Saturday, 4 March 2017

Spring is sprung.....

“Spring is sprung, the grass is rizz, 
I wonder where the birdies is!

They say the birds are on the wing 
But that’s absurd 
Because the wing is on the bird!”

Greylag family in the meadow in May.
No-one knows the origin of this rhyme, and anyway, it’s nonsense. I know exactly where the birdies is! A lot of them were already nesting in January even though the grass was not growing at all. Here’s what I discovered.

In December the first cormorants started to build their twiggy nests in the willows on Heronry Lake. Rooks were already making visits to their old nests, high up in the sycamores behind the Sailing Lake and thrushes were singing from the roof tops.

In January, herons joined the cormorants and started building nests while great tits were already singing their tee-cher tee-cher song.

February brought every conceivable kind of weather and nesting activity stopped and started several times. By the end of the month the rooks, herons and cormorants were sitting on eggs in nests that threatened to blow away during Storm Doris. Hazel catkins swung in the breeze scattering pollen before any insects were about to do the job for them.

By early March the blackbirds, greenfinches and other garden birds were singing and our nest-boxes were being visited by blue tits and great tits carrying moss and feathers. The birds that stayed here for the winter were mostly gone and the first summer migrants were arriving. Up to this point, all the nests had been in the tops of trees or in holes and cavities, well off the ground, but once the grasses, rushes and nettles started to grow the ground-nesters took over.

Mr.s Mallard on guard.
A dog could easily scatter her brood so that crows can get them.
Ducks nest in clumps of rushes or nettles, often quite a long way from water. They lay up to fourteen eggs, usually one a day, which they incubate for 28 days, so the complete nesting period is about 6 weeks, during which the mother, the eggs and the ducklings are highly vulnerable to disturbance and attacks by predators. Mallards are soon joined by moorhens, swans and geese. Black headed gulls nest on the islands in the Sailing Lake where they are joined by oystercatchers, lapwings and redshanks. Wading birds positively shun long grass; they like bare ground.

Our first spring migrants from the south arrive quite early in March when the blackthorn blossom is out but most trees are still leafless. Chiff-chaffs are tiny green warblers that give themselves away by repeating their name over and over again. They sing from the tops of trees, from overhead wires or tall bushes, but they nest on the ground, often very close to our paths. Sand martins are little brown swallows that dig tunnels into the sand in the quarry. Cetti’s warblers (if you can ever see one) look like big wrens, but you can’t miss them shouting “Cherrupp, Cherrupp” as you walk around the meadow. Some stay all winter but most come in March to nest low down under the brambles.

April brings the great flood of migrant birds from Africa, including our famous nightingales. The pathfinder males announce their arrival by singing loudly and continuously to lure down their mates. Although they sing from high up, the nest is almost always on the ground, under the bushes and briars. They are soon joined by a confusing batch of warblers, none of which is brightly coloured, but they make up for their dullness by their songs.
Partridge and pheasant chicks are good at running,
but very few survive their first few days.

By now, most of the trees and bushes will be in leaf and so it’s safe for small birds such as finches to build nests out in the branches. But a few late-comers will join the ground-nesting skylarks, pipits, partridges and pheasants in our fields and pastures. Grasshopper warblers make their reeling songs from the coarse weeds at the edges of the meadows and fields where they too nest on the ground.

By the time the may-blossom is out, spring is already moving into summer. The meadows hum and buzz with insects that I can no longer hear. Swallows and other aerial feeders swoop low over grass and water to feed on flies while families of birds poke about in the grass for caterpillars and other creepy-crawlies. Now the longer days enable them to hunt for insects for over 16 hours a day. That’s why so many birds come here from Africa each year. Aren’t we lucky they do?

Please do your bit to prevent disturbing baby birds and animals in the long grass this spring and summer. In particular it is important to keep dogs on leads on the meadow path and on the Heron Trail between the main gate and the river.

Jim Stevenson
Senior Ranger