Birdwatch column: Spring is in the air

Pied flycatcher.
Pied flycatcher.
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We birdwatchers are an optimistic bunch, writes JON CARTER.

As soon as we hear the word March, our thoughts turn immediately to spring and the excitement of a new season bursting with life and exciting discoveries.

Despite what the weather may throw at us, we can always look forward to a few developments out there in the natural world.

For some birds March is the real start of the breeding season with territories being claimed and nests being built.

Some species such as ravens and herons will already be well into the process while a few brave blackbirds may also be ahead of the game.

The very first spring migrants arrive with sand martins, chiffchaffs and wheatears amongst the first to make the long journey from their distant wintering grounds.

As the month gives way to April, things really start to heat up –both figuratively and, if we’re lucky, literally.

Millions of birds will be on the move throughout Europe, with the last of our winter visitors departing for northern nesting sites and the bulk of our summer breeders arriving from south of the Sahara.

Given the right weather conditions we can clearly witness mass-scale movements of some species, particularly those that move by daylight. This is referred to by birders as ‘visible-migration’ and at well-watched vantage points around the country bands of amateur and professional ornithologists alike will be out in force counting streams of birds as they pass overhead.

Many birds migrate at night, and as a consequence early morning vigils often reap rewards for the migrant-seeking birdwatcher. Following ideal conditions, such as light southerly winds followed by a little morning drizzle, the first few hours of daylight can reveal a dazzling array of birds having just made landfall.

These tired and hungry travellers will often ‘disappear’ pretty quickly so an early start really is essential if you want to increase your chances of catching up with them.

Dedicated enthusiasts at Heysham Nature Reserve have been monitoring the movement of migratory birds for decades, and they have a website where daily counts are posted. Visit the site at www.heyshamobservatory.blogspot.co.uk to get an idea of what’s passing through the local area.

These peripatetic birds don’t only appear at well-watched reserves of course, and many species can turn up just about anywhere.

For several years I checked the bushes and rocks around the old Bubbles site on Morecambe Promenade on a daily basis. In the course of these regular visits I discovered a wealth of off-passage birds.

Among the many wheatears, willow warblers, whitethroats and meadow pipits I also encountered cuckoo, pied flycatcher, reed warbler, whinchat and black redstart to mention just a few.

If you’re interested in nesting birds, why not pop along to the next meeting of the Lancaster and District Birdwatching Society where Dave Leech will give an illustrated talk to mark the 75th anniversary of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme.

The meeting will take place at Leighton Moss on Monday, March 31, starting at 7.30pm.