Watch the birdie and know your place


All last week whilst out and about, I was desperately listening for my first willow warbler of the year, which is always a sure sign that spring has definitely sprung.

The swallows and martins were all safely ticked off, my first common sandpiper duly accounted for on my local stretch of the Ettrick Water and other members of the warbler clan such as blackcap and chiffchaff had been singing for some time.

On Saturday morning I was going to tackle the Duchess’ Drive on the Bowhill estate and whenever I opened the car door I could hear the unmistakable songs of several willow warblers.

As usual they had arrived en-masse, probably the night before, and were absolutely everywhere.

This is a great time of year to learn bird song, as most species are at their most vocal and the trees are not yet in full leaf, allowing the songsters to be seen as well as heard.

The warblers in particular, can look pretty similar, but their songs can vary considerably, so now is an ideal time to try and sort them out with the help of a good field guide and a pair of binoculars.

Meanwhile, back at my walk, I set off from the Yarrow side, following the forestry track up through Black Andrew Wood and out onto the high moorland, before circling back into the wood at the Newark Burn and back to my starting point via Newark Tower.

It is about four or five miles in length, but it covers three distinct habitats and affords some of the best views in the Borders.

On such walks I tend to keep a list of birds seen and it is interesting to be able to identify the different habitats crossed by looking at the list in the order they occur.

Red-legged partridge, pheasant, rook, jackdaw, (farmland), wren, willow warbler, coal tit, chaffinch, robin, chiffchaff, siskin, goldcrest, song thrush, (woodland), curlew, buzzard, red grouse, meadow pipit, skylark, wheatear, raven, (high moorland).

It is even possible to tell something about these habitats from the list. For example you can determine that the woodland is predominantly coniferous from the presence of siskin, coal tit and goldcrest. Similarly, the presence of wheatear on the moorland suggests that there are rocky outcrops or drystane walls and that there is good heather cover from the fact that red grouse were noted.

There is more to bird watching than sitting in a hide ticking them off in a notebook.

You can learn lots about the countryside by studying your local birds, their habits and where they occur. Why not get out there this year and watch the birdie.