Sunday 5 April 2009

Easter eggs and remarkable birds

As Spring advances the scrapes at Elmley become dominated by avocets. They are beautifully elegant birds, black and white, finished with long legs of pale grey blue. They look as though they were designed sometime in the thirties at the height of the Art Deco era. Under that chic exterior though lies a vicious streak, a warrior spirit. During the breeding season avocets will defend their nests and chicks vigorously against all comers, predator or otherwise, real threat or imagined. Last year I watched avocets relentlessly chasing shelduck chicks and their parents all over the scrape as well as watching hastily scrambled squadrons take to the air to ward off the menace of a passing heron or marsh harrier. This Easter the first avocets have begun to settle on nests and the first eggs have been laid, real Easter eggs, a success story. Avocets were extinct in Britain by the 1840s due to marsh drainage, shooting, egg collecting and other pressures but largely because of conservation efforts by the RSPB, (and the reflooding of coastal marsh as a defence against threatened German invasion), by the late 1940s they had begun a return as breeding birds. There are currently estimated to be somewhere in the region of 900 breeding pairs.*

Remarkable birds come in all shapes and sizes, the bee hummingbird for example is remarkable for being the smallest living bird (the clue is in the name). Or the lyrebird, remarkable not only for its extraordinary plumage for which it is named, but also as an amazing mimic, a quick search on Youtube will prove just how remarkable. Not to mention the remarkable plumages of the birds of paradise or the intelligence of the crows that have learned how to use traffic to crack nuts for them in Japan. All remarkable by any standards.

This weekend I have seen my own remarkable birds. The first is a small brown bird whose song is loud and distinctive but not remarkably sweet or unusual. A common bird that can be seen in just about any reedbed in the UK; The Sedge Warbler.

The second is, again, small and common. Its feathers are a mix of dull olive green and a bright, intense yellow, pretty but not remarkable for that in itself; The Yellow Wagtail.

Third is another common bird, this time a deep, dark blue black with a contrasting belly and flanks of warm cream and a throat and face of deep red. That sounds remarkable for colour and it is indeed a beautiful bird but from a distance it appears black and white; The Swallow.

These birds are not remarkable for their rarity or their plumage or their song but they are remarkable to me for two reasons. Firstly they were my first sightings of the species for the year
but, more importantly, they are remarkable for the journey they have just made. They have all returned to the UK to breed having spent the winter in Africa. A journey of hundreds of miles, utterly fraught with dangers of all kinds, predators, the weather, fickle winds and countless others. Yet, every year, they return. The swallows that I watched on Saturday could very easily have been the same birds that I watched in the same place last year, or perhaps the young from the nests that have remained solidly glued to the walls of the farm building. And, remarkably, after a summer working hard to raise a brood of youngsters, they will make the arduous journey once again and return to Africa for another winter until, if they survive, they and their young, return again next spring. It is astounding to think of these small and vulnerable birds making such a trek and it makes them remarkable indeed.

Finally a common bird and this time a resident; The Siskin. Remarkable to me only because I noticed them in my garden as I worked on a painting in my studio. To the best of my knowledge this was the first time I had ever seen this bird, it was a 'lifer' and there it was feeding on my new nijer seed feeder. There is always something new to surprise and delight in nature, even in your own garden.

The first Sedge Warbler of the year.

The first Yellow Wagtail of the year.

The first swallow of the year.

Avocets with easter eggs.

A pair of Siskin in the garden.

*It is an offence to disturb nesting avocets either at or near the nest and it is important to note that my sketches and photographs were made from a public viewing hide and there was no disturbance to the birds whatsoever.