April is when the fun really starts, winter is long behind us and spring is definitely in the air! Migrant birds make a welcome arrival on a daily basis, including our charismatic sand martins which usually return late March if the weather is with them. We have several good sites along the Tees to see them including from the Teesdale Way path between High and Low Coniscliffe and downstream of the barrage and over Portrack Marsh, hunting for their insect food. There is also a brand new artificial sand martin colony at Portrack Marsh, easily visible from the riverside path and constructed by Tees Valley Wildlife Trust volunteers last year which our local sand martins will hopefully take to readily, as they have at RSPB Saltholme. Hearing their excitable chattering for the first time after their absence gladdens the heart. Long distance travellers such as these encounter a range of problems on migration and at their wintering and breeding grounds. A severe drought in the Sahel region of the Sahara during the 1970’s caused a huge decline, I remember with a heavy heart seeing them less and less along the River South Tyne where I grew up. Their safe return in spring along the Tees always deserves to be celebrated.

Another of my favourite migrant birds and one I closely associate with the barrage is the common tern. Our largest local colony is at RSPB Saltholme where the floating raft islands provide ideal safe nesting sites for between 200 and 300 pairs. There’s also a small breeding colony at Portrack Marsh, nesting on the cockle shell island restored over the winter by Tees Valley Wildlife Trust volunteers as part of River Tees Rediscovered. For me, the first sign of their arrival is usually the distinctive harsh call and the sight of them fishing in the Tees and the marsh ponds. The old name of sea swallow suits them well when you watch them hover, swoop and dance in the air above the river; the area above the fish pass at the barrage is a perfect vantage point.

This is also the season for woodland flowers such as wood anemone or wind flower, primroses, wild garlic and later on, in to May, the much loved bluebell. Woodland flowers are in a race against the clock, trying to bloom and set seed before the tree canopy closes over and shades them out. Wild garlic and bluebells can be found in profusion along the Tees in woods such as Low Dinsdale Woods where they perfume the air. Wild garlic, as its name would suggest, is edible; I’ve enjoyed delicious mutton roasted in wild garlic leaves at a local deli in the past and it can be added to soups and salads. However, a word of caution; given the popularity of dog walking these days, select your picking place carefully and please don’t harvest whole areas. Take only a few leaves and move quickly on as the leaves are vital to the plant for making the energy stored in the underground bulbs that will fuel next year’s growth.