It wasn’t just the temperatures in the lower 20s signalling the end of winter; the wintering tufted duck flock on Tonford Lake was last seen on 2nd April, the last of the snipe departed in late March, along with our small flock of meadow pipits. And then there were all those beacons of hope – the spring migrants returning from Africa: first up, as usual, was the chiffchaff, followed by blackcap on the 2nd and common whitethroat on the 21st. Swallow, swift and lesser whitethroat just managed to squeeze in on 30th, along with that ultimate harbinger of spring, the cuckoo (pictured).
Still thriving in northern Scotland, the cuckoo has suffered a dramatic 65% decline in southern England since the 1980s. Being more often heard than seen, the cuckoo inspired Wordsworth to write “Shall I call thee bird or but a wandering voice?”, which fitted well with my record at the end of the month, for the calls I heard came from so far away, in the region of Chartham Hatch, as to be almost subliminal. Surprisingly, though, I have yet to hear a reed warbler chattering away in the damp undergrowth. Our sixth warbler – Cetti’s – isn’t a migrant, and has been around, on and off, through the winter, lurking invisibly in dense vegetation until suddenly giving away his position by bursting into explosive song.
For the first time we have a territorial bird on Hambrook, regularly blasting out his rapid staccato notes in the corner where the small pond-dipping platform was destroyed by arson in March. It usually takes flooding to attract gulls down onto the Marshes, but on 11th a flock of 16 herring gulls descended on a dry middle field. Perhaps a hatch of flies or some other prey item had enticed them in, but whatever it was didn’t hold their attention for more than a few minutes, and then they were gone. Ten days later 23 herring gulls were joined by two lesser black-backed gulls on the same field, though this was three days after moderately heavy rain which may well have displaced some invertebrates, causing them to move towards the surface of the soil, where they could be picked off by the gulls. And to finish this section on gulls, a common gull seen on Tonford Lake on 2nd was my first record for 14 months of what is in fact one of our less common gulls . The delicate grey wagtail, in an endless struggle to balance its body against an unnecessarily long tail, delights in bobbing around at the edge of the river, and is currently spending a lot of time beneath the A2 bridge, leading me to suspect that a pair is nesting there. It may have a grey back, but the grey wagtail’s most eye-catching feature is a bright yellow breast, leading to frequent confusion with an altogether different bird, the yellow wagtail. A squirrel, also on the river bank on the 11th , was presumably there for completely different reasons known only to itself.
It seems that we went straight from monsoon weather in February and early March to drought conditions for the next six weeks. The wet winter probably adversely affected the newly-planted snake’s head fritillaries, as many of the bulbs were standing in water for several months, but despite this 26 plants flowered, and there were at least a further 36 non-flowering stems: I say ‘at least’ because, without the drooping fairy lantern flowers to home in on, their long, narrow leaves are incredibly hard to spot amongst all the grass. Fritillaries do like damp soil, so may not have thought much of the dry spring, and it is impossible to predict how well they may do next year. We desperately need them to thrive, as the original 2011 planting in the boardwalk field is only just hanging on with three flowers this spring. It is a shame that these elegant, early portents of spring have such a short flowering period.