Early morning bird surveys have been memorable mainly for the frostbite and hypothermia and – oh yes, the lack of birdsong! Of interest, though, was a firecrest singing in a holly bush in late April; about 300yd further on another firecrest was singing, also in a holly thicket, with a possible third bird lurking in the dense foliage. Less tied to conifers than its cousin, the goldcrest, it nevertheless does enjoy evergreen cover, so the holly was presumably welcomed. Although firecrests pass through the wood most springs, it seems they don’t stay to breed.
Late April and early May is when I carry out a survey of the whole wood for nightingales. Start the surveys too early in April and you miss a fair number of late arrivals; but wait too long in May and you realise that nightingale song output is already waning. In other words, it is a fine balance, one that can be quite hard to achieve, and this year finding that magic period has been made doubly difficult by the prolonged cold spell. This has had the twin effects of delaying the arrival of the migrating birds, and of discouraging song. So, when I carried out my first survey on 3rd May, many areas that looked suitable were silent and, no matter how long I waited, no ecstatic song was heard. Yet other territories that I knew were occupied were also often quiet, perhaps because the birds were too busy trying to keep body and soul together to have time to sing in the cold morning air.
These surveys are all carried out soon after dawn, when you have to expect the unexpected. Most recently this came in the form of a rather shapeless grey lump bumbling across the path in the half-light: the worlds of badger and human briefly collided.
Another survey that got off to a bad start was the annual woodcock monitoring. This involves standing at one spot for 75 minutes three times each spring, listening for the weird grunts and squeaks that the male woodcock utters as he flies in great loops over the wood, looking for females and warding off other males. I’ve been monitoring them since 2003, and initial visits in early May usually produce sightings in the double figures, exceptionally 26 registrations in one evening, but this spring’s first visit came up with just a single record. Woodcock seem to be in decline in the UK and, as they dig out their food from soft ground, their disappearance may be due to hotter summers making the earth too hard for probing. The RSPB is currently undertaking a project to rewet the wood, which I hope to report on later this summer, and if it proves possible to retain water in the wood for longer that will mean an increase in the area of soft soil, and so could benefit this beleaguered and little understood nocturnal bird.
One lovely bonus deriving from the cold weather was that the delicate flowers of wood anemones enjoyed a much longer season, mingling happily with sheets of bluebells which would normally succeed the windflowers.
The RSPB Canterbury Group will be resuming its programme ofwalks this month, and the first one for over a year will be around Old Park, an acid grassland SSSI on the outskirts of Canterbury with a healthy population of nightingales and several pairs of turtle doves, plus linnets and whitethroats. The woodland supports woodpeckers, warblers and firecrest. A new viewing mound is a good place to look for raptors. It’s at 8.00am on Wednesday 19th May. For details of the meeting place email John Cantelo on firstname.lastname@example.org .
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