Now's the perfect time to draw up your hit list for the weeks of wonderful wildlife watching ahead. It’s all go from April Fool's Day with an extra hour of daylight to spend outside now the clocks have gone forward, temperatures on the rise and migration season kicking off. Fabulous sights, sounds and smells are everywhere and it can be hard to know where to look next with a riot of colour and species on show.
With so much to look for and only so much time to do it in, I thought I’d share my top 10 targets for the month to give you some inspiration, and share some tips on how to see them, but I’d love to know what your springtime targets are this year.
1. Sunbathing serpentsI’m a little obsessed with adders. They have the "x-factor" of being our only venomous snake, being really hard to see for most of the year and you have to use a lot of fieldcraft, and skill, to find them. April is a terrific time to seek them out because they are still spending long periods basking in the sun to warm up after hibernation. They will also slough their old skin in April, so they look super smart and bright. My top three tips for finding them are: search in the morning before it gets too hot, concentrate on south facing banks and slopes and move really slowly and tread lightly, ensuring your shadow does not pass over basking spots. Use our top tips, and you could be enjoying a close encounter with an adder this April (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)2. Herald of springThe sound of a singing cuckoo singing never fails to bring a smile to my face. You know that spring is really here when you hear your first cuckoo of spring. It is sadly so much rarer now, making that first April cuckoo encounter even more precious. Look out for the males perched on a dead limb, or a post, and approach the singing bird carefully and slowly so you can get a view of that lovely barred plumage. I usually hear my first in Cambridgeshire around 25 April. How about you?3.Snuffling badgersIt’s a common enough mammal, but how often do you get to see a badger? April is a good month to spend some time watching for them with the adults spending plenty of time above ground and the cubs making their first appearance, perhaps, at the end of the month. Find a sett, then put in some evening vigils to see when the badgers emerge. Don’t sit any closer than 10 metres and stay out of sight, sit in silence, make sure you are downwind of the sett and be in place one hour before dark and you could be enjoying snuffling badgers this month.
A close encounter with a badger could be one of your April highlights (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)4. Dancing newtsThe perfect excuse to take some time out and peer into a pond. Male smooth newts look superb in April with big black spots and a wavy crest. They indulge in little underwater courtship dances with the females and regularly come to the surface too. Where there is one, there are often more, so keep looking. Choose a sunny day and watch for bubbles!5.Song thrush serenadeThe nightingale is my top songster target for May, but before they arrive, I make sure I spend some quality time with my local song thrushes. The longer evenings now are a great time to listen because they are often the last bird to stop singing. There’s less competition early in the month, so the varied phrases carry far and wide. It's up there with the nightingale and woodlark for sure.
6. Nodding snake’s headsKeeping the serpent theme going, this gorgeous wildflower grows in ancient flood meadows in south and east England, but the snake's head fritillary is widely planted and available as a garden plant, so enjoy it where you can. It’s worth the effort to visit a traditional meadow though as tens of thousands of purple heads stretching as far as the eye can see and nodding in the breeze is a sight you’ll never forget.
Visit a fritillary meadow this April when these serpentine flowers will be in full bloom (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)7. Dainty dip feedersNot all gulls are big, noisy and fill their bellies with unmentionables from the local rubbish dump. The little gull is just that – the world’s smallest in fact – but it is a delightful little bird, flying low over the water on paddle-shaped wings flashing jet black below and pale grey above, picking emerging insects form the water’s surface. The adults have a tiny spiky bill and jet black hood (not brown like the black-headed gull – don’t get me started...) and the young birds in their second year have a black “w” written across their upperwings and a no hood. Watch for them feeding over freshwater, often in flocks, after east and south-east winds.8. Orange-tip butterfliesThe beautiful orange-tip butterfly is an insect that just keeps on giving. The super bright orange tips to the wings of the males alone make this a headturner, but both they and the females have an attractive mossy-green pattern on the underside of their hindwings. They also have a beautiful display flight. Look for them along country lanes, damp meadows and lightly wooded areas, especially where garlic mustard and cuckooflower grow.9. Lekking black grouse Sadly, the black grouse is a bird I have to travel quite some way to see, but if any bird was worth the effort of a trip to Scotland, Wales or northern England, this is it. The birds will still be “lekking” in fields and moors in April with the males strutting around and making their amazingly far carrying "bubbly" courtship notes as the brown females watch from the perimeter in search of their perfect mate.
