On the 20th March it was the Vernal Equinox and this really marks the beginning of spring and for the first time we can roughly say that the hours of daylight equal those of night-time. Everywhere the hedges are changing to light green, as the buds break into leaf. On sunny days the birds can be heard chirping in the bushes and early nesters, such as magpies can be seen with twigs in their beaks. At Yard Farm I saw, high in an Oak tree a nest belonging to a Buzzard. I could not be sure whether this was a “new-build” as developers call them or whether it was last year’s. Either way, it will be worth watching, as Buzzards often return to old sites and renovate the nest: they favour tree tops and the local Oaks are ideal.
The Blackthorn is blossoming and making the hedgerows frothy with their white flowers and walking along Lower Breache Road the ditch was festooned with Celandines and Primroses. I also saw an early flowering Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower. The other early woodland plant making a colourful splash is the delightful Wood Anemone; we are lucky in Ewhurst as the ancient woodland is the ideal habitat for this plant, which flowers in dappled shade. I noticed that it has colonised the wayside along Wykehurst Lane, beneath Shippen Hill. The Romans picked the flowers as a lucky charm to ward off fever, although I don’t think there is any medical evidence to suggest it has this effect.
There are rare moments in a naturalist’s life when one is lucky enough to stumble across a remarkable natural event. Last year we saw hundreds of tadpoles in the pond at Old Plough Farm; this year we were at the same site to witness the spawning. Frogs and Toads were everywhere along the margins of the pond, it was difficult to estimate numbers but I would say there were probably a hundred. Scientists are not certain what initiates the breeding migrations, climate has an undoubted influence and it is also likely that frogs follow a wind-blown scent, given off by chemicals in algae that the tadpoles will eventually feed upon. There is also a suggestion, difficult to verify, that frogs return to the birth site. Whatever the reasons, certain ponds will host large numbers during the breeding period.
The male frogs were very active when we arrived. They seek out the females, which are much larger, and clasp them with their front legs across the chest. This way of coupling is called amplexus and many frogs were gripped in this amorous embrace in the water; they may stay in this posture for hours or even days. Competition for females can be great and I saw a very aggressive male swim vigorously at a coupled pair and dislodge the male, he then failed to capitalise on his conquest as the disgruntled female swam away from her would-be suitors. The eggs are released suddenly and the male, stimulated as the eggs pass over his hind legs, sheds his sperm over the globular mass. It is interesting that sometimes other males, without partners, will also ejaculate over the same eggs. No doubt, in any case, not all eggs are fertilised and so this is a good way to ensure that as many as possible are. When the female has finished she becomes very thin and leaves the pond looking rather sorry for herself. We were able to watch this coupling and it is certainly one of the high spots in my observations of nature. It felt like being on safari with David Attenborough!
I went back to the pond to take some photos and I talked to the owner of the house: she told me that when the tadpoles become tiny frogs the road is covered in them as they seek new homes. I got some good pictures but noticed that there were fewer frogs and toads there. The toad spawn is different to the frog spawn, being laid in necklaces which are attached to water plants. There was a lot of toad spawn and rather less frog spawn. The next day all the frogs and toads had gone and, strangely, there was not much spawn. Whether it was a victim of predators, of which there are many, including cannibals, I cannot be sure and it will be fascinating to see whether there are many tadpoles later on.