Wildlife Gardening and Photography for March

Wildlife Gardening and Photography for March

For me, March is a month of change and better things on the horizon, with the days growing longer and long-forgotten plants and animals starting to stir again. Winter can, of course, rear its head from time to time, but generally this is when things are getting milder, and the wildlife in your garden will start to take notice.

On a warm day you may spot a comma butterfly that has perhaps overwintered in a shed or bug box. Amphibians will be returning to breeding ponds, with frogs often being the first, shortly followed by toads and newts. Early flowers are peeking through the ground now, including red dead-nettles, wood anemones and, of course, plenty of bulbs.

Here’s your guide to what to do in the garden this month to ensure great photography…

Put a bird box up

In March, birds will start looking for places to nest, so this is when you want to have a bird box out if you haven’t already.

Positioning is key. Put it too low to the ground and most birds won’t bother with it, so try to have your box at least 5 ft high, or higher if you can. I have three boxes in my garden, and so far all have been unoccupied, though I did get some blue tits taking a look last year. I suspect this is because mine are a bit exposed, so if you have bushes or some other cover available, that could make for an ideal place to put the box.

Think about where the sun is, as you don’t want to box to overheat in the summer. A north-to-east direction is often best, avoiding direct sunlight and wet winds. It’s also important to think about flight paths. While some cover is good to have around the box, too much will put the birds off. They can be quite picky when it comes to finding a home – a bit like us humans!

Fixing the box is normally a simple process of putting a nail or screw into whatever surface you are hanging the box on.

Differently sized holes will attract different birds, so think about what (or who) you want to move in. For example, a 25mm hole is ideal for blue tits, while a 32mm hole is better for house sparrows. A larger 100mm-high open front is preferred by robins.

Plant wildflower plugs

If you want a native wildflower patch, then the best time to sow seeds is autumn and spring. So, while this time of year is a bit awkward for seeds, it’s perfect for putting in plugs.

Plugs are small plants you can buy from garden centres, or grow yourself if you’re green-fingered. You put the seeds into a tray the previous autumn and let them fill out. Now they have a headstart and can be dug directly into the flower patch.

There are a few advantages to doing it this way: namely, you have control of where your flowers are going to pop up, so you can spread them all around if you want a mixture, or place them together if you want the colours to match. The insects don’t really mind!

The ground is nice and moist at this time, so they are more likely to take than later in the year when the ground might be dry and tough. Seeds can also struggle occasionally when put directly into the ground; this can be due to competition from surrounding plants, conditions not being right for germination, or predation from birds. Putting in plugs is therefore a good way to ensure an increase in the biodiversity of a patch. Where possible, I suggest you always buy native British wildflowers – a few retailers online sell them and send them out. My local one is Naturescape, which I highly recommend.

Make pond adjustments

My pond is the pride and joy of my little wild garden, but in all fairness, it can look a bit sorry for itself at this time of year. Most plants are still dormant, there are no tadpoles yet, and a lot of critters are hidden away.

However, that’s precisely why this time of year is perfect for a bit of pond maintenance. If there’s any long dead vegetation around the margins, like old reeds or stems, then cut it away. This will not only make way for new growth, but will also prevent the old vegetation from falling in the pond, where it can rot.

If your pond plants have spread, it’s a good time to thin them out. While you don’t have to do this, I like to have at least one little window into the pond so I can see what’s lurking in there. You can use your hands or a net to gently remove the excess duckweed and growth. It’s a good idea to place this next to the pond for a day or two, so that if you’ve scooped up any pond-dwelling invertebrates they can crawl back into the water. Once this is done, put the excess vegetation into a compost heap.

One of reasons that now is a good time to do this is that the pond won’t be full of tadpoles to get caught up in the weed, so you won’t harm any by removing it.

Common frogs

For me it’s not spring until I get my first clump of frogspawn in the pond. Common frogs are sadly becoming less common, but gardens offer a fantastic refuge for them and will allow them to colonise quite quickly.

The frogs are drawn to the pond in early spring by the smell of algae growing, as this signifies that the water is warming up. In some parts of the country they’ll spawn as early as November, but typically March is the hub of activity. Males will be in there first, and some may even hibernate in the pond, so it’s a good idea to have part of your pond at least 1ft deep to give them a place to stay for the winter. Females tend to hibernate in log piles, compost heaps and underground.