Karate kicking blackcocks are stull fuelled up on testosterone in April (Mike Lane rspb-images.com)10. Colourful damselsFor most of us, the large red damselfly is the first dragonfly or damselfly that we’ll see and April is the month to check ponds and wetland margins where there is standing water. The males are a tropical red colour and you’ll find several together once those double figure temperature days are here to stay.
So, what do you think? Would that little line up satisfy your thirst for wildlife this April, or are you thinking "How could he not include that?!". You can leave a comment below to let us know what's on your mind, and hit list, this month or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a busy period here at the office as we’re approaching the final stages of your Summer issue of Nature’s Home, due to arrive on doormats next month. It’s a flurry of fact-checking, chasing down a few last bits of info, and preparing all 100 pages for our ed-in-chief Mark to sign off.
On top of that, we’re looking ahead to the Autumn issue, and my job is to start putting that together. I know, it seems crazy to be thinking about autumn when my daffodils are only just opening! But we do work that far ahead, and have to block all thoughts of spring out of our minds when we’re dreaming up ideas for the autumn issue.
Spoiler alert! The Autumn issue of Nature’s Home (out in July) will showcase the UK’s heathland habitats, and their wildlife. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The process generally starts with a planning meeting. Everyone comes armed with seasonal ideas, and we also consult the RSPB’s activities for the year ahead, and what will be happening then. We go through the magazine page by page, pencilling in ideas for all our regular ‘slots’, including three in-depth features, family-friendly activities and columnists. (I’ll admit that we often also squeeze in a bit of birding during the tea break!)
When the Nature’s Home magazine team goes birding, all sorts of ideas start bubbling…
My job this week is to transfer that ideas list into a set of detailed written briefs, discuss them with our contributors (writers and columnists, photographers and illustrators)… and then set those pesky deadlines!
I love working with our writers. We have a team of expert columnists, including two within the RSPB: Chief Executive Mike Clarke, who discusses the key topics of each magazine issue, and Conservation Director Martin Harper, who focuses on wider conservation issues.
Then there’s Urban Birder David Lindo, showcasing nature’s seasonal highlights from our towns and cities (which is where most of us live, after all), and Nicola Chester bringing ideas to get kids and families closer to nature. Dominic Couzens investigates bird behaviour and evolutionary design, while Simon Barnes delivers incisive opinion pieces for us on nature’s current affairs.
Simon Barnes' regular columns lends scientific subjects a passionate, human voice, such as in this piece on the latest State of Nature report.
Our news editor, Paul, starts hunting down the latest updates from across the RSPB, while Adrian Thomas will head out with a photographer to showcase a different stunning wildlife garden every issue, and interview its owner to glean some tips we can all apply to our own green spaces.
Commissioning week is also about finding the right experts to write our in-depth features. These can focus on anything: a particular species or habitat, conservation science, community projects, wildlife hotspots… We think about different ways to present information – trying to offer something for everyone: from scientific sidebars and diagrams, to insider mini-interviews and at-a-glance facts and numbers.
Every issue, when all those lovely Word documents come flooding back on deadline day, ready to be turned into a magazine, I learn new things about our wildlife.
Nature is for everyone, but by deploying writers who are experts in their field, we open the door to a more in-depth understanding of the world around us. Commissioning week is all about thinking of ways to present that information in a way that you, as readers, will love.
What did you think of the last issue of Nature's Home? Let us know by logging in to share your ideas in the comments box, below, or email email@example.com
Anna Scrivenger, Managing Editor at Immediate Media, talks about her experience working on Nature's Home magazine.
When I started working on Nature’s Home in 2014, it’s fair to say that I knew more about making magazines than I did about actual wildlife. Thankfully I wasn’t a complete nature novice, either - I’d spent my childhood holidays in the mountains of the Lake District and the campsites of the South-West, and taken wilderness road trips around the UK and other countries in my footloose and fancy-free youth.
So, from a fairly early age I could do things like forage bilberries and cob-nuts, spot buzzards, build dens, excavate fossils, navigate a sphagnum bog, spot owl pellets, snorkel beneath the waves and identify common birds, animals and plants. But most of my working life has been spent at a desk, battling deadlines rather than nature’s elements, and I still had a lot to learn about the natural world.
I was very excited, therefore, to find myself working on Nature’s Home. Every day I communicate with staff from across the RSPB, from conservation scientists to reserve wardens, field workers on remote islands and species experts on all sorts of things from fungi to ring ouzels. Between them, they help me fact-check the magazine and add their own insight. The by-product is that, along the way, I’ve picked up trivia about sites and species that I’ve never even seen, as well as gaining background knowledge in wider conservation science.
But without going into the list of specifics, here are five things that working on this magazine has taught me about nature in general…
1. Amazing things can turn up anywhere.
Unexpected things can show up anywhere. Take this glorious rose chafer, which turned up on my desk last summer. My desk is on the 6th floor of an office tower block in the concrete jungle of downtown Bristol - where there’s not a green leaf in sight. I’ve no idea how it got there. It was supposed to be flitting around a dappled woodland somewhere, but instead decided to spend the best part of an hour crawling over the assortment of A4 printouts around my computer monitor. I eventually put it outside the window and watched it zoom off between two nearby skyscrapers.
My gorgeous temporary pet, a rose chafer beetle.
2. Look more closely.
Working with Mark Ward and the team at the RSPB has literally been an eye-opener. If it wasn’t for their expertise, I would have stepped right over the tiny cracks underfoot that turned out to be full of these fascinating birds' nest fungi, each one a tiny, perfect bowl full of egg-like structures.
Birds' nest fungi are only about 1cm across, and easily missed (Photo: MJ Richardson)
I’d have walked right past the weathered gatepost where a telltale strand of silk betrayed the presence of a little zebra spider waiting to pounce on tiny insects. I wouldn’t have noticed the little hole in the sandy path that was the front door of a rare mining bee, or the glorious jewel wasp quivering quietly on a pile of dead wood. I’d clearly been stampeding through life for years with my eyes trained on the middle-distance… how many miniature wonders I must have missed!
3. Ducks and geese are actually pretty amazing. I didn’t realise this until I got to know them. I knew mallards and mandarins from local park ponds, but never felt excited about wildfowl. That has now been rectified. Thanks to my outings with the RSPB I will always remember watching my first goldeneye, of seeing a flock of pink-footed geese from Scandinavia come into land right next to me, and picking out my first Bewick swan among a flock of whoopers. I’ve started a list to record all my ‘firsts’.
I snapped these pochards and whooper swans while playing 'spot the Bewick' at sunset.
4. Be prepared. It’ll be colder than you think, or wetter than you think… and you’ll need better binoculars than you think. Though no stranger to the elements thanks to winter mountain hikes as a child, sitting still in nature is a very different ball game from rambling through it. I’ve learned to bring 30% more kit than I think I’ll need… and the best optics I can bring or borrow.
5. It’s a waiting game. I might not have had the patience before, but have been rewarded by it so many times that I’ve now learned that good things come to those who wait. Case in point: the team and I were watching thousands of golden plover on a mud flat for quite some time. Our rather chilly deputy editor decided to take a convenience break, which unfortunately coincided perfectly with the moment the plovers all took to the air and formed a swirling, magical murmuration across the sky right before our eyes, before settling on the ground again just in time for her return.
It’s a privilege to be working alongside such knowledgeable people, who have opened my eyes to a whole new world that perhaps I couldn’t see as clearly before. Most of my time is still spent at a keyboard rather than under open skies, and I really must get out more... but thanks to my work with the Nature’s Home team, when I do, I’m much more alive to it all.
Has Nature’s Home (or RPSB membership) taught you anything new? Log in to tell us about it in the comments section, below.