Spring announces its presence in a wide variety of ways, from the ostentatious carpets of wood anemones and bluebells that we’ll be enjoying before long, and the swelling volume of bird song, through to some far more subtle indicators, several of which I’ve witnessed in recent days. We’re used to seeing mallards on rivers and lakes, but the thought of them nesting in woodland may not seem so obvious, yet every year a few pairs seek out the small ponds and streams in the wood to call their own. So it is that in March I often see a pair of mallards on the tiniest splash of water, casting off the temerity they exhibit in winter, and showing a marked reluctance to fly – a sure sign that they are committed to breeding nearby.
Another sign is the unexpected: come mid-March I start to feel uneasy if I haven’t yet heard a chiffchaff, and we know that other birds are on the move at this time of year, the paths of winter-visiting thrushes crossing with those of the long-awaited cuckoos, swallows and nightingales. But, in addition there are birds slipping through, often under the radar; these are probably not going to stay to breed, and are simply on passage. An example of this came on 8th March, when I was entertained by firecrest song. That I heard it at all is quite remarkable, as it was in a corner of woodland close to the thundering roar of the A2, and a nearby agricultural merchants, where reversing lorries emitted piping warning notes as they jostled for position in the congested yard. The firecrest has to be one of my favourite birds: very closely related to the diminutive goldcrest it has, until recently, been quite a rare breeder in this country. Unlike its cousin, it seems unable to cope with conditions in northern Europe, and is at its commonest in areas around the Mediterranean, where the goldcrest tends to be a winter visitor only. I’m pleased to say that bird guides are, at last, improving in their depiction of this jewel of a bird. In the past it was shown as virtually identical to the goldcrest, save for a prominent white stripe through the eye, additional to the black eyebrow and yellow or orange stripe on the crown. This plethora of lines draws attention to the head in a way that the field guides can’t match, and where they invariably fell down was in their failure to give due prominence to a wonderful bronzy-green shoulder patch with an almost iridescent quality, that is totally lacking in the goldcrest. It was therefore most unfortunate that I couldn’t see the bird, having to make do with listening to its thin notes on a steady pitch that lacked the goldcrest’s terminal flourish. The breeding population of firecrests is increasing in southern England, and these little gems are less confined to conifers than are goldcrests, but in all probability this bird would have moved on later in the day, and is perhaps now heading for central Europe.
A final portent of spring, one that I had resigned myself to not hearing in the wood again, was that of the cheerful, but rather tuneless squawking of a male starling, proudly advertising his ownership of a magnificent nest-hole to any passing female, pressing home the message by vigorously flapping his wings. There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the starling was one of the commonest birds nesting in the wood but, for reasons that are rather poorly understood, starlings have declined dramatically throughout the UK (66% lost in the past 40 years). Gone are the days when the amorous chattering could be heard from the entrances to old woodpecker holes throughout the wood, and none have nested in recent years, so I can only hope that a revival of their fortunes may be around the corner. Not the news that great spotted woodpeckers want to hear though, as they frequently used to be ousted from their laboriously-excavated nesthole by the slightly smaller, but more pugnacious starling.