Roll out the good news!  After last year’s poor showing of just thirty nightingale territories, the provisional figure for this spring is a far healthier 42.  Interestingly, several of the sites are in what I would normally consider sub-optimal habitat – narrow strips of scrub, and coppice that is at least ten years old (the normal age range of chosen coppice is around three to eight years old).  Nationally, the birds may have had a better than average breeding season in 2019, followed by high winter survival, leading to larger numbers than usual returning this spring, with later arrivals possibly finding all the better sites occupied, and so having to make do with poorer quality sites where they are less likely to breed successfully.


There has also been an excellent start to the butterfly season, with far higher numbers than normal, mainly peacocks and brimstones, in the first five weeks.  In most years butterflies remain scarce right through to June, with an average of just 14 in the first week of April, when I commence my transects, whereas this year I was amazed to count 74.  Although numbers have dropped back since then, I am still recording in the 20s or 30s each week, instead of the usual smattering of ten or so.


Humans are great classifiers, endlessly striving to put everything neatly into boxes.  Thus we think of birdsong as something that male birds perform in spring to stake out their territory and attract a female.  So where does that leave woodpecker drumming?  Woodpeckers don’t appear to have vocal utterances in spring that perform those functions, so is drumming a surrogate form of singing?  And what of the fact that female woodpeckers sometimes drum?  I was reminded of these conundrums recently while listening to the usual rather weak drumming of a lesser spotted woodpecker.  When he stopped he was answered by even weedier drumming from almost the same spot;  were there two rival males on the same branch eyeballing each other?  The answer was provided a few seconds later when I glimpsed one bird mounting the other, and a more likely explanation fell into place:  the initial drumming had been carried out by a male, while the weaker reply came from a receptive female.  In this instance it would seem that drumming had nothing to do with territoriality and everything to do with the spring urge to procreate.


Talking of rather feeble songs, I heard my first spotted flycatcher on 6th May, a fairly early date.  I often think that, were they to arrive earlier in spring when other species are singing more actively, the flycatchers would have to improve their choral skills in order to make themselves heard distinctly above all the extraneous sounds.  As it is, by early- to mid-May the wood is becoming much quieter and the spotted flycatcher has the stage more or less to himself.


This is turning into another good year for lily-of-the-valley, a plant we are more familiar with as a garden flower, but which is native to England, and is behaving like an indigenous species in Blean Woods.  Spreading by rhizomes, every year it produces carpets of bright green leaves, but usually with few accompanying flowers;  this year is different, though, with a plentiful supply of delicately-scented white blooms to add a little magic to a few blessed corners of the reserve.  The best site to see it is on either side of the main waymarked trail as it heads eastwards through the oakwood before turning right for the final stretch back to the car park.


Michael Walter


Lily-of-the-valley in Blean Woods

Spotted flycatcher - courtesy of Dave Smith