Nature comes alive in North East with advent of spring

PUBLISHED: 16:18 22 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 20 February 2013

Young Rabbits

Young Rabbits

Looking for the feel-good factor? Then head outdoors on a nature hunt to find the first signs of spring here in the North East Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon

If youre looking for something to cheer you up after what seems like endless bad news and belt-tightening over the winter months, few things are as instantly uplifting as the onset of spring.

New life, nesting, burgeoning buds, the start of the breeding season and the first glimpses of colour are guaranteed to banish bad-time blues and provide a much-needed fix of that all-too-elusive feel-good factor in Northumberland and Durham.

With the days starting to get longer its the perfect time to get out and track down the first signs of spring in our region; whether its frog spawn in a local pond, fused together like some gelatinous, alien bubble-wrap; those first pastel yellow wildflowers such as wild daffodils, primroses, winter aconites and lesser celandines; a mad March hare or a comically cute flotilla of mallard ducklings swimming along behind mum like a set of floating toy train carriages.

But before grabbing your hat and heading off out on a hunt for natures clues that better weather is right round the corner, with the sighting of your first badger cub, fox cub, fluffy bunny or drift of wood anemones, perhaps its worth hanging back for a moment to establish exactly where this annual tradition of spring-watching, now immortalised on our telly screens each year, originally comes from?

And, no, its not just something clever TV producers have come up with to keep Kate Humble and Chris Packham in trendy outdoor designer jackets.

It all revolves around an oddly-named and rather mysterious subject known as phenology. This is a posh name for the practice of tracking when natural phenomena recur every year in relation to the changing seasons.

In everyday language it simply means keeping detailed records of the first signs of spring (or autumn) each year, noting key events such as the first flowers opening, the first time tits are spotted gathering material to build their nests, and comparing the collated data with records from previous years to highlight any changes or trends.

The first chap doing this in any meaningful way was a guy called Robert Marsham back in the early 1700s, followed by the Royal Meteorological Society which set up a national recording network some time later, publishing annual reports on the first signs of spring until 1948, when for some reason the practice fell out of fashion.

It wasnt until the 1990s that the idea for re-establishing a national phenology network was revived in the UK, all because a forward-thinking research biologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Cambridge recognised the importance of having a continuous record of natural events as a way of tracking the effects of climate change.

In 2000 the Woodland Trust joined forces with the Centre to publicise the network more widely. In 2005 the BBC joined them, and the idea for its now legendary Spring-watch surveys was conceived.

These are now said to be the biggest ever surveys into the seasons in the UK with reportedly well over 50,000 people taking part. Hundreds of thousands of recent records across the land have been contributed from information on the emergence of un-seasonal butterflies to when and where the first dandelions come into bloom.

There are also said to be nearly two million instances of seasonal changes on record in the UK since the 1600s so if youd like to get involved to add your own little bit of seasonal research to the databank, or simply find out more, you can visit online at

Significantly these records have provided hard evidence over the last 30 years, supporting the suspicions of many of us, that spring arrives earlier
than it used to. Trees come into leaf much sooner and migrant
birds, like swallows, return nearly a week earlier than they did back in the seventies. The survey results have also shown that plants are flowering as much as five days earlier for every one degree C rise in temperature.

In addition to this the Wild Flower Society has been keeping its own watchful eye on the start dates of spring each year for the last 80 years as part of whats become known as the First Week Hunt.

Botanist members would go out in the first week of this month, traditionally the beginning of the field season for them, and carefully record details and dates of the first species flowering in their diaries. Their work is seen to be invaluable in the race to find out the true effects of global warming on the natural world. And the great thing about these records is that they cover far more species than come under the Spring-watch surveys.

Initial analysis of these diaries and old notebooks has shown a clear link between the mean temperatures around January and February and those around the actual time of flowering.

For example an increase of just one degree apparently results in an extra eight or so species coming into flower. Generally this means there are now many more species coming into flower in March than back in the 1920s when botanists began keeping these diaries and there is some indication that species like dandelion and celandine are now flowering much more commonly than previously.

So why not catch the First Week Hunt bug and join the search for spring in the north-east. Happy spring-watching!

Signs that Spring has returned to the North-East

A good indication that spring has finally returned to our region is the arrival of migrant birds as new species arrive for the summer and winter residents fly back to their traditional breeding grounds. Look out for the species below when visiting these great local nature reserves. Source: Natural England.

Castle Eden Dene National Nature Reserve, County Durham

Chiffchaff, willow warbler and blackcap arrive with grasshopper warbler in the coastal scrub.

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, Northumberland
Early sand martins, some of which stay to breed, are followed by wheatears, whinchats, chiffchaff and willow warbler. Thrushes and pipits move through the site and breeding birds such as lapwing and skylark patrol their territories in the dunes. Along the coastline eider duck, rock pipit, arctic and little terns are starting to nest.

Moorhouse-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve, County Durham
In early March golden plover, lapwing and oystercatchers return to their nesting areas. Curlew arrive a week or so later followed by redshank and snipe. Common sandpiper and a few pairs of dunlin and ringed plover follow from mid to late April. Black grouse can sometimes be seen in the hay meadows north of the B6227 at Langdon Common and red grouse are active on the moorland. The pasture just west of Widdybank Farm is a good place to see ring ouzels.

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