British wildlife in March
As spring brings an abundance of new life, it’s time to talk about the birds and the bee-flies. Here is selection of the month's best wildlife spectacles from around the British countryside in March.
Be inspired to go wildlife-watching with our beautiful photographs and descriptions of species emerging in the UK in March, from chiffchaffs singing their seesaw ditty to blossoming blackthorn and the stirring wary bodies of toads.
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Many naturalists have wondered why so many of Britain’s early spring flowers happen to be yellow. The roll call includes lesser celandine, marsh marigold, primrose, cowslip, daffodil (the native variety of which can be seen in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, south-west Wales and a few other places), dandelions and coltsfoot. The last of these looks superficially like a dandelion, with golden flowerheads made up of many separate strands, or florets, yet is a pretty distinctive wildflower.
In fact, it has two types of floret – darker orange ones in the central disc, from which longer yellow ones radiate to form a shaggy wheel. Coltsfoot flowers in March and April, usually at the edges of fields and in rough, stony ground, or even poking through tarmac and paving stones. Its curious stems are pale purple and weirdly fleshy, but oddest of all, there are no leaves until much later in spring.
Learn more about spring wildflowers:
Mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus)
If you notice holly berries left on branches at the end of winter – and it is only female holly trees that have them in the first place – you may have come across the private larder of a mistle thrush. This is a bird that jealously guards its own berry supply to see itself through the winter months. Any other bird that dares spend too long in ‘its’ tree is chased away and subjected to a volley of agitated rattlingcalls. Blackbirds, song thrushes, robins, even woodpigeons and other mistle thrushes all get the same treatment.
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Though holly is a particular favourite, a mistle thrush will also defend other sources of fruit, such as yew, hawthorn or mistletoe, the plant after which it is named. Sadly, the species has been added to the UK’s Red List of threatened birds, due to a sustained population decline over the past 50 years
Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
No bird has inspired more English poetry and music than the skylark – well, apart perhaps from the nightingale. This nondescript, streaky brown bird of rough grassy places is often in full voice by March and may sing right through the spring and summer months. It frequently begins before first light, pouring out its melody from the pitch-black sky while spiralling higher and higher. Eventually, the bird hangs in midair 50m or so above the ground, still singing, before it plummets to earth.
Most skylark songs last around three or four minutes, but performances of as long as a quarter of an hour are not uncommon. The birds are able to sing non-stop for so long thanks to the unique structure of the avian voicebox, or syrinx, which enables them to produce sound even while inhaling fresh air. It is the male skylark that sings – a sign that he is defending territory and hoping to attract a mate.
Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria)
Toothwort is a plant devoid of leaves or chlorophyll, with a ghostly pallor that’s most un-plant-like. Its pale pink flower spikes, which sprout suddenly in March and April, bear an uncanny resemblance to naked flesh, or (hence the name) a stack of pulled teeth. They could also be mistaken for dead flowers, though these blooms are fresh.
The botanist Chris Thorogood writes in his book Chasing Plants that toothworts possess an “unearthly, ethereal aura; a static beauty”. Their odd appearance is explained by the fact that they are parasites, deriving all of their water and essential nutrients by tapping into the roots of other plants. The vampires spend most of their life underground: only the flowers see the light of day. Common toothwort, the sole species found in Britain, targets trees, usually hazel. It is widespread, though uncommon.
Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)
The rich lemon-yellow of a male brimstone butterfly is spectacular at any time – this is an insect that can nowadays be seen in the UK from February until November. But it seems especially fine in early spring sunshine, when the first freshly woken individuals are on the wing. The naturalist Michael McCarthy, one of the co-authors of The Consolation of Nature: Spring in the Time of Coronavirus, writes: “The brimstone is so bright it looks like a piece of sunlight that has become detached from the sun’s rays and freed to wander.” By contrast, the female brimstone is a subtle shade of greenish-yellow.
Emerging this early in the year means brimstone butterflies need some clever strategies to heat their thorax muscles, which power the wings, to the 35°C necessary for flight. They do this by seeking sheltered sun-traps, such as the south side of a hedgerow or grassy bank. But even that is not enough. So the butterflies perch and bask, angling their folded wings towards the sun. After basking, they can fly in an air temperature as low as 13°C.
Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
March in Britain is a fickle month in terms of the weather: sometimes bitterly cold, at others balmy enough for short sleeves. But whatever the weather has in store, March is when the first migratory birds arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa. Among them are wheatears, perky members of the chat family (and relatives of the robin). Males are smartest, with their black ‘mask’, grey upperparts and sandy underparts, but both they and the browner females have a pure white rump.
The earliest wheatear sightings – typically in mid-March – come from grassy headlands and cliffs on the south coast of England. By mid-April, sightings will be coming thick and fast, as the birds move to their upland breeding areas in Wales and northern Britain, always favouring areas of short turf or bare earth.
