On The Wing with Gary Atkins

on the wing
on the wing

Listen up! It might soon occur to you that the sound coming from that tree in your garden or a nearby hedgerow is slightly unfamiliar – for during late March and April our summer visitors return with a cacophony of birdsong and calls as they mark out their territories, build nests and attract mates.

Those birds that had disappeared for several months to escape the rigours of an English winter instinctively know when it’s time to return to raise their broods (sometimes more than one) in our temperate spring and summer conditions.

It is one of the joys of spring to hear the first Chiffchaff (one of the easier LBJs* to identify simply because it calls its name: “chiff” followed by “chaff”, repeated several times), and a week or two later to see the first Swallows sweeping in from the south in large numbers.

Swallows’ close cousins the Sand Martins are among the first birds to cross the English Channel and head inland looking for nest-sites. A new sandbank has been built by volunteer rangers at Carsington Water in the hope of attracting these nimble ‘hirundines’ whose entertaining aerobatics are in fact a pinpoint, deadly hunting technique that ensures their offspring quickly fatten up on a constant diet of flying insects.

Cuckoos are often regarded as a sign of spring, though their unmistakable call is less common in Derbyshire these days. Mostly arriving in April, they lay their single egg in Reed Warbler, Meadow Pipit or Dunnock nests. Their surrogate parents then instinctively feed the ever-open gape without seeming to realise why they’re having to work extra hard on this huge chick, or that their own eggs have been jettisoned by the interloper to ensure its own success.

Willow Warblers have a distinctive descending trill, while the Blackcap and Garden Warbler both erupt with joyous, varied songs that sound virtually the same ... so you have to try and see them. The latter is an LBJ, while the male Blackcap has – you guessed it – a black cap, and his partner a brown cap. Educational this bird-watching, if a little confusing at times.

And no sooner have you sorted out your Whitethroat from your Lesser Whitethroat, and recognised the Swallow’s chatter from a telegraph wire, that it’s time for them to fly off to warmer climes ... and you know you’ll have to learn them all (or most, at least) again next year.

* LBJs – Little Brown Jobs, as they are known in birding circles, can be quite difficult to identify as they have few distinguishing marks, and in poor light they’re ... well, little and brown