The first signs of spring are in the air, though March is quite capable of springing a late winter surprise. Making predictions is, therefore, a challenge – so much is dependent on weather, both here and in Europe.
Waders – redshanks, oystercatchers and ringed plovers – display, with up to 20 of the latter typical by the month’s end. Some are passing through, while others will stay to breed, though we know little about the arrival timing of each. It’s a good time to look for unusual waders, too. Migrant waders in the last few years have included avocet, black-tailed godwit, green sandpiper, dunlin, snipe, little stint and knot.
Early nesters include blackbird (sometimes feeding young during the month), coot and mallard, while both cormorants and herons are on eggs in the colony to the north of the Visitors’ Centre. Sand martin is usually the first African bird to arrive, with a chance of wheatear on the open, sandy areas. Migrants which winter in Europe also arrive, with up to 20 chiffchaffs by the month’s end and a handful of blackcaps. In some years, the first willow warblers arrive by the end of March.
Little gulls and common sandpipers are scarcer visitors, but may occur in ones or twos during the month. Commoner migrants pass through too: sometimes hundreds of meadow pipits and pied wagtails move north.
Winter wildfowl – goldeneyes, goosanders and shovelers – remain in small numbers, and can often be seen displaying before they leave for their northern breeding grounds in April. And the very lucky few might witness the amazing weed dance of great crested grebes.
Meanwhile, on land, the last of the snowdrops near the Kingfisher Hide will be replaced by primroses and false oxlips. Look out too for whitlow grass along the sandy edges of the Heron Trail – it has a small white flower with a basal rosette of leaves (though it can be mistaken for a stunted shepherd’s purse, which has lobed leaves). Speedwells also grow here.
One of the earliest spring plants, coltsfoot, is displaying its yellow, dandelion-like flowers along the bare gravel banks. Now, before the leaves form, is a good time to see clearly the female spikes of lesser reedmace – a large stand grows by Rudd Lake. Alder and hazel flower during March: the small bud-like flowers open to catch the pollen from the large male catkins. The fern-like leaves of hemlock, many of which survive the winter, now grace the edges of some paths.
The reserve and surrounding areas are good for lichens, too. From the paths that cross bare gravel, several species can be seen, but also look on trees, where lichens grow in abundance.