You can try and go out at night with your camera to get images, using an LED light or flash, but I’d suggest waiting until more frogs turn up and trying in the day. They can be quite jumpy (excuse the pun), so try a long lens from a distance at first, aiming for portraits and behavioural shots.

Once you get a feel for it, then maybe try some macro shots closer to the pond. If you have a well-established pond then some years you may see as many as 30 or 40 pairs of frogs all writhing and fighting with each other – it’s quite a spectacle! This is a great opportunity to get some behaviour shots, and I like to get as low down to the water as I dare for that lovely low angle. If you want to encourage frogs to your pond, make sure you have a weedy shallow area, as this is where the frogs prefer to lay their spawn.

Daffodils

Whether it’s on Easter cards or decorating front gardens, the sight of daffodils is synonymous with spring. They are a must for any garden, adding a splash of vivid yellow to drab days, and of course providing vital nectar to early pollinators.

There are many varieties of daffodils, and I would encourage people to go for the wild daffodil; these are slightly smaller and not quite as showy but at the end of the day, it’s all the same to the insects. In terms of planting I find daffodils work best in large numbers, so don’t be afraid to get a big bag of them and spread them around in the garden, perhaps making a circle or having them around the borders.

Planting is best done in September, however you can buy some in the spring that are already emerging to give you a head start. Remember that they will split off and multiply, meaning the following year you should have even more, and eventually you’ll get big clumps of them. When this happens, it can be a good idea to dig them up after flowering and spilt them up around the garden to encourage better growth and have even more.

If you aren’t planning to mow your lawn early, they can also make a great centrepiece for a garden by planting lots into your front or back lawn, and then once they’ve stopped flowering, give it a good mow. Avoid shady or waterlogged areas when planting, and aim to dig them 4-6 inches deep. Everything from honeybees to peacock butterflies will enjoy the nectar.

Look out for… wood pigeons

It probably quite safe to say there aren’t many photographers rushing to photograph wood pigeons, but I for one find them to be quite splendent birds.

Imagine if they were rare like a turtle dove – people would be clambering over each other to see this incredible pigeon, with its white collar, purple chest, and slate grey wings. The UK's largest and most abundant pigeon, the wood pigeon is largely grey with a white neck patch. Most of us will have had them in our gardens at some point. If you have a bird table, they’ll often come in and scoff the lot, which has earned them the the scorn of some bird-feeding enthusiasts. A caged bird-feeder can be a good way to reserve your feeds for smaller birds, if you prefer.

Wood pigeons can get quite used to people, and so can be a great species to practice bird photography on. They are big and slow-flying, which makes them ideal for bird-in-flight images. From time to time you may spot a circle of feathers in your garden – this is often from a wood pigeon that has been predated upon, and while this could be the work of the local moggy, it’s also likely a female sparrowhawk that’s plucked the pigeon and taken it away elsewhere to feed.

With the weather getting warmer many wood pigeons will move back out to more rural areas.

Look out for… beeflies

Yes, that’s right – there’s a fly that mimics a bee! It’s quite a clever trick, as it deters predators in much the same way as a hoverfly does by mimicking a wasp. Chances are you’ve probably seen a beefly earlier in the year flitting about the flower borders and not realised it, as they are quite widespread. One of the ways to tell them apart from bees is that their wings don’t fold fully back the way bees’ wings do, and the long proboscis is visible (the long mouth part).

They favour plants with long flowers, so will often visit primrose, lungwort and ground ivy. There is another reason behind this insect’s deceptive nature – the female will sneak up to ground-nesting bees, particularly mining bees, so she can flick her eggs towards the burrows. When the maggots hatch, they crawl inside to devour the hapless bee larvae.

March is certainly a month of change, so savour those colder mornings while you can, as spring is well and truly on the way. It won’t be long before we start spending more time in our gardens soaking up the sun and enjoying the birds, flowers and other wildlife that call them home.

Jack Perks

Jack Perks is a freelance underwater and wildlife cameraman, based in Nottinghamshire. He has written two books on freshwater wildlife, and has worked for multiple wildlife and angling tv programmes, including Springwatch, The One Show, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing and The Great British Year. He has also presented films for Countryfile. jackperksphotography.com