Most birdwatchers will tell you their favourite seasons are autumn and spring, as migration means birds can turn up in unusual out of the way places at any time. The autumn is somewhat more productive for quantity and variety of birds, because all the young birds of the year swell the numbers around, and of course being inexperienced migrants they are more likely to appear in new places. In the spring, adult birds heading for their breeding grounds tend to be more urgent in their migration, but strong headwinds and rain can stop them in their tracks. The spring migration has one big advantage over the autumn period, in that the birds are in their full breeding plumage and the males of many species in particular are looking their best. They are also likely to be practising their singing, which increases the chance of observing them and adds to the experience when they are encountered.
Spring migration takes place over a long period, with birds varying according to the kind of places they are heading for, the kind of food they are dependant on and the length of time their nesting activities take. It is also complicated by climate change which means that some birds that used to leave us in the winter now stay, while others that were regular winter visitors now find suitable feeding grounds further north and don’t come to us so often. Nonetheless, there are some birds which we can be sure of as summer signs. My first Wheatear of the year came at the end of March; these birds breed in uplands and winter in Africa, so this was definitely passing through on its migration. April is the first real migration month, however, and this year my surveys on CRT properties were very exciting from a birdwatching point of view.
The survey at Mayfields farm in Norfolk on April 8th was a bit early for most migrants, but there were several Chiffchaffs all of which were singing their simple song (basically saying their name) with great gusto, as migrants tend to do when they first arrive at a site, as this is their way to stake a claim to the best territory they can get. There were plenty of farmland and hedgerow birds around, however, with Bullfinches, Yellowhammers and the like but signs of winter were still around with birds in small flocks and the odd Fieldfare still to be seen – these birds breed in northern Europe and only come here for the winter.
Our Social Media expert Sally saw the first Swallow at Birds Farm on April 10th, so on April 12th when I surveyed Twyord Farm, West Sussex, I hoped the journey south would add new species to the list of birds I had seen this spring. There were a few Chiffchaffs around during the survey, and a Blackcap was heard singing afterwards but both of these species are known as short-distance migrants, wintering around the Mediterranean and nowadays even in Britain, and I still hadn’t seen a Swallow! The highlights of this survey were actually the resident birds, particularly the Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers, which are very rare and difficult to see. There were also several Marsh Tits in the woods all of which show that the woods have a great deal of potential.
Our volunteers help enormously to get all the surveys done in the short time available and on April 16th Jenny Brightwell conducted a visit to Lark Rise Farm, and added several species to the year’s arrivals – Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and more Swallows. She also saw the mystery Ducks which several of us had been seeing around the Bourn Brook this spring.As each species has its own internal calendar and journey length, it is typical that arrival times are spread out over the spring. A few days later, a Lesser Whitethroat was singing it’s simple stacatto song in the dense hedgerows around our Bumble Bee survey route.
I was back ‘down south’ on April 22nd for a visit to Bishops Meadow in Surrey, and a quick call in at the CRT’s Green Farm, nearby at Churt, brought about another rare bird sighting – or hearing, as it was a snatch of song heard against the wind that brought my attention to the Woodlark. Our volunteers Brian Lavers, Brian Senior and Bill Young had already had even better views of this bird earlier in the day but it was great to add it to my tally for the year, as some years go by when I just don’t see one at all.
