Hothfield Heathlands in April

Nick Green

Margery Thomas explores the seasonal changes set to appear at Hothfield Heathlands in April, hopefully including the return of volunteering.

The seasons and the COVID-19 regulations are changing. Area Manager Ian Rickards reports that "COVID safe volunteering should be returning in April. We've missed several months of help from our wonderful volunteers, and this has been during the key time of year when we would get most of our conservation management work done. Fortunately, our livestock checking team have been able to keep working, not sure what we would have done without them". Volunteers are keen to get back, they miss the work, the sense of achievement and camaraderie, even the cold tea sitting on a muddy tree stump!


Meanwhile, the birds are increasingly active. Alder cones remain on the tree until after the new spring catkins release their pollen, and two acrobatic finches, the redpoll and siskin have been sighted hanging upside-down as their slender beaks probe the small alder cones. They are easiest to spot now among bare branches. The lesser redpoll, just bigger than a blue tit, is named after the red forehead visible in both sexes. The male also has pink on the breast and face during breeding. They are resident in the UK but less common in the southeast so perhaps these were winter visitors. They like very small seeds and niger seed in bird feeders has attracted them into gardens recently. Numbers have declined so they are on the Red List.


Nick Green

The siskin is another agile seed eater, inhabiting mixed woodland but also attracted to garden feeders. The black wings have a conspicuous yellow bar and the forked black tail is edged with yellow. Siskins are lively and sociable and resident in the UK although some may be overwintering here from Europe.

Some chiffchaffs have started overwintering in the UK thanks to the warmer climate, but many arrive here from Africa in early spring and have been heard singing 'chiffchaff chiffchaff’ from tree tops on the reserve since mid-February. This small olive-brown member of the warbler family weighs less than a £1 coin. It feeds on insects picked from trees or snapped up in flight as it flits through trees and shrubs flicking its tail. Chiffchaffs are building nests now, ready for the first of two broods. The domed nest is on or near the ground, hidden in undergrowth. All ground-nesting birds are seriously impacted when disturbed by dogs running and playing freely off the paths. This may cause them to abandon nests or prevent them from collecting  food for themselves and their brood.

Many birds need insects to feed their young; later on insect- and seed-eaters find their food among long grass so planning now to leave a patch of lawn to grow long will benefit bird and insect species. 

Please shut the pedestrian gates that you use. Paths on the reserve may no longer have the consistency of treacle (a volunteer’s description) but wearing the right footgear makes it possible to walk straight through, enjoying any mud or puddles, rather than round. This avoids widening the paths unnecessarily and trampling the fragile plants, including the seedling heathers and tiny ephemerals that grow on the close-cropped, species-rich edge habitats. Please keep dogs close to you at all times, do not let your dog run and play off the paths and through the areas of heather and gorse.