Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 31.3.16

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The sunny, smiling faces of delicate yellow primroses, together with clouds and clouds of nodding golden daffodils, are visual confirmation of the continuing advance of spring.  And with the moving forward of the clock to lengthen our evenings, there is in the air a sense of real optimism. Yet, there is always at the back of the mind, memories of treacherous April days. It is so easy to be fooled!

Catkins tremble provocatively on a cool breeze which suggests that winter’s tail may yet contain a sting! But there is an apparent, faint greening as the trees begin at last to respond to the ever warmer rays of an ascending sun. However, it is more the sounds rather than the sights, that tell the news of the dawning of the first true month of spring. The hills, the glens, the forests, the fields and the gardens, are indeed increasingly alive with the sound of music! Sonic spring is certainly springing!

A newly returned osprey greeted Easter Sunday’s mixed bag of sunshine and showers, flying high against what was at that moment, an azure sky and piping perhaps its joy to be back home in Scotland after a winter sojourn, who knows where? Africa, perhaps, or maybe the Iberian Peninsula? The somewhat scratchy, shrill and yet distinctly musical voices of dunnocks, sometimes inappropriately called ‘hedge sparrows’, now compete vociferously with the constant and less musical argumentative chattering of the house sparrows, whilst the cock chaffinches are well and truly getting in the mood. Like the said sparrows, chaffinches are equipped with blocky seed eating beaks whereas the dunnocks, which are definitely not sparrows of any kind, have the slender beaks of insect eating birds.

Dominant in this growing chorus however, are the merle and the mavis, two celebrated songsters cherished by poets ancient and modern. Indeed, these two extremely accomplished musicians, more commonly known as the blackbird and the song thrush, compete among verse writers, for pride of place. James Grahame, the Glasgow born poet wrote:-

                        “How much alike in habits, form and size

                         The merle and mavis! how unlike in plumage and in song!

                         The thrush’s song is varied as his plumes

                         Blend beauteous each with each, so run his notes

                         Smoothly with rise and fall

                         How prettily upon his parded breast

                         The vividly contrasted tints unite

                         To please the admiring eye!

                         So loud and soft,

                         And high and low, all in his notes combine,

                         In alternation sweet, to charm the ear.

                         Full earlier than the blackbird he begins

                         His vernal strain.”

For Grahame then, the mavis wins! Yet the merle perhaps in recent times has been the real winner for it proves itself to be a real survivor. Where so many of our birds are in decline, the blackbird seems to prosper. The song thrush, throughout Britain, is definitely in decline and where once its musical presence was a given, now it has become a rarity. I put this down to the fact that the blackbird seems so much more adaptable when it comes to food. Indeed, this is in every way, a creature with extremely omnivorous tastes. I might say that here that versatility is demonstrated by the fact that a plethora of the said merles, daily plunder the food provided for my motley assemblage of hens! No thrushes join this pilfering pilgrimage!

And yet, right now and for the first time in many years, the dominant springtime chorister hereabouts is not the blackbird but the thrush. From almost every airt now, the strongly phrased eloquence of the mavis echoes across the fields more stridently than the more mellifluous pronouncement of the blackbirds. And that of course is the vocal difference between these two immortal songsters. The blackbird’s music flows in one continuous outpouring of sweet notes, a sequence which he then repeats. The thrush on the other hand sings in distinctive phrases, usually repeating each short phrase four or five times before moving on to the next one which may be extremely unlike its musical predecessor.

Like the blackbird, it then repeats the entire sequence. Both are musical in the extreme, the thrush more staccato, whilst the blackbird’s offering is perhaps more flowing. Both merle and mavis are always prepared to add to their repertoires by listening to the vocal variations on a theme uttered by their fellow merle and mavis competitors and perhaps inserting some of the new learnt burst of song into their own performances. A more comprehensive musical repertoire is likely to be more attractive to potential female partners. In other words, ‘music makes the heart grow fonder’.

Indeed, there is currently a thrush situated to the north of here, I think located on the edge of the nearby forest, which struck me some weeks ago as a particularly loud and tuneful songster. His message to all female mavis’ in the vicinity was apparently so loud and clear that he has almost certainly, established a bond with one such female for instead of singing virtually throughout the day, as he was wont to do then, his music now is more or less confined to morning and evening.  Once paired, thrush song is rationed!

In between times it is highly likely that this pair of thrushes is busy house hunting! It appears to be the case that female song thrushes are big on comfort when it comes to nesting. There is accordingly, when a potential nest site is being examined, much shuffling about on the part of the female to be absolutely sure that the location is to her liking. Indeed, even as the nest is being built, she will constantly test it for comfort!

Yet, if blackbirds have proved themselves to be more versatile feeders than their close relatives the thrushes, they have not matched the ingenuity of their cousins which famously repeatedly use the same stone upon which to smash the shells of snails to smithereens. These ‘anvils’ as they are known, are used time after time and are identified by the mass of broken shells that accumulate in their vicinity as a result. It is as far as I know one of the very few cases of birds using tools to obtain a meal. Mind you it is also often the case that blackbirds will loiter at such places in the hope of snatching a free meal from under the very beaks of the ‘hard working’ thrushes!

There is another thrush currently singing his heart out in my orchard. As his song is a feature of any time of the day, it may be assumed that he has not yet managed to attract a mate. Indeed, his lone and frequent bouts of continuing song may well be an indication that there are not so many female throstles about!

That song therefore, is a bonus as far as I’m concerned and a very welcome addition to the growing chorus welcoming spring. As Scott put it in ‘Marmion’,

                                    “To dear St Valentine no thrush

                                      Sings lovelier from a springtide bush.”

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Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods