Spring 2020: How It Happened

Walking through the trees, in dappled early morning sunlight, through swathes of brilliant blue. Standing rooted to the spot, hearing the first Chiffchaff, Swallow, Cuckoo. Sitting in breezy sunshine, learning to identify Hawkbits, Vetches and Viper’s-Bugloss. These are just some of the highlights of my spring this year, wild and full of life. With each new day, there was a new wild highlight to be had.

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Following on from my post last week about my favourite photos from this spring (check out Spring 2020: In Photos), I wanted to continue celebrating the lifeline that has been spring and the natural world for me during lockdown. This week I am looking at how spring unfolded this year in my local area and how it looked now the summer is hitting our shores.

Since 2015 I have been writing down a lot of my observations about spring each year. This means I can now look at spring 2020 in light of how the last few years have actually looked and see if anything interesting comes up. Last year I did this in more detail, so for that check out my post called: How Spring Happened 2017-2019.

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So, did a favourite of my mum’s, the Chiffchaff, return by Mother’s Day this year? Did the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so are we in for a splash)? And did the song of the Cuckoo return to my family’s land for another year? As spring now slips into summer, it is time for me to reflect on an extra special spring.

Trees

One of the very first trees to start showing signs of life each spring at my home in Dorset, is the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). This year the first buds burst on the 18th of February, which shows a gradual shift forwards over the last few years, being 6 days earlier than last year, and a month earlier than 2018. The first leaf then unfurled on the 10th of March (9 days later than 2019), followed by the first flowers on the 2nd of April (13 days earlier than 2019).

Due to a cold start to spring and a very wet winter, which left the ground cold and waterlogged, Pedunculate (English) Oaks (Quercus robur) were late to make a start, with the first budburst seen on the 2nd of April, 37 days later than 2019. They got going quickly though, with leaves bursting forth by the 8th of April (4 days earlier than 2019) and flowers blooming by the 12th of April (13 days earlier than 2019).

Despite the ground, the trend this year was towards earlier budburst, first leaves and first flowers. Silver Birch (Betula pendula) buds burst on the 15th March, 15 days earlier than 2019; Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) flowered on the 2nd of April, 18 days earlier than 2019; Field Maple (Acer campestre) buds burst on the 5th of April, 13 days earlier than 2019. Grey Willow (Salix cinerea) bucked the trend though, first flowering on the 24th of February, later than last year by 10 days.

This year I added Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Lime (Tilia x europaea), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), and Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) to my spring records, but I did not make observations for Sycamore as in previous years. Lime buds burst on the 14th of March, followed by the first leaf on the 3rd of April; Wild Cherry buds burst on the 15th of March, followed by the first leaf 1 month later and first flower 15 days after that; Norway Maple first flowered on the 21st of March; Alder buds burst on the 6th of April; and Beech buds burst on the 10th of April.

Shrubs

Hazel (Corylus avellana) is one species that flowers early in the year, providing a first hint of colour in a wintry landscape. This year I first saw the male catkins on the 8th of January, followed by the female red flowers on the 1st of February (5 days later than 2019). The first hazel leaf then unfurled 43 days later on the 14th of March.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is another species that flowers before it produces its leaves, cloaking hedgerows in drifts of snowy white and accompanying a ‘blackthorn winter’ in early spring. This year the first flowers burst open on the 6th of March, 5 days later than last year, but 24 days earlier than 2018.

After the early flowering species have brought colour to our countryside, Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is one of the first shrubs to burst into leaf in the hedgerows. This year its buds first burst on the 2nd of March, 5 days later than 2019, followed by the first leaf unfurling 10 days after (28 days earlier than 2019). Their flowers then followed a month after, on the 18th of April, 10 days earlier than 2019.

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A similar trend was shown with Lilac (Syringa vulgaris), where budburst took place on the 8th of March, 13 days later than 2019. The first leaf then unfurled 3 days later too, on the 25th of March, and the first flowers bloomed on the 15th of April, 7 days earlier than 2019.

The flowers of Elder (Sambucus nigra) are well known and iconic in our countryside, popular for making elderflower cordial. This year Elder flowered early, with the first flowers being seen at home on the 25th of April (22 days earlier than 2019). Just like Elder, the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is another late bloomer, which opened its petals for the first time on the 17th of May this year (11 days earlier than last year).

