For many wildlife enthusiasts, spring is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated season of the year, especially for birdwatchers. Migrants arrive from their wintering areas and settle back into their breeding grounds. After the cold of winter there is suddenly a buzz of activity, especially for males hoping to attract a female.
While some bird displays leave something to be desired, other individuals put in great effort. As we move into March, birdsong is elevated both in volume and intensity. Greenfinches have a particularly impressive display that involves large bursts of activity. The male, dressed in his finest vivid green plumage, circles in wide loops with emphasised slow wing beats, looking more like a butterfly or a bat than a bird. During these theatrical acrobatics, the males constantly call out to the females with twittering phrases that finish with a long, nasal “dzweee”. If the female is won over, the new pair often perch high in the trees, with the male always in the open to ward off any other potential new suitors.
The arrival of March also brings in the sand martins, one of the UK’s earliest arriving migrants. The smallest of the European hirundines (swallows and martins), sand martins have arrived from Africa, crossing the Sahara desert to reach their nesting colonies and excavate tunnels in sandy vertical banks. Over the past fifty years, populations of sand martins have crashed twice because of drought in their African wintering grounds, which makes protecting their breeding sites in Britain even more important.
Elsewhere in the arrivals gate are chiffchaffs, and from late March to April these plain-looking birds can be heard calling their name in woodland copses and shrubby undergrowth. A tiny warbler no larger than a blue tit, chiffchaffs have spent the winter in the Mediterranean and western Africa. Breeding begins in April to May, when the female builds a domed nest that lies very close to the ground. Incubating eggs and rearing the chicks are solely the female’s responsibility. Chiffchaffs usually leave the UK in September, heading south towards France and occasionally on to West Africa.
Despite the recent snowfall that has smothered the emerging snowdrops and crocuses, keep an eye and ear out for the arrival of spring migrants who will hopefully find some warmth as they prepare to settle in for the breeding season.