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March 23rd- curlews back and blackbirds singing

This morning I awoke to the sound of a curlew making its ‘bubbling’ song as it flew over the village. In the time I listened to it I went from semi consciousness believing it to be a dream, to being wide awake and relishing the sound of each note. I have always been woken by bird song. Even back in my school days when I spent a lot of time studying spotted flycatchers in our garden, their thin high pitched calls would awake me from deep sleep before 5am as effectively as an alarm clock, continuing even through my teenage years! The sound of swifts screaming literally makes me to jump out of bed; when the first non-breeding swifts descend from their aerial roost and perform their first dawn fly-past I am dressed and outside within a couple of minutes!

We are very lucky to have some scarce species within earshot of the house; I have been fortunate to awake to the sound of turtle dove, curlew and cuckoo. Somehow in a sub conscious state my brain continues to react to bird song. As the days lengthen I wake earlier and earlier, the clocks going forward provide some relief for a while but I have come to accept that there is nothing I can do about it. But those early mornings have led to many of my most memorable and beautiful encounters of the natural world.

Blackbirds have really ramped up their song in the last couple of weeks. On warmer days they sing frequently in the afternoon but their peak singing times are early morning, around 5.30am and towards dusk at about 6.30pm. Recent twilights have been beautiful and it is mesmerising to stand outside at this time to watch the sky and listen to the blackbirds.

 

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March 16th- garganey and displaying lapwings

As I write spring is truly on the march. After a period of cold temperatures and strong wind we have a few settled days under high pressure. The frogs have spawned in the garden pond (9/10/11th March), the rookery is busy with nesting in full swing and one can almost expect to see a swallow fly over when standing in the warmth of the sun. It is of course rather too early for that but our first summer visiting migrants are arriving.

Tolly and I went for a walk around a familiar lockdown route on Sunday afternoon. The weather looked rather unpromising, cold, with blustery showers almost putting us off leaving the house. However, no matter what the weather we never regret a walk. We stopped to look at the last hazel catkins which are the plant’s male flowers hanging off the same twigs that hold the tiny crimson female flowers. These are so often overlooked, but once seen are easy to spot, like miniscule starfish tight against the twigs. Many catkins were strewn over the ground, dislodged by the recent gales.

Some lapwings were displaying in the Ampleforth valley. The males perform an impressive acrobatic flight with dramatic swoops low over likely nesting areas. In this display you could be forgiven for thinking they are black and white, but close views reveal dark alizarin crimson, iridescent blues and greens and a spectacular crest; surely one of our most beautiful birds? Up to eight were present and I consider it a real privilege to be able to see them so close to home. People who have lived around here for half a century will tell you that a few decades ago every suitable field had nesting lapwings. Unimaginable now, we have lost so much.

We walked on to view a flooded area near Ampleforth. I scanned the water with binoculars first and straight away saw a drake garganey, a pair in fact! It was one of those unexpected moments of true elation that sometimes comes when birding, perhaps especially during this long lockdown when we have been restricted to watching within a short distance of home. The garganey is a unique and unusual duck for like a swallow it winters in Africa and visits the UK for the summer. This was quite an early record particularly this far north. I went back yesterday morning to make more extensive sketches in watercolour. There is a pair of garganey on our patch, unexpected, beautiful and unforgettable.

Garganey studies- watercolour
Garganey pair resting in morning sunshine
Male lapwing in breeding plumage
Heavy spring showers over the Holbeck
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March 11th- frog blog and yaffle waffle

The frogs have been very active in the garden pond since Sunday evening. This has resulted in 7 clumps of new spawn. It shows how effective a garden pond is at bringing in wildlife; no spawn in the garden in 2019 and now the annual sight of frogs arriving to breed. In the nearby flooded meadow frog spawn is well developed after being laid a couple of weeks ago. For some reason the spawn in our garden is a good deal later. A grey heron has been taking spawning frogs from the meadow. These frogs are extremely vulnerable with virtually no cover.

Tolly and I inspect the garden pond with a torch each evening. We are recording palmate newts on most evenings as well as many frogs. The great diving beetles have also been active at night. Once you have a pond in the garden it is hard to imagine being without one. It brings so much pleasure and interest throughout the year.

The ragged robin and cuckoo flower plugs I planted around the edge are growing well and should hopefully flower this spring. I hope the cuckoo flower will attract orange tip and green-veined white butterflies to breed. It is a food plant plant for the caterpillars of both species so we hope to see the females lay eggs on the plants.

It is worth remembering when planning a wildlife garden that although nectar rich flowers are important you should try to provide food plants for the caterpillars of butterflies and moths. For example whilst it is lovely to see small tortoiseshells on a buddleia, to survive as a species they must have nettles on which they can lay their eggs, so try not to be too tidy and look at a list of caterpillar food plants as well as nectar rich flowers for the butterflies and other insects.

The ‘yaffle’ call of green woodpeckers is a very frequent sound around the valley again. It is a rather mournful sound to my ears but very beautiful. The call is particularly frequent in the first half of the morning. I managed to find a ‘yaffling’ bird in the dead sticks at the top of a diseased ash tree. I have not often had a really good view of a green woodpecker in a tree, so to view this male at length through the scope was a wonderful start to the day. They are very striking birds, a bird I remember admiring in my first bird books when they seemed almost mythical, so colourful but with that intense stare.

 

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4th March- rooks and owls

The local rookeries are extremely busy now. Being near or below a rookery in spring is a joyous experience. Their collective rather raucous calls merge and create to my mind a rather soothing if loud noise, certainly a real marker of the season. The road that runs directly underneath some nests is littered with broken twigs dropped by the nest building birds. These nest builders can be impressive to watch as they haul sticks two or three times their own length back to the nest site.

Rookeries are very much part of the English landscape. When the trees are bare in the middle of winter the nests, some battered by winter gales, are for me a reminder of spring. Take the time to look at the rookery through your binoculars or scope. There is so much going on, paired birds are obvious as they feud with neighbours, birds bowing and posturing in aggression, calling as they do so. In sunlight they show glorious glossy purple and blue plumage contrasting with that brutal looking bill. They just ooze character, now is a great time to enjoy your local rookery.

The last week has seen signs of spring mount up each day. Chaffinches are really giving it some welly now, a male singing his rich and cheerful flourish outside my studio as I write. Greenfinches are belting out their mixture of rather exotic fluty notes and contrasting wheezing sounds from tree tops, although not yet performing their display/song flights. Song thrushes and robins are perhaps the most notable songsters at the moment especially early and late. Blackbirds are keeping us waiting for now. The recent milder spell saw a few tentative bursts of song, but they are not really there yet.

Owls have been very vocal this week, particularly in the few minutes before dark. With a dim glow lingering on the western horizon the tawny owls tune up. Recently we have been hearing the rich, low, trembling song of tawnies in the nearby woods. Many people will be unfamiliar with this but it is very beautiful and well worth listening out for. Little owls often have a short burst of calling early in the afternoon, abrupt and incongruous on a bright day and we have been treated to daily afternoon hunting flights by one of the local barn owls.

Rook studies- sunbathing bird (left) with loose feathers covering branch and feet.
Barn owl study, watercolour- available in my shop.