The festival of spring

A yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)

A yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) - one of spring’s ‘celebrity’ arrivals from Africa - photo by Rupert Evershed - Credit: Rupert Evershed

Spring warmth seems to have largely eluded us so far and yet the great show of spring must go on and does!

Expectations are high and I find myself back as a small child, peering out from the crowd lining the road, awaiting the appearance of the first carnival float and then each successive excitement in the great procession.

Blossom on the blackthorn and cherry trees, the first sand martin and then a flurry of wheatears and swallows. All have passed by and are now joined by cuckoos, house martins and, in the last week, those harbingers of summer, swifts.

Each arrival brings a dose of joy as the world in which we lives fills once again with life and music and beauty.

The brown reedbeds at my local gravel pits are now filled with the songs of reed and sedge warblers, rising up the stems and with them the new green shoots, spearing up from the water below.

The cheerful disyllabic song of the chiffchaff has been overlaid with the liquid cascade of willow warblers and everywhere whitethroats spring up to rattle out their song.

All of these birds have arrived despite the persistent and cold northerly winds set over the UK throughout most of April. This northerly head wind has perhaps accounted for some extra special sightings of birds that would normally alight just for a day but instead have lingered on, perhaps hoping for a change in wind direction.

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Beautiful male redstarts have graced hedgerows, hopping in and out amongst the resident robins, but upstaging them in outfits of red, black and white, while ring ouzels have shown off their bright white crescent chests amidst our plainer blackbirds. Both migrants have tarried longer than usual and brought a welcome flutter of excitement to our southern farmland.

Amidst all the excitement of returning birds there’s been another show unfolding – a less flamboyant one but heartwarming, nevertheless. All day long in the garden robins have flown back and forth from our tumble-down shed carrying food in and waste from the nest out. The chore is relentless but tells me that, so far, all is well in the robin nest.

This daily devotion is evident wherever I look – the blackbirds, song thrushes, blue and great tits, magpies and crows are all engaged in the same urgent business of chick-rearing. It comes with the occasional ruckus as members of the crow family attempt to pillage others’ nests but for the most part it is a silent work, interspersed by the happy trills of hungry baby birds.

It is also hard work and our resident birds – in full family mode – seem tired and worn against the backdrop of glamorous new arrivals. It is as if the Oscars have come to town or I have strolled into the Cannes Film Festival, with gaudy celebrities stepping out onto red carpets and lolling in the hot sun to soak up the atmosphere – but all watched by local onlookers who must attend to their everyday and likely, less glamorous lives.

This contrast was no more evident that on a recent walk round Gorhambury on the edge of St Albans. Walking along the track the fence wires before me were lined with newly arrived swallows, like strings of jewels with ruby throats set in sapphire wings. The adjacent field was carpeted with bright yellow dandelions and between them strutted even brighter yellow birds – wagtails from Africa.

And yet in the same scene resident robins hopped up and down filling their beaks with flies and grubs for hungry mouths and from the nearby river incessant squeals demanded coot-mother deliver more food. It is of course nature’s festival season with all the usual vibrancy of nature intensified by the very best in plumage and rarefied by the passage of visitors from distant lands – celebrities if you like!

It is my favourite season too and one that sees me getting out of bed to greet the dawn, either to listen to the chorus of resident birds or go out looking for the ‘celebrities’. Last week it was two curlews flying overhead and this week promises the return of the spotted flycatchers – keep your eyes (and ears) peeled!