Birds show spring has sprung


A couple of weeks ago, as the last vestiges of winter began to slip away and spring started to gather momentum, I paid a visit to a local wetland nature reserve to soak up the atmosphere of the new season.

As it is at quite a high altitude, plant life was still dormant but the birds on the small lochan and in the surrounding woodland were well into their preparations for the breeding season.

From the comfort of the bird hide, I was able to watch the resident mute swans repairing their huge nest on the man-made floating island, unconcerned by the noise from the chainsaws of a nearby conservation party busy on path improvements for visitors.

Near the hide, a small dumpy bird kept disappearing under water and bobbing up again a few yards away. It was one of the resident little grebes. These tiny birds are very vocal at this time of year and their amazingly loud tittering giggle carries over great distances.

Also known as the dabchick, its features are geared to fast movement when submerged. Its legs are set right at the back of its body to allow freedom of movement and its tail is reduced to mere bristles so as not to impede its thrusting feet. Its toes have wide lobes that can be folded over each other on the forward stroke and the legs have flattened bones to give extra propulsion on the backward stroke and less resistance on the forward stroke.

Under water, the grebe appears silver, as air bubbles are trapped under its feathers. This helps to keep the bird warm and enables it to float to the surface, while concentrating on holding on to its prey of things like diving beetles or sticklebacks.

Next to the hide was a recently erected nest box, which was already attracting the attention of a blue tit, which was popping in and out and pecking at the rim of the entrance hole from the inside, as if it was removing the rough edges prior to moving in.

On my way home, I was thrilled to see around ten lapwings displaying above a stubble field. Once a common sight on farmland this annual spectacle is becoming rarer and rarer as the birds’ numbers decline.

Another bird that I was becoming concerned about was the pied wagtail. I hadn’t seen any since before the snowy weather and wondered whether they had been decimated. I needn’t have worried as I encountered five feeding at a dung heap and another by the river close to home. It seems they must have moved coastward to avoid the worst of the weather and were back in good numbers.