The northern wheatear's scientific name, Oenanthe oenanthe, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.
Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor)
Our tiniest woodpecker is probably most noticeable in March, as territorial males drum on trees and call to prospective mates. Now rare in Britain and invariably shy, the sparrow-sized species is tricky to see, but at least the woodland canopy is still leafless this month. A recent study found that competition with its great spotted relative is not behind its mysterious precipitous decline.
Common primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Said to be a favourite flower of the Queen, the primrose is appreciated by other queens too – bumblebees. In March, the plant’s yellow rosettes are a lifeline for newly emerged white- tailed and buff-tailed queens, as well as early bumblebees, bee-flies and butterflies. Find a primrose patch and enjoy a few mindful moments in nature as you wait to see what turns up.
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)
The first butterfly of the year always lifts the spirits – and it’s often a comma. This butterfly seems to glow orange like the embers of a bonfire, instantly lighting up any March day. On closer inspection, the upper wings are a rich mix of oranges and browns, which, complete with the insect’s ragged wing outline, brilliantly impersonate an autumn leaf. In fact, the butterfly is named for the small white mark on the underside of its hind wing, but you’ll need a clear view of a resting individual to see this well.
Commas are seen so early in the year because, like brimstones, peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshells, they hibernate as adults. All it takes is a bit of March sunshine to lift the air temperature, and the hardy insects begin to stir from their winter resting places in hollow trees or among tree roots or piles of brushwood. Nectar is still in short supply in March, but primroses and catkins are both popular with freshly emerged commas. These butterflies also love to bask in the warmth, for example on the sunny side of a tree trunk.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Marsh marigold is like a massive version of lesser celandine, whose cheerful, bright yellow flowers are such a harbinger of spring. Both species are in flower by March and belong to the buttercup family, but they favour different habitats. Whereas lesser celandine is found in all kinds of open woodland, often on banks or beside paths, marsh marigold likes its feet wet. It thrives everywhere from ditches and marshes to flooded woodland, and is an excellent choice for garden ponds. Frogs like to hide among its tangle of huge, glossy green leaves.
It was once known as kingcup and has an unusual structure. Curiously, its half-a- dozen or so regal golden ‘petals’ are actually sepals. Ordinarily, a flower’s sepals hang low beneath the petals, which are the showiest and most colourful part of the plant – marsh marigold, however, is entirely petalless and so the sepals do the job instead.
Dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major)
Some insects seem to get all the love – bees, butterflies and dragonflies especially. Flies, not so much. But in March, there is a fly that stands out for its attractiveness and fascinating lifestyle. What’s more, it is abundant and widespread through most of Britain, though no longer in Ireland for some reason. Meet the dark-edged (or large or greater) bee-fly.
Flies excel at many things, including pollination and parasitism. This one is superb at both. You will often hear it first – a loud hum as it hangs motionless on whirring wings, just above head height. The next thing you’ll notice is its extraordinary proboscis. It is as if you are looking at a furry little ginger unicorn, though the long tongue is in fact a precision tool for extracting nectar from deep-throated flowers such as primroses, lungwort and ground-ivy, frequently while hovering.
Bee-flies resemble bees for a reason. The mimicry enables the female to sneak up to ground-nesting bees, particularly mining bees, so she can deftly flick her eggs towards the burrows. When the maggots hatch, they crawl inside to devour the hapless bee larvae. Look out for bee-flies – there are several species – on sunny days in gardens and other flowery places until May. They even have their own Twitter hashtag: #BeeFlyWatch.
Learn more about pollinating insects:
Eurasian magpie (Pica pica)
Britain and Ireland’s avifauna is among the most closely observed on Earth, thanks to long-running studies and updates from thousands of citizen scientists. Data in the BTO’s annual BirdTrends report show that 40 species of bird nest earlier than in the mid-1960s, with magpies advancing their laying date on average by 20 days. Other birds breeding substantially earlier include greenfinches, robins, great tits and swallows. Though this might help some species, in other cases it could lead to ‘seasonal mismatch’, where young no longer hatch when food is most plentiful.
The magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.
Learn more about corvids:
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Roadside ditches and riverbanks are strewn with pink butterbur flowers this month. All male, they have the look of dwarf conifers, according to Richard Mabey in his epic Flora Britannica. Less charitably, they also recall loo brushes.
We tend to forget that our ancestors used plants not just in cooking and medicine, but also for cleaning, dyeing, stuffing, packaging, smoking and much else. In the days before fridges, butterbur leaves, which are huge and lotus-like and appear later in the spring, served as a cool wrapper for butter and other fresh foods.
Common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
The year’s first singing chiffchaff is a moment wildlife-lovers yearn for. Repeated over and over, the seesaw ditty is rudimentary yet uplifting, and before long you will be hearing it everywhere. Jeremy Mynott, co-author of The Consolation of Nature, points out that the two-syllable song is better reflected by the warbler’s old names: chip-chop, chit-chat, siff-saff.
