The Four Seasons

SPRING – the dominant sound for any visitor to the Fields in spring is the song of the skylark. Whilst they can be heard for most of the year the numbers singing from March onwards increases as male birds proclaim and defend their breeding territories. Most of our other resident birds are active at this time of the year and on any early morning visit blackbirds, various finches, meadow pipits and collared doves are among the birds that can be heard. Other animal species also start their breeding activities in March, particularly water creatures such as frogs and newts. It also the time to have the best views of the brown hares and with some luck it is possible to witness the “mad March hare” antics, which is in fact a courtship ritual.

The first butterflies can be seen on the warmer, sunny days with orange tip and green veined white being attracted to the large stands of lady’s smock, the food plant for their caterpillars.

The first migrating birds to return from their wintering grounds in Africa can be as early as March. These are usually birds on passage, such as wheatears, but it is early April when the first breeding migrants arrive. The willow warbler is often the first the come and its gentle “trickling down the scale” song is for many the first sings of spring. Other members of the warbler family soon follow including blackcap, whitethroat and sedge and grasshopper warblers. Swallows and house martins then fill the air as they feed on flying insects to be joined as later by swifts.

As spring comes into summer the grasses grow, more wildflowers come into flower, attracting their associated insects.

SUMMER – the season of greatest activity when the sounds of the birds are joined by the noise of grasshoppers of which we have four different species on Berryhill. With the emergence of more flowering plants and grasses the butterflies become abundant. Whilst the adult butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers it is the food plant for their caterpillars that are crucial for their survival. The most common species on Berryhill are obviously those that feed on grasses. Meadow browns and small and large skippers can be seen in large numbers throughout the site. Other butterflies and their associated food plants include common blue and bird’s foot trefoil, small copper and sorrel and holly blue, surprisingly feed on holly.

The most popular flowering plants for visitors are the orchids. They can be found in various locations around the Fields but the most spectacular area is on the plateau overlooking the moated site. This was the site of the spoil heap from Mossfield Colliery that was levelled in 1973. In that short space of time vegetation has taken hold to the extent that the tree species need to be controlled if we are to retain the open site required by the orchids and the other wildflowers flourishing there. The orchids include common spotted and bee orchids, but the main plants are hybrids between common spotted and southern marsh. These hybrids favour former coalfield sites and can be seen in other sites in north Staffordshire.

August brings the first signs that much of the summer activities are slowing down. Many birds have finished breeding and undertake their summer moult, swifts have returned to Africa and the autumn food supply of seeds and berries are forming.

AUTUMN – the time of changing one season into another cannot be done by referring to a calendar. The first frosts of the autumn can be as early as September yet birds can still be breeding late in October. The mass exodus of our breeding migrant birds is a sure sign that autumn is upon us. Swallows and house martins feed in large flocks over the Fields, building up their fat supplies in readiness for the long and dangerous journeys, with swallows travelling 6,000 miles to the southernmost parts of South Africa.

Our resident birds also start to form in flocks that include mixed flocks of finches such as chaffinch, greenfinch, redpoll and goldfinch. They feed on the abundance of seeds from thistles to hawthorn. Grass seeds that fall to the ground are also important food sources for skylarks and meadow pipits as well as field mice, voles and shrews.

Some mammal species like bats and hedgehogs can be seen feeding as they prepare for their winter hibernation. Butterflies also feed late into autumn. Some will over winter as larvae, others as pupae but the small tortoiseshells hibernate as adults. Red admirals and painted ladies, though, follow the swallows by migrating south, where they spend the winter around the Mediterranean.

The first real signs on the impending winter are the arrivals of two members of the thrush family, fieldfares and redwings. These come form their breeding grounds in northern and central Europe where the winters are too severe for them to find food.

WINTER – one feature of Berryhill Fields, even in summer, is that the wind always seems to blow, therefore it can be quite bleak in the colder months of winter. Yet, the Fields are just as interesting as in other times of the year in what may seem a harsh environment for wildlife. One bird species that excites the visitor in winter is the short eared owl. This owl feeds during the day, usually at dawn and dusk, and feeds on a diet almost entirely of voles. Vole populations fluctuate and in times of abundance as many as four owls can be seen hunting at the same time. Other birds visit the Fields to share the winter with us such as lapwing and golden plover. Some of these are birds that come down from their breeding areas on the moors but others have migrated here from similar places to the thrushes.

Whilst a winter visit may make the visitor wish for warmer climes the spirits can be uplifted by a skylark. Even on the coldest of days it is possible to hear one singing its heart out whilst defying the elements. Winter, though, does have the odd warm spell and it’s surprising what activity there is. Small tortoiseshell butterflies can wake up from hibernation and activity in the ponds only needs the water temperature to rise a few degrees for frogs to start breeding.

In February the first flowers can emerge with the yellow coltsfoot being one of the first and by early March the first blossom appears on the blackthorn. Birds start setting up their breeding territories and we all await the arrival of the willow warblers.