From bluebells to willow warblers, spring is a time of awakening for wildlife. Dr Mark Champion, from The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, shares his knowledge of the flora and fauna to look out for in Britain this season.

Fauna to spot this spring

Brimstone butterfly by Vaughn Matthews
Brimstone butterfly by Vaughn Matthews

Butterflies

There are several early butterflies that herald the start of spring. The common brimstone butterfly, small tortoiseshell butterfly and peacock butterfly overwinter in human spaces, such as sheds, greenhouses and even behind curtains that haven’t been moved! They all tend to come out early in the season and are easy to spot. They’ll venture outside and start to lay their eggs. If you come across a nettle, look out for butterfly eggs. Both peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshell butterflies lay their eggs on nettles, as well was early spring plants. The common brimstone butterfly lays its eggs on alder buckthorn trees, so look out for them and their eggs there. Later in the season, around April, you’ll start to see a wider range of butterflies, like the common blue butterfly and speckled wood butterfly. You could potentially see as many as 30 species over spring.

Mayfly, Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography
Mayfly, Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

Mayflies

If you go near bodies of water in spring, you might spot the rise of the mayflies. It’s beautiful to see them dancing in the dappled light above the water. They’re tiny things, like little fairies, but it makes my day to see it happen. They congregate over babbling brooks, lakes and ponds. Watch out for caddisflies too. If you’re lucky you can see fish – typically trout – breaking the surface of the water and trying to catch them. They chase them along the water. It’s an interesting interaction with a different range of wildlife that you wouldn’t typically think to observe.

Common pipistrelle, © Tom Marshall
Common pipistrelle, © Tom Marshall

Bats

Warmer spring evenings are a great chance to see bats. They’re breaking their hibernation and coming out to feed at dusk. You might spot them flying over your garden or local park, catching various small insects to eat. Sometimes you can see them fluttering near streetlights too, which they’re attracted to. There are a variety of bats to spot, with pipistrelles being the most common.

Bittern © David Tipling, 2020VISION
Bittern © David Tipling, 2020VISION

Migratory and British birds

Spring is a fascinating time to watch birds in Britain. Sand martins arrive in early March, the first of the migratory birds arriving for spring. You can encounter them on open water, hunting for the first rising flies coming off lakes. Other migrant birds, such as house martins, willow warblers, great crested grebes and black caps start to arrive by mid-March. Keep an eye out for great crested grebes from midway through the month too. The males and females perform something called a weed dance and it’s spectacular. They hold weeds in their bills and wave them around rhythmically. They’re native to Britain and widespread across our islands. You’ll find them around ponds or lakes.

If you’re really lucky, you might come across a bittern in the reeds. Famously, they make a noise similar to blowing across a milk bottle. My favourite bird to see in spring though is the willow tit. They’re commonly in ex-industrial areas that have damp soil with poor drainage. They make their homes in well-rotted willow stumps and eat creatures that thrive there. Further into spring, we get the dawn chorus when birds really begin singing. You can hear it in all sorts of places, although you’ll find the widest range of species, and songs, at a specialist nature reserve.

Dennis Maps Nature to spot this spring
“Red squirrel, Bob Brewer on Unsplash

Red and grey squirrels

Red and grey squirrels come out at this time of year, to enjoy the spring and try to attract the opposite sex. You’ll see a lot of mating displays, and territorial displays as the males defend their patches. Red squirrels are far less common than grey ones but can still be found on Anglesey, the Formby dunes, in some areas of the Pennines, at Poole Harbour and in several areas of Scotland.

Buff tailed bumblebee © Penny Frith
Buff tailed bumblebee © Penny Frith

Bees

Bumblebees can be seen first in this season, followed by honeybees. They start to visit the first of the spring blooms. Queen bees come out before the worker bees, getting their energy up ready for nest building and starting to form new colonies. If you go in your garden on a warm spring day, you’ll likely see bees floating about. It’s great to spot them because they’re part of the spring awakening, marking longer days.

Flora to spot this spring

Urban plants

Some of my favourite plants can be seen popping up in urban areas in spring. The common whitlowgrass is a small cress-like plant, that you can often spot if you’re walking in towns or cities. They come up in the cracks and spaces between paving slabs and have dainty white flowers. You could class them as weeds, but I’d argue that weeds are only plants people think are in the wrong place.

Bluebells by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash
Bluebells by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash

Woodland flowers

Spring is the perfect time for a woodland walk to go flower spotting. Woodland flowers are really seasonal. They appear in spring before the leaves are fully formed on trees, when they can still get plenty of light. Bluebells are beautiful flowers to spot in the woods. By April, they’ll be in full season. Bluebells flower for around four weeks at the most, so catch them while you can! This season, there are plenty of other flowers to spots in the woods too, from campion to wood anemone.

Golden scale male fern

It’s wonderful to watch ferns uncurling in spring. They spiral their leaves in winter, and they unwind their spirals, unfurling their leaves, in spring. The golden scale male fern is really special. If you catch it in shafts of spring light in the woods, you’ll see that it’s golden, almost metallic. There are little scales on the back of the leaves, that really shine and shimmer when the sun catches them.

Dr Mark Champion, Senior Landscape Recovery Officer at The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, is an expert on all things wildlife! He has over 35 years’ experience managing nature reserves, with the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts.

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