Odds are, birds you hear will be migrants freshly arrived from their Mediterranean winter range, though the BTO estimates up to 15,000 chiffchaffs now overwinter in Britain, mainly in the south.
Learn more about birds in spring:
Opposite-leaved golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium)
Sometimes it pays to get down and explore at ground level. This mat-forming woodland plant is easy to miss, being just 5–10cm high, and its common name is rather a mouthful. But a closer look reveals its subtle beauty. The glossy, rounded leaves recall those of succulents, while the yellowish-green flowerheads are like tiny versions of the euphorbias popular with florists and gardeners. Though the individual plants may be insignificant, they can grow in such dense profusion that, in early spring, they brighten up great swathes of the woodland floor.
Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago)
“In the spring, tugged by the sun, these swamp-loving hunkered birds transform themselves into little horses and ride the sky.” Tim Dee’s lyrical description of male snipe performing their aerial courtship, in 2013’s Four Fields, captures its inherent strangeness. As the birds dive headlong, their splayed outer tail feathers vibrate in the rushing air to create a wonderful reedy sound called drumming. You feel it in your chest, as Dee says, like the “heart’s foghorn”. Experience it on marshy nature reserves managed for wading birds, or on healthy moors and bogs in upland areas.
The common snipe's scientific name, Gallinago gallinago, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.
Razor shells (Ensis arcuatus)
The astonishing riches of our sandy and muddy shores, teeming with everything from marine worms to molluscs, are firmly out of reach for most of us. However, rough seas may reveal some of this buried treasure. The razor shell, or razor clam, is one of the more eye-catching burrowing residents to litter beaches after storms.
It spends its life in a vertical tunnel, feeding on detritus when the tide comes in. The animal may survive over a decade, steadily adding pretty growth rings to its paired shells, which relate to tidal cycles rather than calendar years.
Learn more about coastal wildlife:
Mountain hare (Lepus timidus)
The first of March heralds spring, meteorologically speaking, with astronomical spring (the vernal equinox) falling on Friday 20 March. Yet this changeable month is usually snowier than December – remember 2018’s Beast from the East?
Undeterred, hares are already breeding, so that their first litter of the season will be born in time for the sudden flush of fresh greenery. All three species found in the British Isles – the mountain, Irish and brown – are preoccupied with bringing the next generation into the world. And that means fur will fly.
Despite controversial culls of mountain hares in the Scottish Highlands, which have led to drastic population declines, to see them boxing in snow is still a unique spectacle.
“The onset of breeding is dictated by the male hares,” says Benjamin Jones, a naturalist at Aigas Field Centre. “How can I put this nicely? In January, their testes start to grow, and then everything kicks off.” The hares chase each other up and down slopes as if possessed – they have such thick fur on the soles of their feet that their grip is amazing. “It looks chaotic when multiple males pursue a doe, but she’s in control and gives them what for,” Benjamin says. “The males have to demonstrate they’re persistent and can put up with a serious beating.”
Northern gannet (Morus bassanus)
After several months out at sea, wherever the fishing is best, gannets begin returning to their 20 or so breeding colonies around Britain and Ireland in February. Now the trickle turns into a torrent, as pairs (which mate for life) rush to reoccupy their own small piece of gannet real estate, a patch of rock just out of bill-stabbing range of their neighbours. However desolate our coasts feel in March, this month also sees many other seabirds, from fulmars to puffins, turn up at their nesting cliffs and islands.
Learn more about gannets and other seabirds:
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
“Without hedges, England would not be England,” the nature writer Richard Jefferies declared in 1884, adding, “I love their very thorns.” Thorniness is, of course, highly desirable in a hedge, which is why two of the most widespread hedgerow trees are blackthorn and hawthorn. Their leafing and flowering patterns are reversed. Blackthorn flowers first, then unfurls its leaves; hawthorn greens up well before it blossoms.
The Nature’s Calendar citizen-science project run by the Woodland Trust records these and many other signs of seasonal change.
Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)
Untidiness suits farmland birds such as the yellowhammer, just coming into breeding plumage. For decades, however, the prevailing mantra has been to neaten up our countryside – something that author Ben Macdonald diagnoses as ‘Ecological Tidiness Disorder’.
To help the yellowhammer, we need more weedy arable fields, scuffed-up pasture, spilt seeds and unruly wildflower margins, preferably with rewilded, overgrown hedges, at the bottom of which the female will soon be nestbuilding. Close by, her gaudy mate sings his short but sweet song, over and over.
Smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)
Britain’s exceptionally mild spring in 2019, including the warmest February day on record, saw a sharp rise in early sightings of smooth newts in the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey (which records other wildlife, too).
