February 24, 2014

Early spring is the time of “firsts of the year”: the first swallow, the first swift, the first cuckoo, the first bluebell, and the first butterfly… so many species that we expectantly await each year.  As days lengthen, many migrants return to the Living Islands. Some of them will stay and breed, others will continue on their way further north.  Hurrying to get to their breeding sites, they usually pass through quickly, but we may have some unexpected surprises such as a bluethroat in the reedbeds of Longis pond, a pair of garganey in Mannez pond, sanderlings on the shore, and maybe even a hoopoe or ring ouzel.   Even more impressive in this season are our breeding birds, and they will offer an amazing show for eyes and ears.

In the Giffoine, the Dartford warbler sings from the top of the gorse bushes, the fulmar colony gets busy on the cliffs to the west of Batterie Annes, and of course the gannets are very loud and impressive in their huge numbers on Les Etacs and Ortac. A few peregrine and raven pairs also breed on the Southern Cliffs.

Ringed plover and oystercatcher now disperse in pairs to breed; oystercatchers are seen all around the island on the sands. They move at high tide to rocks around the forts and cliff faces above the tide line.  Ringed plover nest on the more open and exposed Platte Saline beach.  A small colony of common terns have chosen the quiet rock of Houmet des Pies to nest; they are seen fishing in and around Saye Bay.

Mannez and Longis ponds welcome breeding waterfowl such as coot, mallard, moorhen and little grebe and a wide variety of passerines, from the very easily visible blue tit, great tit and dunnock, to the more discreet chiffchaff, willow warbler and reed warbler, with their distinctive calls.

In bushes and scrub all around the island, it is possible to hear the very small, but nevertheless very loud, wren and the common whitethroat.  Barn swallow and house martin can be seen in large flocks hunting insects. There are one or two of their nests in many of Alderney’s bunkers.  The long-eared owl also breeds on theiIsland; the sites vary each year but Bonne Terre and Barrack Master’s Lane both offer the right sort of scrubby habitat to this species.

Burhou hosts many important seabird colonies. Around 1,200 pairs of lesser black-backed gull lay their three eggs in a nest on the grass. On the edge of the colony, there are the nests of great black-backed gull, herring gull and oystercatcher. Shags choose hard-to-reach cavities in rocks all around the islet to breed, while storm petrels prefer holes in the ground, close to each other in a colony.   Our colony of puffins uses rabbit burrows to nest and breed in.  Public access to Burhou is not allowed between 15th March and 1st August. Nevertheless, it is possible to observe the puffins rafting on the water during a boat tour or around the burrows via the Living Islands: LIVE webcams streaming on http://burhou.livingislands.co.uk

Spring in Alderney is also very special for the diversity of plants coming into flower.  In early spring, three-cornered leek (stinking onions) covers the island in a white carpet.  Very soon, the slopes and verges are strewn with the purple-blue flowers of bluebells, offering the walker in Vau du Saou or Bonne Terre a sight straight from a painting.

Gorse and prostrate broom come into flower on the Southern Cliffs from April. The greater broomrape which, having no chlorophyll, parasitizes the broom’s roots.  In May, ox-eye daisies, thrift, English stonecrop, sheep’s-bit and various trefoils are found all over the island but are particularly spectacular on the Southern Cliffs, as are the buttercups on Braye Common.

The short coastal grasslands at Houmet Herbé offer a habitat for the sand crocus, in flower from early April, and also for small-flowered catchfly and kidney vetch and, in late spring, sea milkwort can be found on the rocky shoreline. Bird’s-foot trefoil, wild thyme and eyebright are present in grassland such as Longis Common and the east coastal track.   At the top of beaches, it is possible to find sea kale, sea spurge and sea bindweed and in May, above Crabby bay, Bithynian vetch.

From the end of April to May, spotted rock-rose comes into flower on the Millennium track and a little later, in late May/early June, the pink flowers of Ragged Robin can be seen in Bonne Terre, Trois Vaux, Blue Bridge and Clonque quarry. In Bonne Terre, the flowers of the one metre-plus greater tussock-sedges, one of Britain’s tallest sedges, can now be seen protruding from their giant tussocks.

Finally, the island offers some species of orchid. Patches of green-winged orchid can be found on the Mannez Garenne and at Houmet Herbé, a few bee orchids are present from June above Saye Campsite and at Fort Doyle. In early summer (June-July) the pyramidal orchids come into flower in grasslands.

During spring, insects emerge from their torpor. The green hairstreak is amongst the first butterflies; it can be seen from mid-April, whereas the first brood of common blue emerges during May. The Glanville fritillary, a rarity in the UK, can be observed from the end of May till early July. The iconic Large Tortoiseshell, extinct in UK, emerges from hibernation in March.

Alderney has over 800 recorded moth species.  In spring and early summer few of these are day-flying, although the first humming-bird hawk-moths of the year are often seen in March.  The beautiful bright red cinnabar appears in May. Though not rare, it was much more abundant before it was deemed necessary to control ragwort the sole food plant of its orange and black caterpillar.  Three species of burnet moth and the bright green forester fly in sunlight from May onwards.   Visitors who are interested in seeing what has appeared in the moth traps should mention this at the Visitor Information Centre to arrange a date and time (usually early on Saturday mornings).

Late in spring, Corblets Quarry, Longis and Mannez ponds host many damselflies: azure damselfly, common blue damselfly, and blue-tailed damselfly and the impressive emperor dragonflies, which are easy to see during sunny days.  They may perform their nuptial dance, when pairs fly together, sometimes forming the shape of a heart.  The large red damselfly and the red-veined darter breed in Mannez Pond.

Alderney’s only reptile, the slow-worm, comes out of hibernation, as do hedgehogs and bats which emerge to forage after dusk.

At low tide, wide areas are uncovered allowing rock pools, crawling with life, to appear. A wide variety of marine invertebrates live attached to rocks:  the strawberry anemone, starfish, sponges, limpets and winkles, while many species of shrimp and crab, including the impressive edible crab, hide underneath. Some fish, like blennies, use theses pools and their huge diversity of seaweed as a shelter, waiting for the tide to come back in.