Birds to look out for in Spring – by Mike Tubb

SPRING

Introduction

Spring is one of the most exciting periods in the bird-watching calendar.  It is that time when we get to marvel at just how such small and vulnerable creatures can find their way back to this country – often thousands of miles from their wintering grounds.

And it’s not just the most obvious or well-known birds that do this.  In addition to the easily visible Swallows and House Martins, or the well-known Cuckoo, there are several other migratory species to look and listen for around the village.

Spring, of course, is the season that birds of most species begin to build nests and lay eggs.  They need your feeders to be replenished regularly as, more than ever, birds need to build up nutritional intake.  This is essential prior to laying, then incubating, and later for helping to feed hungry hatchlings.  So please keep supplying those supplementary sources of food, and remember that birds are more likely to use your feeders if they are away from the immediate environs of the house, and are fairly close to cover.

Swallows, House Martins and Swifts

We are fortunate to have all three of these birds foraging regularly around the village, but it is not always easy to tell the difference in flight. Each of the three species flies rapidly and can fly high up, requiring a pair of good binoculars for close views.  They are all insect eaters, so will swoop lower over fields of grazing animals, or over bodies of water, where insects might be more plentiful.  Near to these features might be better places for you to watch for closer views.

In common with many of our bird species, each is in decline.  It is thought that this is as much about loss of habitat in Africa, where they spend the winter, but pressure on their traditional nesting sites here in Britain is also a major factor.  Swallows like open barns in which to build their nests (their true name is actually Barn Swallow).  Many of these in our village and in surrounding villages have been converted for domestic use, thus depriving the birds of sites where they may have been nesting for decades.

House Martins usually prefer to build their nests under the eaves of houses.  They can make a mess, so are not always popular neighbours, but it is illegal to interfere with their nests, so I would urge you to be tolerant and to enjoy the resulting spectacle.  It is truly wonderful to see a row of small faces peeping out of the cup of mud and to wonder how the nest stays in place, how so many birds can fit into such a small space, and how they will all find their way to Africa this Autumn and back again, probably to the very same house again next Spring.

Swifts nest in crevices in brickwork or under tiles, so again may be very close to humans.  There is available a special tile so that this species can continue to nest even when an older building is updated.  If you believe that this bird nests in a building that you propose to work on, please consult with your developer and ask them to include the provision for access for Swifts.  This is unlikely to add to the costs, but can be vital for this beautiful and harmless creature.

So, how do you tell the difference between the three species?  Swallows have red on their faces, longer tails (males can have quite long tail streamers), and they make a pleasant twittering sound when flying.  House Martins look slightly more compact, generally feed at higher levels, and make more of a prrrit prrrit  (sometimes described as a buzzing) sort of sound when on the wing.  Both species are pale underneath, but the House Martin has a diagnostic white rump that can be seen at certain angles when in flight.

Swifts are all-dark in plumage and have narrower scythe-shaped wings.  They feed on the wing by hoovering up insects with their large gape.  Around their breeding sites they tend to form small groups of birds and fly at great speed, uttering screaming calls in unison, noticeable especially on warm summer evenings.  Swifts are the last of the three species to arrive in late April or early May, and are usually the first to depart at the end of July or early August.

Cuckoo

The quintessential bird of the British summer is really quite a rogue.  The female will lay her eggs in the nest of a chosen host species, such as Dunnock, Meadow Pipit or Reed Bunting.  Amazingly, the hen bird is able to lay eggs that are a good match with the chosen host species!

This is a large grey bird, with a long tail and long pointed wings.  It looks spectacular when seen close-to, having barred plumage and can resemble a hawk.

Cuckoos are now rather rare in this country, but we are lucky still to have a few pairs in South Northants.  One male has already (I heard it from St George’s Day) been calling regularly immediately south-west of the village.  It is only the male that utters the familiar call, the female having a bubbling chuckle-like sound.

In flight the diagnostic feature to look out for is the wings.  Unusually it will never lift its wings above the horizontal plane, in a fairly fast and direct flight path.

The Cuckoo returns to Britain in mid-April or May, migrating back to Africa from the end of July or August.  It seems to go curiously silent after mating, so is frequently overlooked through the main part of summer.

Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler

These two are both summer visitors, arriving here in Spring, and both can be viewed in or near the village.  To an untrained eye, they look fairly similar – both are small, relatively shy birds that usually remain in the tree canopy.  However, each can be identified by the colour of its legs(!), and fortunately also by its respective song.

Chiffchaff, with black legs, constantly calls its name, while Willow Warbler, with lighter coloured legs has a melancholy song with descending cadences, that ends in a flourish.

Should you hear either of these songs, look out for a small warbler about the size of a Blue Tit in the top of the hedgerow or deciduous trees.  Both are fairly restless feeders, so constantly move about to find small insects.  Try to locate one before the tree canopy is fully developed as this will make them pretty well invisible.

Blackcap and Garden Warbler

Another pair of warblers that have close similarities to each other, and both again summer visitors to Britain.  Each can again be found around our village.  These two, however, are best separated by appearance, their songs being fairly similar.

Both are about the size of a Great Tit, and both like to disappear into thickets of bramble or the ivy covering of a tree.  Both usually frequent large gardens or mixed woods and both are mainly grey in colour, although the Garden Warbler has buff tones to the breast.  The main distinguishing feature is the colour of the Blackcap’s head.  No prizes for guessing that the male has a black head, but surprisingly the female has a rusty red coloured head.  It is easy to mistake the male Blackcap for a Marsh Tit, so the sounds are important to hear.

The Blackcap’s song is a lengthy fluting warble of clear notes, currently being practised in the centre of the village for anyone who particularly wants to hear this species.  Experts would compare the Garden Warbler’s song a little unfavourably with the Blackcap, perhaps describing it as a more monotonous babble of notes, without the latter’s flute-like tone.

Blackcaps tend to reach this country a little ahead of the Garden Warblers, but both will head off back to Africa in August or September.

Spotted Flycatcher

Only the very privileged will have this bird nesting in their garden.  Numbers have reduced dramatically over the last decade, and continue to do so.  Spotted Flycatchers have been recorded to nest in some unusual places, but are just as happy in tangled creepers as in ledges or recesses of buildings.  It is a fairly late returner to these shores, rarely arriving before the end of April.

This species is usually identified by its behaviour – it often perches quite openly, waiting for a moth or fly to come past, following which it will dart out after the insect to snap it up.  Sometimes you can even hear the beak audibly closing around its prey.  Frequently the bird will continue returning to the same perch.  Its call is a thin seeep, which can be confused with a call from a young fledgling.

Identification

Remember to use the on-line field guide if you need help with identifying particular species.

CLICK HERE TO ENTER THE FIELD GUIDE

Your sightings

Don’t forget that we are keen to capture all interesting bird sightings from Bradden and the surrounding area. Please remember to let us know what you have seen using the comments box below.

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