En­joy sen­sa­tional spring

The months of March and April are a won­der­ful time for bird­watch­ers and na­ture-lovers as our wildlife bursts into life

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ROSAMOND RICHARD­SON

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.

Courtship dance

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!

WHIM­BREL AV­O­CET

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

RED­START

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