Nature Notes – March 2017

Among the signs that give us the feeling that spring is getting under way, along with longer and warmer days, and the growth of plants, is the increasing evidence of birdsong. For instance, for some time now we have been woken by the sound of the Songthrush, a loud song delivered in short phrases, repeated in twos or threes. A number of people have commented on the same thing. This is welcome (apart perhaps from being woken too early) as Songthrushes have had a widespread decline in recent years. Despite the singing being so conspicuous, we still find we see them too seldom.

Another song, much more common, and worth getting to know, is that of the Dunnock. Formerly called the House Sparrow due to its size and brown colouring, this name fell out of favour due to its not being in any way related to the sparrows. It has a thin, insect eating beak and very subtle plumage, warm streaky brown on the back and bluish grey on face and breast. It belongs to a family of birds called Accentors, not a good candidate for a popular name, so a trawl was made among its various local English names. The most widespread of many was the Dunnock, and so that has been successfully adopted. (In my mother’s home village in East Yorkshire this bird is known as a ‘Cuddy’, a familiar contraction of Cuthbert – perhaps after the much-loved Northumbrian Saint). Anyway, listen out for the song, a quiet but very tuneful rendition, much overlooked. My tip for learning bird songs like this one is to try and locate the singing bird, and watch it in the process of singing. Somehow, this helps to commit it to memory much better than just hearing the song.

Two weeks ago the Long-tailed Tits visiting our bird feeders were in a gang of anything up to ten or twelve birds. This flocking is a normal feature of winter life in hedges and woods for many of the tits, and the Long-tailed Tits extend the behaviour into gardens. Yesterday and today, (end of February) however, there were just two. The groups are already splitting up into pairs, preparatory to the business of mating and nest building. Robins, too, have paired up, although there may still be aggression between neighbouring rival males (and no, I can’t tell you how to distinguish males from females, except by their behaviour in courtship.)

Finally, the ultimate sign of spring is the arrival of our summer migrant birds. By the end of March it is not unusual to hear the first Chiffchaffs singing, and even to see them as the branches which they use are still bare. The earliest swallows are usually the Sand Martins, although as they feed over open water and reeds, and nest in holes in sand cliffs, we do not often see them in our immediate area. Swallows and House Martins we do see, and they will not be long. A House Martin has already been seen (end of February!) not far away in Lowestoft.

Geoffrey Abbott