The March reporting rate was comparable to a typical April. But stirring too soon can be risky if temperatures dip again.
On wet evenings, look out for newts on the move – whereas frogs hibernate in ponds, newts have to migrate there.
Drone fly (Eristalis tenax)
Compared to bees, hoverflies tend to get overlooked, yet they’re important pollinators, too. Of Britain’s 280-odd species, one found in almost every garden is the drone fly, named for its resemblance to a big-eyed male honeybee, or drone.
In this species, adult females hibernate over winter, meaning they’re among the first hoverflies on the wing in spring. One reason for their abundance is that their aquatic larvae can cope with oxygen-deprivation, flourishing anywhere from dirty ditches to buckets of stagnant water.
Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)
Song thrushes have been in full voice for several weeks now, as have mistle thrushes, blackbirds, robins, and dunnocks. As the dawn chorus in all its rich complexity is still a way off, they really stand out. So, it’s the ideal time to learn these common songs.
A good way of doing this is to ascribe characters to each one. “Whereas the blackbird and robin are musical,” writes Stephen Moss in 2017’s Wonderland, “the song thrush is chatty and loquacious, almost as if he is having a good gossip.”
Common toad (Bufo bufo)
Countless warty bodies will soon be stirring. Unlike frogs, toads only visit water to breed, and the timing of their annual migration varies enormously from year to year, according to the weather in early spring. The ‘big push’ – when toads move en masse to ancestral breeding ponds and lakes – occurs on damp, drizzly evenings when the temperature at sunset hovers at or above 7–8°C. The event usually occurs in March or April in northern England and Scotland.
All too often, the peak movement clashes with rush-hour traffic, leading to amphibian carnage. John Lewis- Stempel, in his book about ponds, Still Water, describes the sickening moment when toads and drivers meet: ‘Stationary, they are white lumps, almost leaves; the car headlights hit their pulsating throats, just before the tyres hit their bodies. We weave, we slow to a sympathetic toad-speed crawl but it is impossible to save them all.’
Fortunately, however, there is something we can do about it. If there is a local Toad Patrol, consider volunteering. It’s fun, simple and effective. On a busy night, in a few hours you could save over 100 toads.
Wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
Few people realise that ‘daffs’ have a wild British cousin once fondly called the Lent Lily, and even fewer know that you can still track it down in quiet corners of the country. True wild daffodils are shorter and paler than the vast majority from plant nurseries, with a darker trumpet and slimmer grey-green leaves. To enjoy them, head to the meadows and churchyards of the area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ in north- west Gloucestershire, or explore Dunsford Wood on Dartmoor and Farndale in the North York Moors.
Common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Every year over 35 million pheasants, which originate from across Asia, are released in the UK. Their biomass exceeds that of all our native breeding birds put together, and they have the dubious distinction of being the animal most likely to be run over. Pheasants divide people but their theatrical early-spring displays are nonetheless worth watching. Cocks utter raspy calls and jump upwards in a flurry of whirring wings, producing low-frequency sound waves that amplify the territorial message.
Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes)
Darting hyperactively among the first spring flowers of a garden, park or hedgerow, this fast-flying bumblebee-lookalike bee can seem intent on not letting you have a good look. But persevere, because it is a lovely insect and one of the few bees active in March. Often also called the feather- footed flower bee, it has distinctive brush- like tufts of long hair on the lower part of its legs. The bee likes to hover in front of flowers, sometimes with its tongue out.
The hairy-footed flower bee is found in Wales and England as far north as Yorkshire (but is more common in the south-east). Due to its large size, it is often mistaken for a bumblebee. Its coloration is a giveaway, though: females are black with orange fur on the back legs; males are gingery. Another clue is the bee is very particular about the flowers it visits – usually comfrey, lungwort, green alkanet (an introduced species) or ground-ivy.
Learn more about bees:
White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons)
Every winter, Britain hosts internationally important populations of migratory wild geese. Among the rarest are Greenland ‘white-fronts’ – the fast-declining, orange-billed subspecies of the white-fronted goose. They winter mainly in Ireland and Scotland, being increasingly hard to see in England. Soon they will be getting ready for an epic return migration north.
To reach their Arctic tundra nesting grounds, amid glaciers and snowy peaks, they must fly over the North Atlantic, Iceland and the vast Greenland ice cap. Families stick together for the whole journey.
Common dog violet (Viola riviniana)
After a dreary, washed-out winter, violets bring a welcome splash of colour to woods, verges and meadow edges. They used to form multicoloured carpets, together with species such as cowslips and bugle, but large displays are hard to find nowadays, due to disturbance by deer and woods becoming overgrown.
Keen botanists know to examine the backwards-pointing extension, or spur, behind each flower. It is pale in common dog violets, dark in early dog violets. There are also sweet violets with scented blooms.
Main image: Comma butterfly. © Colin Varndell
Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.
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