Enjoy sensational spring
The months of March and April are a wonderful time for birdwatchers and nature-lovers as our wildlife bursts into life
What delights await you as temperatures rise and nature bursts into life
THE SONG OF a lone bird floats out of the darkness, sleepy, faint. Gradually the solo grows louder. A March morning dawns as a distant bird answers. Another joins in. A crescendo builds up as birds of many voices add their sweet strains until a symphony of birdsong fills the new day. Signs of spring are appearing on the woodland floor after winter, there’s a feeling of light emerging from darkness as arum leaves spear through the leaf litter. The smell of the awakening earth. Every year from the woods, the signature drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker announces spring is here. One is a regular visitor to the feeders by my kitchen window, immaculate in shiny black-and-white plumage with scarlet apron and carmine cardinal’s cap. He attacks the peanuts, hammering with long, strong beak before running up the trunk of a surviving Elm sapling like a Treecreeper, pecking for insects in the bark, apparently very much at home but darting away at the slightest disturbance. One afternoon in spring, I saw its relative the Green Woodpecker fly up into the top of the Horse Chestnut above my thatch, where he perched, turned, strong pecker-beak pointing skywards, yellow-green back catching the light: the watchful eye, the red crown. Eventually, he flew away with a ‘yaffle’, in that characteristic bouncing flight of Picus viridis, a flash of vanishing green-gold sunshine. Underfoot in grassy lanes, as March moves into April, stars of Stitchwort shine bright white in the verges, and speedwell on the bank dazzles with blue. From somewhere, hidden in the canopy, comes the song of the Chiffchaff, music synonymous with springtime. Its repeated rising interval has a somehow laboured, unfinished quality, yet the Chiffchaff’s song is perhaps, above all, the music of the spring woods and gardens. The Irish for Chiffchaff, Tuif-teaf, captures the strained, fluting notes. Stopping to watch, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the first of our breeding birds to arrive back from its wintering grounds, it’s possible to catch a sight of them flitting in the budding trees, little leaf warblers glimpsed among the branches, olive-brown above and off-white below with yellowish eyestripe and tinge of yellow on chin and underparts. One day in early spring I saw, to my disbelief at first, a small flock of Bullfinches in a hedgerow tree. The branches were full of their melancholy calls, and alive with pinkish brick-red breast plumage. Each year, as the apple tree on the lawn begins to bud, I hear the wistful wheep of Bullfinches dialoguing across the garden, and though I know they will very likely plunder my blossom, I cannot resist them; they are among my favourite birds and I welcome them. One April day, a baby Bullfinch crashed into a window, and lay stunned on the gravel. I kept it warm in a nest of grasses and felt the privilege of gently handling the fragile life-force of this tiny bird. But in spite of taking drops of water from a syringe for a day or two, the damage done was too great. I was desolate when it died.
One spring day on Elney Lake at Fen Drayton, a pair of Great Crested Grebes swam into view. Sedate swimmers with smiling demeanour, these personable, sleek bodied birds, with elegant s-shape necks and spear bills capable of deep water fishing, are the punks of the waterbird world. Showy rust sideburns fan out from round white cheeks, the heads coiffed with spiky black head-plumes that nearly cost them extinction at the hands of 19th Century milliners. The pair swam around serenely before facing each other and beginning a courtship dance. They stretched their necks upwards in parallel, touched bills, curved them back in perfect symmetry, then dived simultaneously, came up with a green tangle in each bill, and proceeded to dance a weedoffering ritual to each other. To see Little Ringed Plovers arriving back from Africa is one of springtime’s great pleasures. These dapper characters run around with stop-start motion, picking for invertebrates in muddy shallows on their long, slim flesh-coloured legs, their large dark eyes ringed with yellow. While watching Mute Swans feeding with Cormorants and Lapwings on a mud spit one spring day at Fowlmere, I caught sight of a Little Ringed Plover behind them in the cut reeds, the characteristic mushroom back and wings, brown cap, white forehead, black mask around the eyes, white band above. The narrow black bill. It gave a wistful ‘peeeeuew’ call before flying off into long grass and disappearing. Such a neat bird. On the Suffolk coast, I search out Avocets, birds of grace and light who assumed iconic status after long absence from the UK: World War II activity left shallow marsh pools along the shoreline, ideal
To see Little Ringed Plovers arriving back from Africa is one of springtime’s great pleasures
for Avocets, and they returned from exile. Dazzlingly and impossibly elegant, I’ll travel many miles to watch these prima ballerinas of the waterbirds: the vivid black and white plumage of the tapering body ending in a black blob of a tail, wings covering the back as dark as night, on white as bright as snow, the neatly rounded white breast, the onyx head band running down the back of the long white neck. And that elegant upcurved bill that gives the avocet its designation Recurvirostra, designed to sweep from side to side below the water in the search for food. On his retirement a few years ago, a local farmer dug out a series of fishing lakes on land he’d worked for decades, obediently following government policies of pesticiding, herbiciding and artificially fertilizing the fields. Finally, realising the devastating effect wreaked on wildlife, he converted several acres to ponds and surrounded them with trees and native shrubs, so as to put back something of what he had unwittingly taken out. A richness of wild flowers returned. The insects and invertebrates came back. Now the fishing lakes attract both woodland and water-birds – including the beautiful ‘sea swallow’, the Common Tern, which arrives to breed every spring and which I never tire of watching. Hosts of Goldfinches and redpolls are joined by Pied Wagtails, joyful little birds much in evidence along with their young as spring progresses – always reminding me of John Clare’s: “Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain. And tittering uttering sideways he near got straight again. He stooped to get a worm and look’d up to catch a fly. And then he flew away e’re his feathers they were dry”. Every spring I hope against hope to hear the song of the Cuckoo proclaiming spring. But, for several years now, there has been no Cuckoo within hearing distance of my Essex village. I’ve had good views of them flying over Lakenheath Fen, and heard them often in east Suffolk – but my home patch is barren of Cuckoos, leaving me deprived of something irreplaceable. Some years ago, I saw one land in a ploughed field near the village, a bird on passage perhaps. It stayed for a long time as I absorbed the detail of the yellow legs and feet, eyes with yellow eye-rim and irides, the sleek body with ash- and slate-grey plumage, the long tail and strongly barred underparts. It’s a surprisingly big bird: when, finally, it flew away, I had a good sense of the full two-foot span of its pointed wings.
