The joys of spring

Adam Lin­net from Cheshire Wildlife Trust cel­e­brates the feath­ered friends who put a song in his heart at this time of year Cheshire Life: April 2019 Cheshire Life: April 2019

Cheshire Life - - Peter Wilson Auctioneer­s, -

The say­ing goes that “One swal­low does not a sum­mer make”. There’s a lot of truth in this, mainly be­cause swal­lows re­turn in late March or early April, which is very much spring and not sum­mer. But it’s also true that one swal­low does not make a spring.

Spring is a cul­mi­na­tion of a huge range of wildlife re­turn­ing to life, or to life in the British Isles af­ter win­ter­ing abroad in some cases. For many nat­u­ral­ists, spring is their favourite time of the year. The thrill of hear­ing that first chif­fchaff of the year, or fi­nally re­mem­ber­ing how to sep­a­rate black­cap and gar­den war­bler on song alone, all make spring a won­der­ful time to go ex­plor­ing the Cheshire coun­try­side; which is ex­actly what I did this time last year.

In early May 2018, I set off across the county to go and find some re­turn­ing mi­grant bird species. There are cer­tainly plenty to choose from, with a plethora of species re­turn­ing from their con­ti­nen­tal, or even African, win­ter­ing grounds.

I start my day in the up­per Dane catch­ment, around Wildboarcl­ough. My first tar­get is prob­a­bly my favourite bird species, the pied fly­catcher. These gor­geous birds spend their sum­mer over in Africa, head­ing back through Europe be­fore re­turn­ing to the UK. They are only found in ma­ture wood­land, favour­ing oaks, like those found in the cloughs of the Peak District. Sadly, they have suf­fered large de­clines in re­cent decades, ow­ing to the mis­man­age­ment of wood­land; tidy­ing up dead­wood or al­low­ing holly to dom­i­nate the once open un­der­storey where

pied fly­catch­ers tend to feed.

I soon come across a singing male – his slow, al­most mourn­ful song, be­ing pro­jected from a prom­i­nent dead branch of an oak. He is black and white, look­ing rather dap­per in the mot­tled sun­light stream­ing through the canopy of still young oak leaves. I en­joy his song for sev­eral min­utes be­fore wan­der­ing on.

A lit­tle way down­stream I hear the rat­tle of a red­start. Just a bit more colour­ful than pied fly­catch­ers, male red­starts have a strik­ing black, blue and white head pat­tern, with a bright red chest and rump. He’s singing from a ma­ture oak tree along a hedge-line in an ad­join­ing field. This tends to be their pre­ferred place, on the wood­land edge or in clear­ings in­side wood­land. It’s a great start to my day and I head down­stream, over to Swet­ten­ham Val­ley to pick out some other mi­grant species.

From the car park at the Swet­ten­ham Arms, I head through the ar­bore­tum and into our Swet­ten­ham Val­ley Na­ture Re­serve. The dis­tinc­tive two-tone call of a chif­fchaff rings out from the plan­ta­tion wood­land. If you’re a bird­ing be­gin­ner, chif­fchaffs are a god­send, as they sim­ply say their name: “chiff-chaff,chiff-chaff”. I soon hear its close rel­a­tive, the wil­low war­bler. De­spite look­ing in­cred­i­bly sim­i­lar, their songs are very dif­fer­ent. Wil­low war­bler songs are a bit more com­plex, with a song that de­scends down the scale rather than the ono­matopoeic song of chif­fchaff. These two species are some of the first to re­turn each spring. Hear­ing their song for the first time each year fills me with joy. This might sound odd, but it’s like see­ing old friends af­ter a long ab­sence.

I con­tinue fur­ther down the val­ley, hear­ing two species that are the hard­est to sep­a­rate by song alone. A black­cap and a gar­den war­bler are singing about 20 yards apart from the scrubby hedgerows along­side a block of wood­land. Telling which is which can be tricky, but it gets eas­ier with a bit of prac­tice.

Black­cap song is slightly more melodic, with longer, richer

‘Hear­ing their song for the first time each year fills me with joy. It’s like see­ing old friends af­ter a long ab­sence’

notes than gar­den war­bler. On the other hand, gar­den war­bler song is faster with less breaks and it lasts for longer. It’s as if it is full of song it wants to get out but in the ex­cite­ment it for­got how to stop again. On sight the two could never be con­fused. The black­cap has, you’ve guessed it, a lovely black­cap, with the rest of the bird be­ing grey. The cap is brown in the fe­males, but sadly, Vic­to­rian nat­u­ral his­to­ri­ans didn’t quite grasp gen­der equal­ity when it came to nam­ing things. The gar­den war­bler is a bit of a mis­nomer, as it’s un­likely to turn up in your gar­den. It prefers ar­eas of young scrub and ar­eas of bram­ble. To look at it’s quite non­de­script, with very few fea­tures. It has no strik­ing plumage, no bright rump, no wing bars. In fact, its main fea­ture is its lack of fea­tures! But it is no less lovely to see and hear, a real sound of sum­mer when it sings from the hedgerows along­side a hay meadow in full bloom.

My fi­nal des­ti­na­tion for the day is Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bag­mere Na­ture Re­serve. Sadly, pub­lic ac­cess is lim­ited due to the dan­ger­ous na­ture of the site; an old peat basin, now a mere with rafts of float­ing veg­e­ta­tion which are easy to fall through if you don’t know your way around. Here I pick out the reel­ing of a grasshop­per war­bler. The sound it emits is very sim­i­lar to a grasshop­per, but it lasts for much longer. Sadly, I don’t see the bird. They are no­to­ri­ously tricky to lo­cate. Not only do they sit deep within dense veg­e­ta­tion, but they also turn their head as they sing, throw­ing their voice so they are hard to pin­point.

I even­tu­ally give up try­ing to see it and con­tinue into the area along­side the reedbed. From within the reeds comes a mix of harsh tacks, clicks and trills. I know they are com­ing from two species, both reed and sedge war­blers breed here. Luck­ily, I know that while the sounds both species make are alike, the rhythm they sing to are dif­fer­ent. Reed war­blers are very rhyth­mic; you could set a metronome to them. Sedge war­blers are a bit more freestyle, their song con­tain­ing fast phrases and slow sec­tions. I see nei­ther species well, the only vis­ual sign they are there is the reed stems sway­ing as they leap from one to the other.

I fin­ish my day head­ing home, happy to have seen or heard many of the bird species I set out to see. But even hap­pier to know that they have made it safely back to our shores. Hap­pier still that our re­serves are in great con­di­tion, ready for those birds to set up home and pro­duce the fu­ture gen­er­a­tion be­fore be­gin­ning the re­turn leg of their jour­ney come au­tumn. It can be hard work man­ag­ing na­ture re­serves. Plenty of sweat is spilled in do­ing so, but it’s days like this that make it all worth it. * For more in­for­ma­tion on the birds men­tioned, go to cheshirewi­l­ wildlife-ex­plorer. And you can find out more about the Trust’s na­ture re­serves at cheshirewi­l­ na­ture-re­serves.

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