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Spring Diary 2014

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England had the wettest winter since records began. More than 12 severe storms battered these islands, remodelling much of our coastline and flooding farmland and homes inland; some areas remained under water for three months. Here in Lincolnshire the gales and tidal surge in December caused the most damage with many of my favourite nature reserves suffering damage that will take years to repair. Many homes were flooded in the port town of Boston and along the tidal reaches of the rivers.

The rainfall in Lincolnshire did not break any records until January which was the wettest since 1956, but the winter was incredibly mild and virtually frost free. The lack of "frost mould" as the farmers' call it meant the clods from autumn ploughing were not broken down by frost, making seedbed cultivation for spring sown crops particularly difficult.

I always regard March as the first month of spring here in England, but being away bird watching in West Africa for a good part of it, spring seemed to sneak up on me. When we returned home in late March the frogs had been and gone and the garden ponds had been favoured with some decent clumps of frog spawn. Smooth Newts were swimming gracefully in all three ponds but the one that had contained fish was bereft. I soon found out why when opening the curtains one morning I disturbed a Grey Heron in the middle of his fishing expedition!


Willow Warbler

Chiifchaffs were singing everywhere in the last week of March and before the end of the month they were joined by a vanguard of the virtually identical Willow Warblers. Unlike the bi-syllabic metronome song of the Chiffchaff the silvery descending scale of the Willow Warbler epitomises spring for me.


Grasshopper Warbler
April is the biggest month for returning summer breeding birds and migrants passing through including arctic bound waders. A day out with friends on the Norfolk coast on Easter Monday was quite productive. One coastal grass field hosted at least five Wheatears when we walked past in the morning and by the time we walked back in the afternoon these had been replaced by no less than eleven beautiful Yellow Wagtails catching flies around the feet of the cattle. Far less striking to look at, in fact definitely an LBJ (Little Brown Job) were the two Grasshopper Warblers reeling from brambles in a reedbed on the nature reserve at Holme.


Wheatear

The song is referred to as reeling because it sounds just like a fishing reel when the line is cast. Usually very difficult to see, Grasshopper Warblers tend to sit low and turn their heads in different directions giving a ventriloqual quality to the song. However one of the two individuals we heard gave very good views as it sat on a bare stem and "sang" for us.



Avocets Courting

Among the returning waders were Avocets and by Easter they were noisily displaying and mating. The Avocet is the symbol of the RSPB and one of their major success stories. When I was a boy in the 1960's one had to go to Havergate Island on the Suffolk coast to see Avocets. At that time it was thought they required a particular saline habitat rich in small shrimps and other crustacean in which to feed by sifting the water with their delicate upturned bills. The RSPB replicated these conditions, first identified on Havergate Island, on their reserve at Minsmere and later on at other reserves around the country. Now avocets are relatively common breeding waders.



Common Snipe


Another success story has been the restoration of fenland on areas of arable farmland. Lakenheath Fen is a superb example but much closer to my home, Willow Tree Fen is another good example albeit on a much smaller scale. Sitting quietly in one of the hides with my wife, we enjoyed close views of the Common Snipe (photographed) and more distant views of a Marsh Harrier quartering a flooded field and putting up scores of duck.



Coot Feeding Young


Whilst many of our migrant breeders are still arriving, resident species have taken advantage of the favourable weather and got on with nesting. In this issue I have included photographss of two closely related species on their nests; Coot and Moorhen.

Moorhen on Nest



Brimstone


The first half of April was excellent for butterflies too with abundant Brimstones throughout, but also good numbers of Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and latterly Green-veined White and Speckled Wood.


Many of the woods around here are owned by The Forestry Commission and managed for wildlife as well as timber. One of the nearest woods to me has several nest boxes for Tawny Owls. The early spring has enabled many owls to nest early and from a discrete distance I was able to see a female Tawny Owl sitting tight, presumably on eggs in early April.

Barn Owls suffered terribly during last year's bitterly cold spring. Lincolnshire has the highest Barn Owl population in the UK but it is estimated that we lost as much as 60% of the population last year. But nature has a way of catching up and when food is plentiful owls will have larger broods and nest earlier. I am pleased to report that some Barn Owls have laid clutches of up to eight eggs and with mice and voles in plentiful supply following the mild winter, prospects of recovery are good.

Woods can be spooky places around dusk; especially when two rival Muntjac bucks are barking at each other. Sometimes referred to as Barking Deer these diminutive aliens certainly have a bark that is worse than their bite. They are common in the woods throughout most of Britain now and readers of this column will know that one individual is a regular visitor to my garden.

Despite the sunny days it is still fairly cold, especially during the evenings, but I am looking forward to warmer nights when the last birds settle down to roost and the bats emerge. Even better if the bats can be observed over a barbeque with a glass of nice wine!

 



Ian Misselbrook
April 2014

 

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