Whimbrels in Wales
A peak experience of spring birdwatching for me has been seeing Whimbrels in west Wales. A friend and I been watching Sand Martins nesting in a sandy cliff when, between us and the seashore, a flock of waterbirds flew in on fast wingbeats, white rumps gleaming in flight, and landed to feed on a grassy dune. Whimbrels. I was spellbound. How beautiful these birds are. We all love a Curlew, but Whimbrels have something of a fairytale quality: smaller and more delicate than the Curlew, an exquisite wader whose brown crown stripes and supercilium give them a pensive look. The bill downcurved at the tip, the strong legs. They were calling to each other, a confident, throaty whistle sometimes turned into a trill (I later discovered an old name for Whimbrel is seven-whistler). Rapt, I was completely unaware of time passing until they flew on. Walking in the Welsh hills later that week I saw my first ever Redstart, the long-tailed bird that bobs about in deciduous woodland through spring and summer. It was a male with burnt orange firetail, smart scarlet breast, slate-blue back and mantle, dark face and white forehead. On a nearby branch, the female, as so often, was duller, but still beautiful in her dun, buff and cream feathers – and blessed with a firetail, too. The pair sat
Whimbrels have something of a fairytale quality: smaller and more delicate than the Curlew, an exquisite wader
It’s one of summer’s great pleasures to watch Swallows flutter and dive, meteors of sloe-blue, terracotta and ivory, circling for insects
half-hidden in a tree just coming into leaf, he uttering melancholic ‘hweets’ into the hillside, the notes echoing around the Welsh valley. I recalled how John Buxton, while a prisoner of war in Germany in the 1940s, saw a family of Redstarts going about their ways in the trees beyond the barbed wire. He started to study this pretty bird, regained his zest for life, and on his release, wrote the definitive monograph on Redstarts. One weekend in April, I decided to flee to my bolthole on the Suffolk coast. By coincidence it happened to be the weekend Nightingales were arriving back from Africa to stake out territories on their breeding grounds in Dunwich Forest and Westleton Heath. They sang throughout the day from mid-morning onwards. Almost wherever I walked, their songs resounded from the trees and scrub bordering the footpaths. There is nothing on earth like this song. It was a magical weekend: wherever I went on the heath or in the forest, I heard Nightingales, and they sang through the small hours, too. One night I had dozed off only to be woken after midnight by a very loud bird singing in the bushes outside the window. At first I was annoyed. I was tired and wanted to sleep, but as I lay and listened, I realised what I was hearing. I fell under the spell of a divine music. It was a Nightingale, Keats’ “light-winged Dryad of the trees… Pouring forth thy soul abroad. In such an ecstasy!” This creature rested from its labours only for short intervals until three in the morning. By the time he finished singing, I was ready to sleep. But daylight was breaking and the dawn chorus started up. It was the turn of all the other birds to make music. Never have I had such a beautiful sleepless night. Hearing the twittering song of the first Swallows means summer is here. It’s one of summer’s great pleasures to watch them flutter and dive, meteors of sloe-blue, terracotta and ivory, copper-throated, circling restlessly for insects, nose-diving and darting, zooming, wheeling low, then flashing white underbellies as they bank into the wind and float upwards on wide wings. The king of songsters usually sings unseen A delightful summer visitor to the western woods
Later in spring, juvenile Great Spotted Woodpeckers can join brave Blue Tits and Great Tits on the feeders Male Bullfinch, coming for your blossom!
COURTING GREBES Great Crested Grebes provide one of the spring’s greatest shows One of the great passage waders of April into May Dazzingly and impossibly elegant CUCKOO Rosamund no longer has Cuckoos around her Essex home