Woods are Blooming and Birds Returning

We are so lucky in Cuckfield to have two beautiful woods right on our doorsteps. In both New England Wood and Blunts Wood the bluebells are on the very verge of exploding into their annual sapphire blue. Bluebells flower anytime between mid-April right to late May depending on how mild the weather has been. They are quite early this year so can be seen right next to white wood anemones, vivid yellow lesser celandine, and the beautifully fragile looking light pink cuckooflower. The cuckooflower (aptly named for Cuckfield!) seems to be more abundant this year than last year when my daughters and I were taking our Covid exercise in New England Wood nearly daily, watching the seasons pass. This year there are large sun-speckled patches of the pretty flower near the banks of the stream in Blunts Wood, a habitat they prefer. Also known as lady’s smock, the cuckooflower blooms from April until June which coincides with the arrival of the cuckoo from sub-Saharan Africa.

Whilst thinking about cuckoos I came across a tracking project run by the British Trust of Ornithologists. One particular bird, named PJ, is as I type, in Southern Spain and has flown all the way from Angola, through Gabon, Togo, Ghana and crossed the Sahara Desert. PJ will finally make it to Suffolk where he will breed before turning round in July and making the whole epic journey back again – awesome. I know cuckoos get a bad reputation for using other species nests and parents to bring up their own oversized chicks, but you have to respect such an incredible journey. Hat’s off to PJ!  https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/cuckoo-tracking-project.

I haven’t heard a cuckoo yet this year, but I think I spotted another of the epic travellers last week – a swallow. My very favourite arrival though, is the sickle shaped form of the swift. Incredibly swifts make their 5000 km migration from West Africa to the UK in only five days – swift indeed! When the young start flying in June and July you might hear their high-pitched calls (screaming parties) as they swoop and roll over our gardens and roads. My Dad’s garden in Warninglid gets a particularly exciting aeronautic display each year. If you are lucky enough to live near a swift nesting site or see a screaming party the RSPB would love to hear about it. Numbers of swifts have dropped over the last decades and mapping where they nest can help organisations such as RSPB and Action for Swifts work out which areas need protection and where to provide nesting boxes.

https://www.swiftmapper.org.uk/. The swifts should be with us any day now – exciting.

by Nicola Brewerton

Bud Burst

On the first really warm day of spring this year I saw my earliest butterfly of the year – always a heart warmer after the long winter (an especially long winter this year). It was a brimstone butterfly, a large, pale yellowy green butterfly – I think it was a male as females are lighter in colour. Brimstones are often the first butterflies seen as they can spend the winter hibernating, tucking themselves into tangles of bramble or ivy (makes sense in our garden as we have a lot of both!) in sheltered sunny places and emerging when the sun warms them enough.

Just a few minutes later a bumblebee dive bombed by, being chased by my father’s dog who thankfully, for both their sakes, didn’t manage to catch her. Female or queen bumblebees are another native insect which overwinter. In late autumn they dig holes in chilly north facing banks to avoid being warmed up by any winter sun and emerging too soon. There are many bumblebee species in this country (24 according to a quick Google), but this one didn’t stop long enough for an ID check.

These insect flybys were just one of many clues that spring has sprung. Snow drops have already finished their bright white show by the beginning of March; crocus, daffodils, aconites and wood anemones close on their heels. The blackthorn bushes – a very common sight on the sides of Sussex roads – burst into beautiful white blossom. If pollinated these flowers will become sloes later in the year. If you look around a wood in early March the buds are bulging, just waiting to burst and fill the canopy with fresh green again.

The birds too, are clearly in the throws of spring, frantically collecting nesting materials and singing for mates.

We have recently moved and are lucky enough to have a lovely garden which backs onto farmland. Although clearly once much loved, our new garden is currently overgrown, full of bramble and bindweed, great for wildlife but not so fab for a gardener perhaps. Saying this – as I spend hours meticulously digging bindweed roots out – I will, most definitely be making room for wildlife in our garden plans. My children have started their wildlife pond design and I will take heed of Monty Don’s advice and leave some areas of lawn long – it will be interesting to see what weed species crop up. I love spring.

by Nicola Brewerton