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17.04.2020 | Words by: Jasmin Hoek

While De School’s building is currently closed due to the lockdown, the cherry blossoms in our garden are still in full bloom. For the time being, we’re restricted to leaving our houses a limited amount of times a week - for our own well-being and that of others.
With all our favourite places closed, it seems like the beautiful parks and nature in and around Amsterdam gets more appreciation than ever before. And even while not able to fully enjoy it, spring is in full swing outside; colourful flowers and pollen allergies included. 

Personally, I must admit the few walks in the park, with a friend at 1,5m distance or by myself, have temporarily been crowned the highlight of my week. With my newfound interest in Amsterdam’s flora and fauna, I wanted to know more about what I’m actually looking at. 
So, I contacted Luís Nobre Canha; he takes care of all the “green” parts of Amsterdam Zuid, and De School’s office aquarium. 

Q: Hi Luís, even though De School is closed at the moment, our beautiful cherry blossom in the garden is in full bloom. What part of the spring season are we in right now?

A: The first part of April is always the period of blossom trees, which is also the first real batch of nectar for bees and bumblebees. You’ll find a lot of insects in and around the blossoms. In March you always see the first bulbs pop up, like crocus flowers and daffodils. It’s still bulb season, now you’ll see different kinds of tulips all around.
Another flower you’ll see around a lot is the white little flower of the wild garlic, if you see the white flower and softly snap the stem, a strong garlic smell comes out. It’s edible and often used in salads. After the blossoms have opened, towards the end of April, it’s apple tree season. It’s the same thing every year; first, we get cherries, then we get apples. These trees and flowers are classic spring bloomers, they open before the leaves grow back on the rest of the trees.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about what you do in Amsterdam?

A: I take care of all the “green bits” of Amsterdam Zuid (the southern city district of Amsterdam); parks as Amstelpark, Vondelpark and Sloterpark’s Heemtuin, and all other flora around this district like the bulbs at the side of the bigger roads. All the bulbs are very important for the (flying) insects in Amsterdam, and what’s important for the insects is also important for the birds that eat them. Vondelpark has two big parts we call “ecological zones”. This means we consciously plant a variety of flowers that are or used to be common in the original Dutch nature, and in these zones, we try to preserve these kinds of plants. Conserving these plants also contributes to the well-being of insect and birds.

Q: Which animals can be spotted around Amsterdam in spring?

Right now, you’ll spot a lot of different birds building their nests. It’s mostly the birds that spend the winter in The Netherlands as well that getting started with finding territory and building nests already, like different kinds of tits, blackbirds, and thrushes. The weeks the first songbirds start flying back from North Africa, where they spent the winter as well. The first one that returns is the chiffchaff. You can recognize their singing because they always whistle their own name. The chiffchaff is now starting to claim their spot and brooding in bigger parks and forests. The next one that returns home is the blackcap, which is one of the nicest and most melodic singers. The male bird has a black “cap”, and the female bird has a brown cap. In ponds, you’ll find lots of Egyptian geese and their goslings.

Q: This year we had quite a soft winter, no snow and barely any days that hit below 0 degrees. Are birds affected by these kinds of changes? Do birds, for example, fly back earlier if they spend the winter somewhere else? 

A: Not that much, it’s mainly the number of hours with sunlight, and not temperature, that stimulates the growth of plants in spring. So the birds’ food, which is obviously most important for them to survive here, is barely affected by a change in temperature. However, there has been one change over the past years which has affected some birds. Usually, we have a cold wind coming from the east, which used to make Dutch winter as cold as they used to be, with the first wind from the south-west, coming from the Mediterranean sea, the birds would fly back. The past few years we had a south-western wind throughout winter, and then a sudden switch to an eastern wind, which made March the coldest month of winter in recent years. This has been a problem for the kingfisher, which returns for spring in Amsterdam from the south. However, when they arrive in March, the ponds and lakes, where they get their food, (small fish) freeze again. They end up starving just before spring actually starts.

I must say though, mother nature has been struggling for years due to pollution caused by us humans, which is obviously bad for all animals and plants.

Q: How about any other animals we can find in and around Amsterdam?

A: We have lots of rabbits, but those mainly come out when there are not so many dogs around, of which we have many in Amsterdam. In Vondelpark, there are foxes, which mainly come out at night. Rats can be found wherever, mainly where there’s trash for them to clean. They actually clean our city. There are lots of mice, and where there are mice, there are predators that eat mice, like owls, polecats, ferrets and even weasels around Amstelpark and the Middelpolders. These predators eat rodents, meaning they often become the victims of poison and pesticides used against mice and rats when hunting.

Some parks are really in the middle of the busy parts of Amsterdam, which is fine for birds, but more difficult for mammals. That’s why we have created what we call “green corridors”, which connects the nature in and around Amsterdam like a green ribbon. The corridors are made with plants, rocks and water or with trees, which is enough for a squirrel to travel from park to park. Sometimes the corridors can be very narrow, as long as it’s green and offers enough coverage. If a mouse can cross through these bits, then it’s also fine for weasels or grass snakes.

Amsterdam even has a snake population, especially on the east side, north side and the part of Amsterdamse Bos towards Amstelveen. Snakes are still in hibernation underneath the ground, where they don’t feel the frost. They wake up towards the end of April, beginning of May, and start breeding in June with the first new generation of snakes popping up in July.

Q: And if you'd want to plant anything on your balcony or garden in April, which plants would you recommend?

A: There are many spring flowers that can still easily be planted, for example, petunias, which are great for insects. End of April, early May is the best time to plant herbs, but if you’re sure it’s not freezing during the nights you can start off with thyme, rosemary, sage or basil. Or try some sprouts and beans.

Picture by Anne van der Weijden
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