Flowers 

The very first flowers to be seen blooming in the countryside is the dainty snow white Snowdrop (Galanthus spp.). Over the last few years the drooping heads of snowdrops have been flowering earlier each year. This year though, it appeared only 1 day earlier than 2019, welcoming in the year on the 3rd of January.

Snowdrops were soon followed by other iconic spring species, in the form of the first Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) on the 18th of January (44 days earlier than 2019), the first Primrose (Primula vulgaris) on the 27th of January (8 days earlier than 2019), and the first Daffodils (Narcissus spp.); on the 2nd of February (the same day as last year!).

As spring went on, the Snowdrops and sunshine yellows were joined by Wood Anemones (Anemone nemorosa) on the 22nd of March, Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) on the 28th of March, Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum) on the 6th of April, Cuckooflowers (Cardamine pratensis) on the 18th of April, and Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) on the 18th of May, all occurring 6-17 days earlier than last year.

This year I also included three new flowering species to my spring records: Cowslips (Primula veris), Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), and Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula). I saw the first Cowslip flower on the 20th of March, the first Greater Stitchwort on the 28th of March, and the first Early Purple Orchid on the 6th of April.

Grasses

This year I was so busy in May and the first half of June that I completely overlooked the flowering of 3 common perennial grass species in my local area: Cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata), Timothy (Phleum pratense), and Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus). I did though catch Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) flowering, which first occurred on the 22nd of April (23 days earlier than 2019).

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Birds

With the start of every new year, I begin to keep my eye out for the start of the Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) nesting in the bare and skeletal forms of large oak trees near my home. This year they kept me waiting awhile though, with the first signs of nest building appearing on the 15th of February, 17 days later than 2019.

Unlike the start of the Rooks nesting though, the start of male Song Thrushes (Turdus philomelos) singing crept even earlier than last spring. This was 13 days earlier in fact, with me hearing my first on the 15th of December in 2019! This was not reflected by Blackbirds (Turdus merula) though, as I heard my first male singing on the 23rd of February, 17 days later than 2019.

One of my favourite first signs that spring has begun has to be the return of the Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). This year they returned to my home in Dorset on the 1st of March, 17 days earlier than 2019.

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The glorious return of the Chiffchaffs were then eagerly followed by the first Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the 5th of April (1 day later than 2019), the first House Martin (Delichon urbicum) on the 12th of April (12 days earlier than 2019), the first Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) on the 22nd of April (11 days later than 2018), and the first Swift (Apus apus) on the 6th of May (19 days earlier than 2018). A Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) did make its exciting return to my family’s land too, which I heard for the first time on the 28th of April (24 days earlier than last year).

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Insects 

This year the majority of the insects I observed, emerged later than they did last year in 2019. I saw my first Brimstone Butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) on the 24th of March, my first Peacock Butterfly (Aglais io) on the 4th of April, my first Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly (Aglais urticae) on the 5th of April, my first Orange-Tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) on the 13th of April, my first Red-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) on the 1st of May, and my first queen Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) on the 7th of May, with all ranging anywhere between 4 and 37 days later in date than last year.

The ones that did not follow this pattern though, were the Speckled Wood Butterfly (Pararge aegeria) first seen on the same day as last year on the 22nd of April, and the Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) that was first seen 29 days earlier on the 22nd of April. This year I also added Buff-Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) to my observations, seeing the first at home on the 13th of March.

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This Year

This year it has definitely been an interesting and joyful experience to watch how spring unfolded. It started with early signs during the winter, before arriving with a blaze of glory in March.

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This last winter was a warm, wet and windy one, which left the ground cold and waterlogged for quite a while into spring. A number of species such as Oak trees struggled with this, but for many it did not stop them from emerging on time or earlier, such as snowdrops and field maples. This variation continued with bird species, some arriving and beginning breeding earlier and some later. For a lot of the insect species though, they emerged late, which will have had a lot to do with the less than ideal weather conditions this spring, for example frosts in April. Thus, how spring is changing year-to-year definitely has a lot to do with changing weather conditions.

So as spring fades to summer heat, I can now say that the Chiffchaff made its return to the British Isles by Mother’s Day, the Oak burst into leaf before the Ash (and so we are in for a splash!), and a Cuckoo made its return to my home. It has definitely been a great spring this year!

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