Spring is in the air on reserves

Skylark. Photo by Amy Lewis
Skylark. Photo by Amy Lewis
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The daffodils are in full bloom, the trees are flushed with blossom and the hum of insects will soon fill the air, writes Tove Hubbard, of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

It would seem that spring is well and truly on its way.

While the joyous Great British weather might struggle to follow suit, spectacular change is afoot for much of Harrogate’s wildlife. Why not visit one of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves this spring and see for yourself?

The lengthening days beckon a flurry of fresh activity on our wetland sites, with many of our birds set to depart, only to be replaced by a different cast of feathery visitors as the bird breeding season gets underway.

The first of the common tern arrive at Staveley in April and will make use of the nesting platforms on the East Lagoon to brood and rear their chicks in the coming months.

These elegant birds are a delight to watch as they hover effortlessly above the water before diving their perfectly streamlined bodies downwards to catch fish.

Male skylarks herald the return of spring in spectacular style, and have already been spotted ascending and plummeting the skies above the hay meadows of Staveley and Ripon Loop as they let out their beautiful complex songs.

Sadly, this classic sign of spring is under threat, as population numbers have fallen dramatically in recent decades due to the intensification of farming practice.

The hay meadows at Staveley and Ripon Loop have, therefore, never been more important for the survival of this species, being cut later to ensure ground nesting birds have time to fledge their young. Meanwhile, sand martin numbers will soon crescendo into the hundreds as they return to use the natural river banks at Ripon Loop and artificial banks at Staveley.

Our reserves in Harrogate are host to a spectacular array of plant life and will soon be awash with the full floral blooms of spring. The good news is that April and May provide the perfect gentle start for the botanical novice.

Cowslips first present their cheerful yellow flowers at this time of year and are a familiar sight among the grasses of Burton Leonard Lime Quarry and Bishop Monkton Railway Cutting.

As their names suggest, both of these reserves have industrial pasts but are now fantastic wildlife havens in their own right. The likes of common bird’s-foot-trefoil and salad burnet are set to follow suit in May.

Meanwhile, bluebells spring up under trees and hedgerows, and make the most of the early spring light before they are shaded out by the summer invasion of leaves. It goes without saying – all of our wildflower populations are incredibly fragile so please be mindful and leave them intact for all of our visitors to enjoy.

Harrogate’s reserves are quite literally waking up, as thousands of insects, amphibians and mammals emerge from their dormant winter states. Bumblebee queens are some of the first to stir from hibernation and are extremely active at this time of year. Look out for their characteristic lumbering gait as the queens zig zag close to the ground in search of suitable nest spots. Once the nests are established, they must work hard to gather enough food for the brood, and can often be spotted with their back legs laden with giant balls of pollen.

Meanwhile the waters of Staveley and Ripon Loop are set to be a hotbed of amorous amphibian activity. Spurred on by the warming temperatures and reappearance of insect prey, smooth newts, common frogs and common toads are out of hibernation and will soon be laying thousands of eggs in many of Harrogate’s ponds and quieter waterways. These eggs and frogspawn will in turn provide essential food for many other freshwater fish and invertebrates. Hustle and bustle will also return to the many bat roosts across Harrogate, as the first brave individuals venture outside to search for insects during the first of the warm spring evenings.

Our volunteer group will be reducing its work at Staveley and Ripon Loop in April and particularly May to avoid disturbance to the many nesting birds. However, work will pick up again in June as removal of some of our most stubborn invasive species and weeds, particularly Himalayan balsam and ragwort. There will also be much to do at Ripon Loop to deal with the damage caused by the winter floods. In classic geography textbook style, the River Ure is doing its best to carve a new route through the reserve and create an entire oxbow lake, which brings benefits and challenges for wildlife and people.

Whether you are new to our reserves, or a regular visitor, we want to hear from you.

Email sightings@ywt.org.uk and let us know what wildlife you have spotted – your report could get featured in next month’s article.