Early signs of spring!

Winter can be a spectacular time of year with its stunning frozen sceneries and the sheer masses of wildfowl we get, yet I still find spring to be my favourite time of the year. With the days already longer and little glimmers of hope appearing on brighter, warmer days, new life is emerging all around us.

Now I know it may seem a bit early to be talking about spring with the cold wet weather we are still having, but nature can sense the slightest changes kick-starting a new season. All the clues are there, so your mission on for your daily exercise is to spend a bit of time looking closer at nature and see if you can spot the subtle changes of spring on its way.

Here are our top four early signs of spring to be looking out for:

New life

I had to be reminded a couple of weeks ago that a small brilliant bit of nature was already appearing in our Gorse Covert wood. So, I took a moment to go explore and had a closer look at the ground; beneath the leaf litter, there are bright green shoots peeping through the brown leafy carpet. What are they? Bluebells! Yes, the bluebells are already poking out of the soil looking for the dappled sunshine coming through the trees. In a month or so we will have the most spectacular purple carpet covering the woods, it’s a stunning sight. Take care when you’re walking around the woodlands at this time of year, stick to the paths so you’re not trampling on fresh new growth.

Bluebells in full bloom: John Langley

Sounds and songs

One bird that loves the trees is the great-spotted woodpecker. It has a very characteristic bouncing flight pattern and you can often just catch a glimpse of it as it tries to hide away from you on tree trunks and branches. At this time of year, a distinctive drumming sound can be heard throughout the woods. This sound is a male tapping away on a hollow tree as a territorial display, either to warn off other males or to attract females for the breeding season. Females will also drum back briefly when entering the male’s territory.

Great-spotted woodpecker: Lynne Greenstreet

One of the earliest and most musical family of birds to start establishing their territories in order to find a mate are thrushes. We get six species of thrush in the UK and five can be found on our reserve at a different time of year. They can be heard singing as early as January and can be some of the most beautiful songs to hear in the British countryside.

Hopefully after our most recent RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in January even more people will now know our most recognisable thrush, the blackbird. A striking bird whose name, at least with the male, does what it says on the tin, is completely black with an attractive bright orange beak. Blackbirds are one of my favourites not only because it’s so recognisable, but its song is so beautifully melodic and when you watch a male sitting on a rooftop singing his little heart out looking for a mate, it’s so uplifting.

We are just heading out of a wonderful crossover of the winter thrushes; redwings and fieldfares who for the most part will soon be leaving us and two thrushes, that often get mixed up, the song thrush and mistle thrush. Both birds have wonderful songs, but the song thrush really stands out and will start singing late winter all the way through to July time. Song thrush will sing from the early hours of the morning and as the sun is setting. Each bird can have a different song which is very loud with recurring phrases, like verses in a poem.

Song thrush: John Hewitt

Bustling flocks

At this time of year, you may have noticed the grey herons start to gather and line up like awkward teens waiting to find a partner at a disco. It is quite comical to watch them gathering at this time of year before they find a mate but also as they jostle up in the trees for the best position. They will soon be joined by little egrets, hopefully, great egrets and possible even spoonbills this year, all may be wanting to breed up in the Marsh Covert woods this year, fingers crossed. Herons have a huge social structure when nesting and all nest together in something called a heronry.

Grey heron gathering: Paul Jubb

Another bird that nests in huge social groups and has already started to nest and may even have eggs by now are the rooks, in their appropriately named rookery. You will see them assembling at dusk like a scene out of the Hitchcock film The Birds. Not a fair representation of this family of birds (corvids) they are highly intelligent but by no means wanting to break into our houses to attack us.


Rook pair, getting their nest ready: Lynne Greenstreet

Have you ever taken a moment to have a closer look at a lapwing? They are one of the most colourful birds we have in the UK and on-site one of our most treasured waders. Males at this time of year will be frantically displaying with fantastic aeronautical displays while doing the weirdest calls; like an alien radio station tuning in! To my ear anyway...

Once a very familiar farmland bird has unfortunately suffered such a sharp decline in the UK. At Burton Mere Wetlands we manage the wet grassland very carefully, and it is now a perfect habitat for breeding waders like lapwing and redshank. The reserve is now such an important home for these species’ survival, supporting the local and national numbers of breeding pairs.

So when you next look across the main scrape and towards the land out the back this is our wet grassland area, it may be hard to see the lapwings until they start doing their fancy courtship display. They are also an incredibly brave wader and will often fend off many birds much bigger than themselves to protect their nests.

Lapwing with new chick: Alasdair Grubb

Pairing up

Last year the warden team were lucky enough to witness a marsh harrier pair nesting in our reedbed on Burton Mere Wetlands. They fledged two chicks successfully and this is a first for this part of the reserve. This year we are pleased to say we have already seen obvious breeding behaviour from the same pair around the reedbed, they are doing all the right things looking set to breed for the second year.

Male and the female marsh harrier: Paul Jubb

And last but certainly not least on our list of early signs of spring to look out for is the avocet! Avocets are one of, if not the most elegant wader in the UK. They are the RSPBs logo and are full of personality. Graceful and delicate as they come but will happily run full throttle, beak first towards a Canada goose coming too close to its nest.

Now I know they have not yet arrived and therefore you won’t be able to see them just yet, but they will be arriving in the next couple of weeks. Two years running they have turned up on or just around 14 February, so if we are your most local place for a walk, keep your eyes peeled. 

To see an avocet these days is truly a privilege and is an impressive conservation success story, not just for our reserve but for the UK. When considering avocets were almost all but extinct for over 100 years. Thankfully the coastal marshes of East Anglia were flooded to defend the country against potential invasion in the 1940s and this created the perfect breeding habitat for the avocet to return.

Avocets now return year after year to us and numbers will hopefully just keep getting stronger each year. From the three pairs we had in the mid 2000s to now having over 50 pairs recently, we truly are thankful for the supporters, volunteers and staff who have made this possible, even if you have never visited our reserve and support in other ways, the avocet thanks you.

Avocet: Ron Thomas

  • Still a freezing cold wind on my dog walks today, so nice to read your blog and look forward to Spring arriving soon. I've certainly seen snowdrops and crocuses in flower, and daffodils in bud. Now waiting for the first migrant birds to turn up!