April 24th was, I think, the best day’s surveying I have experienced on the CRT farms, enhanced by good weather and the company of Bruce Martin, who had won the chance of a day out with me in a Cambridgeshire Bird Club competition (no expense spared!) Bruce has been actively birdwatching in Cambridgeshire for over 70 years, and knows as much about the birds of the county as anyone, having seen most of them himself! In fact he can lay claim to having seen 294 different species in Cambridgeshire, putting him joint top in the all time county listing league! I was surprised at the beginning of the day when he said he had not seen a Wheatear yet this year, but fortunately the first field we came to at Westfield had only just been sown (with canary seed) and bare ground at this time of year is like a magnet to Wheatears as it looks a bit like their rocky home country – there were two on it! We got round the first field and suddenly heard the curious call of a Quail. They are supposed to say ‘Wet my lips’. These birds are mch smaller than partridges, and are the only migratory game birds in Britain.We are a bit far north of their main breeding grounds, so in some years hardly any come to Britain and even in the best years, there are usually fewer than 1000 recorded in the country. They can arrive throughout the summer, with chicks reared in north Africa in the early spring coming north to breed later in the same summer for example, so hearing one in late April is very early. Sadly I have not heard it again in this area, so it may have carried on its migration to who knows where!
As the Westfield survey continued, we were enjoying the woodland habitats around the Bourn Brook when a beautiful shimmering cascade of song came from high up in the tree tops. Neither of us could quite believe it but we both knew what it was – a Wood Warbler. These are long since extinct as a breeding species in Cambridgeshire and on migration they tend to be very elusive. I have heard one before at our Turnastone property, and other places in the western half of Britain, but never in Cambridgeshire before; even Bruce had only encountered one in the past. We walked on and I could tell Bruce was mightily impressed by the habitat we had created and the farmland Tim is managing so well, which resulted in birds everywhere. As we approached one particular tree, I explained that Little Owls had been seen in the box on it and Bruce was hoping for one to be present as he hadn’t seen one for a few years. It wasn’t there, but a few trees further along it suddenly flew out in front of us, and we saw him again in another tree closer to the nest box a little later on in the survey. This was near the end of the visit and we were both getting a bit chatty when suddenly a distant but familiar call stopped us in our tracks – our first Cuckoo of the year! It’s no surprise to say that Bruce joined the CRT straight away.
Northerly winds came back towards the end of the month. This can put a hold on migration, or can just slow the pace of birds. I think the latter explanation was in operation on this day, but the highlight of the Lark Rise survey on April 27th came right at the end. It started pretty well, with a Barn Owl flying past before I had even begun the fixed route selected in advance (fortunately another Barn Owl appeared during the survey so I could count that one!). New migratory species on the day included Willow Warblers at a couple of locations, sadly these birds are in rapid decline in Southern England but we seem to be hanging on to a few pairs at Lark Rise. I also logged a couple of Yellow Wagtails, delightful bright little summer visitors which are very much associated with farmland and good to see as we don’t get them every year. Signs of winter were still evident, however, with another one of Tim’s late-sown fields of Canary Seed attracting flocks of Yellowhammers, Linnets and a few Reed Buntings – these birds would not still be associating with others of their kind if they were serious about nesting. The survey was divided into 10 sections of 200m each, and it was not until I got into section 9 that the star of spring appeared – a beautiful Long-eared Owl! These birds do breed in parts of Cambridgeshire but not on farmland, so I assume it was a migrant, perhaps on its route back to Scandinavia – I have seen them on the Norfolk coast in autumn when they arrive after flying over the North Sea. This one had clearly decided that it had gone far enough into the headwind and had collapsed into a big hedge on the edge of our farmland. It was enjoying the early morning sun as I walked straight past it. I phoned a few people up who would like to see it, and completed my survey. The rest of the morning was spent enjoying this bird and helping visitors coming to see it as the news of it’s presence spread through the local bird network. 20 or so people came to see it, including our local photographic expert Geoff Harries who took these wonderful shots.
As we enter May, there are still migrants to come; I saw my first Hobby of the year at the Awnells open day on the 2nd, and Swifts must be here soon, as well as maybe Nightjars at Green Farm. Viv Geen, our Herefordshire monitoring officer, has reported Redstarts at Turnastone and as the month progresses, high-arctic breeding waders can theoretically pass through anywhere. Keep the eyes and ears peeled as you only get one chance at spring each year!
Long-eared Owl taken by Geoff Harries