Heralds of the changing season
Spring is by far my favourite season – a time of rebirth and renewal as the sombre, sometimes tedious aura of winter; the drab colours and chills fade away in wake of the changing season. Spring is vibrant, exciting and fresh; Wood Anemone, Bluebell and Celandine carpeting the ground, butterflies and bees back on the wing and Hedgehogs fresh from hibernation. All of this leaves much to be enjoyed, learnt and discovered; though for me, a naturalist with a particular fondness for feathered things, it is migrant spring birds that make this season the truly marvelous affair I have come to know and love. This year I set myself a challenge; to, with a certain degree of detail, record the various comings and goings of migrant birds on my local patch. A challenge that has seen me in the field most days eagerly waiting the resurgence of some longed for arrivals.
Who came first? As with 2015, 2014 and, as a matter of fact, every year I can recall to date, it was the Chiffchaff. A chilly stroll on the 20th of March accompanied by an all too familiar song as a lone bird repeated its name high in the branches of an Alder. This initial pioneer was soon followed by more and now, come late April it seems almost as if every bush holds one of these delightful little warblers. A firm favourite of mine and a bird that never fails to bring a smile to my face.
Come the 6th of April, the abundant Chiffchaffs now flitting energetically about the patch were finally joined by yet more inbound migrants; no less than three species occurring within an hour or so of one another as I patrolled the coastal expanses of Blyth. Unusually, it was a Swallow that came first – my earliest to date. This individual battling gale force winds as it made its way North, displaying uncharacteristic determination for something altogether rather dainty and delicate. Next, Sand Martins – later than usual this year but no matter; a total of eight birds whirling in the strong winds. Finally, another seasonal gem, a splendid male Wheatear. Obliging as ever, this individual showed for a good half hour; hopping tirelessly amid the tussocks of Marram Grass that blanket the dunes. Six days later than my first encounter last year.
April 12th – Chiffchaff numbers continue to swell, birds now noted from the garden as well as the various corners of the patch. Wheatear have come and gone, all be it sporadically, a mere three individuals noted this season, with these; plenty more Sand Martin and Swallow hawking over the river, the woods and scattered farmhouses. Today however another newcomer; a walk through the woods revealing another song intertwined pleasantly with the much more abundant and admittedly less melodic calls of the various Chiffchaffs. Willow Warbler! Four to be precise, closely followed by more on the 13th, 14th and every day since. Each day revealing more, right on cue – exactly a year since I noted my first the year before. Better still, the 14th also found my first House Martin making it back. The luminescent blue sheen of the bird standing out like a sore thumb as it hunted for insects amid the now brimming flock of Sand Martins. Another early record.
Fast forward a little, all of the aforementioned visitors have now settled in; singing, feeding and generally proving rather enjoyable. Come the 17th most of my time was spent soaking up the dawn chorus in my local woodland. A harsh, scratchy tune extracted from the cacophony of resident species. Blackcap! A showy male singing from amid a dense growth of Blackthorn, the latter now adorned by its delicate spring blossom. Four more quickly followed, three males with their characteristic “black caps” and a female complete with chestnut toupee. This was not all however, advancing eagerly along the river, a Common Sandpiper bobbed a rock among the Rapids – displacing a rather vexed Dipper as it skipped amid the torrent. Further downstream, another, arguably much more exciting wader. Here a pair of Whimbrel shifted through the Bladderwrack strewn on the banks. A true Herald of the changing seasons and a bird that goes largely unbeknownst to many absent a stark interest in avian life.
And so we come to today, the 21st of April and my latest foray in search of newcomers. Setting out this morning; enjoying the sun and the buzzing of various insects I was not overly hopeful. There had been very little wind to force anything vaguely interesting my way and it was not particularly early. Still, onwards I went stopping for a brief rummage in a rather unassuming patch of scrub shadowed by the local railway line. Here a distant ‘buzzing’ caught my attention – alarm bells began to ring but being deaf in one ear I could not quickly make sense of it. Determined to investigate, I advanced though the noise promptly stopped and the hopes niggling at the back of my mind quickly dissipated. Just then, some movement in a stunted Hawthorn caught my attention – a brown bird promptly springing into view before bursting into song; an unmistakable call, that of a Grasshopper Warbler. My first ever in ten years of wandering this particular site. Another bird that appears to have arrived dead on the date stated by most literary sources and a truly magical species at that.
There you have it, a brief account of the changing season thus far around my humble Northumbrian patch. It cannot be long now until the aforementioned species are joined by Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers; before the skies resonate with the ‘screaming’ of Swifts and the characteristic call of the Cuckoo is once again heard over nearby grassland. I live in hope and will continue to diligently record my first sightings – if only for future comparison. Spring on my local patch is a delightful affair and I feel nothing short of privileged to have such a wealth of fantastic birdlife mere metres from my front door.
James Common is a young Conservationist, Blogger, Naturalist, Birder, Commentator & Aspiring Author based mostly in Northumberland. He tweets at @CommonbyNature and his wonderful blog can be found at www.commonbynature.co.uk where his other inspiring achievements are also listed.