Nature Notes: Wildlife awakens as lighter days arrive

A frog makes its way out of Lucy Oates' garden where it had probably been hibernating over the winter months.
A frog makes its way out of Lucy Oates' garden where it had probably been hibernating over the winter months.
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There I was hanging out the washing in my garden pondering what to write about for my latest Nature Notes article, when inspiration literally hopped past me.

A sudden movement on the edge of the lawn alerted me to the presence of a large common frog, which made its way into the leafy border beneath the old fruit trees at the bottom of the garden. It then followed the line of the perimeter fence and eventually disappeared from view, presumably sneaking through a gap and heading out into open countryside.

I suspect it had just emerged from the pile of dead wood we’ve positioned in a shady corner to encourage wildlife to visit us. Like hedgehogs, our native amphibians hibernate during winter, usually in a pile of leaves, logs or a hole in the ground. As the weather warms up in spring, they emerge and embark on a journey back to the pond where they first hatched as tadpoles to continue the cycle of life.

A relatively short distance from our house is an area of boggy marshland with ponds, so it’s likely that this particular frog was heading back there. In the coming weeks, we’ll look out for evidence of frogspawn and tadpoles. A relative with a pond in his garden has already spotted plenty of frogspawn, reporting lots of frog activity in recent days.

The encounter with the frog was an example of the way that nature often makes it presence felt when you least expect it.

One morning, I was walking towards an old railway line with the dogs when a barn owl took off from a tree stump a few feet away. It had clearly been observing us but it took me entirely by surprise, otherwise I’d have had a great photograph opportunity. That it was out hunting in daylight means it may already have young to feed, probably due to the milder than usual winter.

Last year, a breeding pair occupied a purpose-built nest box in an ash tree nearby, so it would appear that they’re still in residence. The barn owl flew at a low level, hugging the tree line, and seemed reluctant to head out into the open. I later realised that this was probably due to the presence of two common buzzards, which are also nesting nearby. One of them kept a close watch from a lofty perch at the top of a willow tree and the barn owl was clearly nervous. I’m not sure if this was because it feared being attacked for straying into the buzzards’ territory or was in danger of being robbed of its hard won prey.

Walking along a track around the edge of a field I saw a little weasel dart in the grassy headland ahead. Instead of disappearing into the undergrowth, the little mammal ran up into the branches of a hawthorn bush, where I got a close look at it through the branches. A rich brown colour with a snowy white chest, the weasel is our smallest native carnivore and typically produces a first litter of kittens in April or May. A clump of dry grass at the base of the hedge appeared to have been fashioned into a nest, with a tunnel-like hole at the entrance, suggesting the breeding season is well underway.

In recent weeks, groups of roe deer have gathered together to feed at dawn and dusk, but, with the clocks going forward tomorrow, they’ll be increasingly difficult to spot as the days grow longer and arable crops begin to shoot up. During summer, roe deer revert to a more solitary life, particularly the does, which will be carrying their young and preparing to give birth from May onwards.

The cheery yellow blooms of celandines and coltsfoot are among the first to emerge from the waterlogged ground in the marshland and pasture. At the weekend, we collected twigs laden with pussy willow, catkins and white blossom from the blackthorn bush – all harbingers of spring. We arranged them in a vase, decorating them with painted wooden eggs and fluffy yellow chicks for Easter.