With high winds, heavy rain and plummeting temperatures I have been unable to tread the green open fields of the edgeland for a couple of weeks. I have though still kept a close eye on the comings and goings in the garden and despite the break in the recent spell of warm early March weather, it is clear that nesting season is upon us.
In February a pair of Dunnocks (I say ‘pair’ in the loosest possible way: Sex, Bugs and Rock n Roll – The sordid sex life of the Dunnock) spent time investigating one of the open-fronted nest boxes placed strategically behind the Forsythia hedge on the outer perimeter of the house. Twig collecting began in earnest as the February temperatures sat comfortably mild above the norm and by mid-February the box had been thoroughly carpeted. Storm Doris duly arrived and ruined the party; the weather took a turn for the worse and the Dunnocks lost interest in nest-building, perhaps a wise move on their part. Into the mild throngs of early March and they are back and building again; the Sun again holds warmth within its renewed, bright-white rays that has been absent since November and flies, spiders and all manner of invertebrates have emerged into the new season; a hint of the plentiful insect bounty on which to feed growing gapes in weeks, months to come.
The theme of the last week or so and for the coming week is cool temperatures, wind and spells of rain; if it wasn’t for the array of daffodils adorning garden-fronts and the intense golden blossom of the Forsythia you could be forgiven for thinking Winter had never left but this time around the birds seem content, unaffected; they can sense the warming climate and the breeding instinct, the river-rise of hormones can no longer be kept at bay.
The Robins too have ventured into an open-fronted nest box along the same wall; for a brief few days squabbles ensued between the broody pairs over who owned what and where. The matter was settled (the Dunnocks won), boxes were claimed (the Dunnocks keeping hold of some prime real estate) and the Robins too are feeding up, feeding each other in fact (the male offers the female sunflower hearts and with it his heart too; all part of the ritual and an affirmation of the bond). Twig collecting is on their minds too, albeit a haphazard affair. Construction has commenced even if at a typically British snail pace.
The most recent pair to begin preparations are the Blue-Tits. A purpose-built hole-fronted box placed neatly below the eaves of the extension is where I expected them to nest or hoped at least (previous years have proved fruitless with the tits; an opposing neighbour has had a full box in Spring for a number of years) but birds, well, you never can tell; these tits don’t want a box-room, they want a mansion; the Sparrow terrace no less. In fact, they have been in both on numerous occasions and are seemingly yet to decide on the perfect abode. Perhaps they will choose neither; the neighbour wins the day again. (No bitterness here).
Talking of the Sparrows, those cheeky spugs disappeared at Christmas; venturing now only occasionally into the garden for a quick raid on the sunflower feeders. (The sunflower hearts over the Winter have proven to be by far the favoured food; The feeder is filled in the morning and by night-fall emptied entirely thanks mainly to a flock of greedy Goldfinches but both the tits and the Robins have been diving in whenever there is space). For the last two years the Sparrows have nested in a gap beneath the roof tiles on the north-westerly corner of the house; that’s fine by me. The Terrace I put up in Winter in close proximity although kind on the eye will always be second best to a natural roof-gap. I put it up more in hope that another pair or three would take up residency and colonial living would ensue. Only time will tell.
Those greedy Goldfinches, an absolute delight on the eye especially in the sunshine, have taken up almost permanent residency in the garden over the Winter, making the most of the seed I have provided like clock-work daily and topped up at their beck and call. They have become a firm favourite for my wife and I; their character is unsurpassed by any other regular garden bird. They chatter, they squabble, they sing and they announce their arrival at each visit with a symphony of so recognisable, cheery delight. How they stay so slim and ‘necky’ I will never know; gorging all day every day without barely a flit from feeder to tree. They are unperturbed by our presence, barely now even raising an eye of acknowledgement. Their ‘cheeky-chappy’ ambience is infectious; strutting and necking bold as brass like Del and Rodders wheeling and dealing away their days in over-egged stereotypical cockney fashion. This time next year they’ll be millionaires, in sunflower seed at least. They too though are showing signs of what’s to come; the flock of seven is now four at most; the birds slowly rejecting the flock mentality and pairing off to find a nesting site, probably back in the fields in a thorny hedge away from prying eyes.
The Blackbirds this time of year become noticeably more tame, especially the females. So shy and skittish throughout Autumn and Winter all notion of fear seems to wash away in Spring as maternal, paternal instincts take over; nest, nest, nest, breed, breed, breed. More than any bird I find them hypnotised by natures urge to reproduce and nothing else. It can be a dangerous game, a guard so low but it does make for some fantastic close-up interaction.
Last week, whilst checking the moth trap in the dead of night, I heard a fence clatter followed by the urgent mi-ow of what I assumed was a kitten. Having swung my torch to the fence-line to find nothing there the cries continued and continued and continued. It wasn’t until some minutes later I realised that calls were now descending from directly above my head. It was a Little Owl, circling the perimeters of the estate closest to the open countryside. The week prior I had discovered a small Owl-like pellet on the wall at the foot of the garden fence and convinced myself it was something other (Corvids make pellets too) but having listened to the Little Owl crash-land upon the fence it would explain the Pellet, perhaps. I’ve kept it, yet to dissect it. That should solve the riddle. From then on I heard the owl nightly until last night, I heard two. Love it seems is even in the air in the Owl community. I suspect the small copse of mature woodland that stands proud above the Rugby field opposite is ideal for Little Owls given that they spend so much time digging for worms; open fields with standalone trees or flanked by woodland make the perfect environment for Little Owls to thrive. Leicestershire, in fact, is a Little Owl hotspot, a stronghold.
As a BTO Nest Recorder I will be paying close attention to the garden nests, recording their journey from build to brood to fledging chicks to provide invaluable data for the BTO and conservation in general. I intend to do the same for the edgeland (if I can find the time, and the nests!) and with a little luck record the nesting phases of birds far less common in our towns and gardens and more familiar in open country, woodland and riversides. I hope to share all of the recording process and progress with you and fingers crossed it will be a successful year for breeding birds. It’s early yet and the season runs right through to September (nesting isn’t just for Spring; multiple broods, summer migrants etc) but finally, after what seems like an age; ‘Tis the season to be nesting.