting sites. Wind and cold must make it difficult to find the numbers of flying insects they require. Swifts will not be returning until a week or so into May, by which time things may have warmed up a bit.
Another late arrival which I have mentioned before is the Turtle Dove, the only one of our doves or pigeons to migrate. This is a bird in serious decline, and there is huge concern about its survival in our countryside. Last year there were very few in the valley. So it was good to hear of one already visiting a Sweffling garden at the end of April. Maybe it was just passing through, although I hope that this year there may be more. They make their presence felt by their soft ‘purring’ song (‘the voice of the turtle shall be heard in our land’ –Song of Solomon; ch2; v12). Unlike the Collared Dove they have a chestnut back with dark feather markings, blue-grey head and pink breast.
Other favourite birds becoming scarcer include the cuckoo, which I have not heard yet this year. Last year there was a Cuckoo in the valley, but not heard as much as in previous years. Let’s hope they keep coming back. Of the garden birds, the biggest drop in numbers is the Spotted Flycatcher, which typically does not arrive until well into May. I hope I can report happier news of them this year.
Of the insects emerging from hibernation, the most conspicuous is the Brimstone butterfly. This is the bright, butter-yellow butterfly that is so conspicuous in flight and lights up a sunny spring day. This spring, I have been seeing more of the females. These are very much paler – almost white – and can easily be mistaken for early ‘Cabbage Whites’. A much less common, but very beautiful butterfly is the Green Hairstreak. This is a little gem – look out for it on walks in May and June. It is small and brown, but with brilliant emerald green undersides to the wings. The main food plant is gorse, and it is found on heathland in many parts of East Suffolk, although I have only ever seen it once in the garden. Unlike the earliest butterflies, it emerges in spring from a chrysalis, as opposed to hibernating as an adult.
At the end of April there have been a number of so-called ‘solitary bees’ in the garden. These are small, about half the size of a honeybee, but definitely looking like bees. Mine had rusty-coloured bodies and are called Osmia, but there are many others. My brother studied them in the late sixties in cider orchards in Somerset, and they are extremely important as pollinators of top fruit trees. In April they were visiting my plum tree, but you can see them in the apple blossom once it is out. Solitary bees each make their own nest, and lay eggs in cells in holes such as hollow stems. They are the insects which benefit most from the ‘bee nests’, you can see on sale, or indeed make quite easily, consisting of bundles of hollow tubes tied tightly together and fixed in a sunny place.
By Geoffrey Abbott