Spring Bird Watch 2018 by Paul Snell

Bird Report for St Mary`s Allotment   April to mid June 2018

The late spring this year with its wet weather and cold temperatures certainly held back the summer migrants. Sand martins are one species that arrive very early and although they were present at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, near Coventry in March, they were not seen over our reservoir even in April. Swallows fly back from South Africa, and they too were late. When they reach southern Europe they follow the 18C isotherm northwards so it is no wonder they were not seen until later on in April. Swifts normally arrive over Leamington precisely on May 8th, and you can just about set your calendar by their arrival date. I saw a few on the 7th over the allotments, but there was then a gap of several days before they became a regular sight in the skies, and even now in June, their numbers seem lower than normal. They are quite exceptional birds as they never land unless they are nesting. They therefore even sleep on the wing at night. Their legs are positioned so far back on their body that they cannot take off from the ground.

In previous years I have heard cuckoos over on Newbold Comyn from the allotments. This year, and last, I have heard none. Their numbers are down dramatically over the last 20+ years, and modern farming practices are apparently to blame, as caterpillar numbers are down due to pesticide use. I had to visit Brandon Marsh to hear one in May. They spend the winter in the Congo.

The allotment provides plenty of food for warblers, mainly insects coming off the reservoir and river Leam. The most common ones to hear are chiffchaffs and blackcaps which have distinctive calls, usually from high up in the trees. Willow warblers look like chiffchaffs, but have a very different song. They were heard later on in April singing in the apple trees before moving on elsewhere. The ditch along the allotment fence has attracted a white throat in early May in the last two years, and this year it was still present but had moved around towards the pedestrian gate into the reservoir to nest.

Finches certainly do well on our land. They have bills that are adapted for seed eating and so are not short of food, especially as many of us put feeders out for them in winter. Goldfinches are much more common now than just a few years ago, and young birds are already out of their nests and feeding in family groups. Greenfinches however are less common but are seen around the allotments from time to time, as are bullfinches, which are very quiet during the breeding season.

The other common birds to use feeders are blue tits and great tits. These have been busy raising their young, often in boxes we have put out for them. They time their nesting to coincide with the glut of caterpillars in the trees so they have plenty to feed their young, sometimes producing  ten or more chicks per nest! The fledged great tits in my box finally left in the last week in May, but hung around for a few days while their exhausted parents continued to find food for them.

Greater spotted and green woodpeckers are two of our more spectacular resident species. I am not sure where they nest locally but they are regular visitors to the allotment. The green woodpecker often comes down to the ground to feed on ants nests, and there are plenty of those. Greater spotted fly over frequently in a typical undulating flight but tend to feed high up in mature trees. Their call is rather more subtle than the raucous green woodpeckers, but also quite distinctive. They both feed on insects but apparently are quite partial to the occasional young chick taken from other birds nests…as seen on Spring watch recently!

We are on the flight path for grey herons and they frequently fly over at this time of year, often early in the morning or evening. They are probably coming to find frogs and fish along the river to take back to their heronry over near Warwick Castle.

Birds of prey have a low profile once they start to nest in spring, but once the chicks have hatched, then they suddenly become conspicuous again as the parents are out hunting all hours of the day. It takes about 5 weeks for their eggs to hatch, and now they have hatched it is worth keeping an eye out towards the sky for buzzards, sparrowhawks, peregrines, kestrels and even hobbies. These specialise in catching dragonflies, and fly up to the Midlands all the way from west Africa for the summer. They are agile fliers and occasionally catch house martins too. Birds of prey are often difficult to identify as you just get a fleeting glimpse of them as they pass by all too quickly.

Finally, I occasionally see and hear some unusual birds over the reservoir. In past years this has included common terns, greenshanks and sandpipers, all probably on migration to their breeding areas elsewhere. Last month I saw a pair of oystercatchers flying around and noisily calling one evening, but they were gone the next day!

Please let me know if you see any birds of interest for me to include next time!

Paul Snell