Birds everywhere are displaying, mating, nesting, brooding, hatching, feeding and more. Nesting season is upon us. Put the pruning shears away, stick to the path and enjoy.
Coot chicks on a floating nest at Little Venice, London.
May Day was a remarkable bird-day for me; two long-tailed tits visited my garden and stayed to feed – hovering mid-air like hummingbirds – tiny buff-pink and blue-black lollipops exploring the jasmine. I have seen them flit through only twice in the 6 years I’ve lived here and this time they stayed.
Photo credit Birdspot.co.uk
(Just now, writing this, I heard their delicate ‘tsee tsee tsee’ call and they are back in the tree. Dare I hope they might become regular visitors….?)
A little later that May Day I heard a new song – harsher than a blackbird, with some of the warbling notes of a blackcap – and saw a mistle thrush singing at the top of the ‘woodpecker’ tree opposite, a new visitor to the great-spotted woodpecker’s morning perch. Mistle thrushes don’t sing as beautifully as song thrushes but they are glorious to look at – palest, oat-gold and a creamy front dotted with vivid brown speckles. Photo credit BTO.org
The day wasn’t done with me – as I walked around Nunhead Cemetery (one of London’s many, famous woodland havens) I heard, then saw the first swift of the year wheeling high in the sky at 4:16pm. What a start to the month.
May has continued with a pair of frisky blue tits chasing each other round the garden, offering each other food and flirting up and down the cherry tree. The blackbird, who sings morning and evening from the neighbour’s television aerial, scurries up and down the roof when a coffee-brown female is near. Magpies and crows are flying overhead with sticks and small birds are pulling up stalks of dead grass. The month of May being (probably) beyond any further frost and (hopefully) past April showers is a dramatic time for birds. When nesting, one bird incubates the clutch of eggs (usually the female - hence why female birds are often less brightly-coloured and better camouflaged than their male counterparts) and the other brings them food. In a couple of weeks, the hatchlings will need feeding and the parent birds begin a marathon, aerial Spirograph of back and forth with beaks stuffed as full as possible. It is a good time to support them with extra food in the garden and, in return, you can watch the trajectory of their visits and work out where they are nesting. If you walk in the vicinity – not close enough to disturb – you will eventually hear the insistent pleading of a nest full of fluff-balls.
Nest-listening is a fabulous way to watch bird behaviour. If serendipity brings a nest to your attention from your garden, window or path (without approaching it and frightening away the parent birds, I cannot emphasise this enough) you have a fabulous opportunity to get to know a bird returning to a fixed place. Soon you will be able to hear the begging calls of newly-hatched birds and see increasingly bedraggled parents returning with beaks full of caterpillars, flies and food from feeders. If you live near any water - even a park pond, you will definitely find moorhen, coot and geese with chicks and goslings already. Urban birds will tolerate your presence more than country birds - and yes you can give them some bread - here's the latest on that debate!
Once, walking through an oak wood on the South Downs, I heard multiple squeaks coming from somewhere near the tree canopy. I didn’t know what it was or where the nest was until I saw a great-spotted woodpecker fly in, revealing a hole in a trunk. In the green light through the leaves I could see the bird’s beak was crammed with insects which it stuffed into the hole – the clamouring hardly stopped – then she flew straight back off for more (black head + black nape = female; black head + red nape = male; red head = juvenile…!) The next day, walking along the street to my house, I heard the same type of squeaking - there was a nest of great-spotted woodpeckers above my head in SE15.
My best ever ‘nest-listen’ was in the north of Scotland last summer.
It had been a burning hot day on the beach and I walked into pine woods mid-afternoon to find some respite - cool, pine-resin air and patched light filtering sparkles on the sand track as I planned ice-cold lager. Silence after the sound of the sea - except the silence of a pine forest is a hushed roar. Then, a sound I know so well sliced into my daydreams and I froze mid-step and held my breath. I waited and the sound came again from my right and I snapped my head towards it – an incessant, rapid and definitely demanding ‘ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee’. It was an osprey, calling for fish. I crept along the track, peering through tall tree trunks, trying to see the bird and to my utter delight, spied a clearing about 15 metres away from the track. There, outlined against the blue sky was a gigantic nest with two juvenile ospreys and two parents tending them. An osprey nest, I’d found alone in a wood – not on camera or from a hide – a family of ospreys doing what they are supposed to do without fanfare or interference.
All for me.
I watched for over an hour as fish were delivered and devoured and the two young, not yet fledged, with wingspans already over 1.5 m – strengthened their muscles by sitting on the edge of the 2m nest and flapping their wings furiously, miraculously never dislodging their sibling. I watched and watched, delighting in my discovery and good luck - there was only one tiny angle through the trees from which I could see the nest – if I moved 50 cm to either side it was obscured by trees. I tried to take pictures with my smartphone and binoculars and failed spectacularly (see below!) - but it didn’t matter – I could stay as long as I wanted – I had the wood and the nest to myself. When I finally decided to go and wondered if I could ever find my secret spy spot again, I noticed a sapling by my feet, with a tiny black ribbon tied in a bow on its trunk, discretely marking the spot. Someone else had shared this joy, wanted to come back and would be giving a trusted, very few, directions to the black ribbon.
Spot the nest and an osprey if you can...
If you have a garden, or an outside space to watch, I invite you to observe birds at the moment and see if they are showing new behaviour – finding nest materials, looking for insects, even building a nest. See if they eat the food you put out or carry it away - to a mate and soon to hatchlings. When you go outside or open your window, listen for the ‘ting ting ting’ alarm-call of blackbirds warning magpies, crows and jays away, or the ‘tick tick’ of robins and wrens whose nests are in undergrowth near your feet, and prepare for the joy of fledglings in the next few weeks.
My friend Carinya Sharples is a writer who interviewed me recently about access to nature in lock down – her article was posted last week and it's a fascinating insight into what other nature-lovers are doing to bring nature to everyone, whatever their situation. Huge thanks to Carinya for including me - please find a link to the article here
BL Challenge - Spot a Great Spotted Woodpecker
These characterful birds are all over London. They fly in swoops between trees and have two distinctive sounds – one is the drumming noise as they burrow into dead tree trunks to excavate nests and hunt for insects. The other is a short, sharp ‘tchack!’ which I always say sounds indignant. It is similar to the call of ring-necked parakeets – but their squawk is longer and has always a downwards cadence – more of a London-twanged ‘Ere!’ Here is a shaky video I made of a GSW and you can see their character and lovely markings. (You get a bonus glimpse of crested tit in this one but you’ll have to wait to go to the Cairngorms or the Sierra Nevada to see these – definitely not a London visitor)
In Peckham we also get green woodpeckers on the quieter side of the common and they are quite easy to spot – they will spend time on the ground pulling up worms, which I’ve never seen a GSW do. If you have a garden and it’s quite quiet, GSWs will come and feed off peanut feeders. The first GSW I saw in London was on the Old Kent Road – one of the busiest, three-carriage, arterial roads of south-east London. I was looking at one of the trees concreted into its pavements, which had recently been scorched by a car crash. I looked up from this totally urban scene to see a woodpecker, body 45 degrees to the undamaged top of the tree trunk, pecking away.