April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
T S Elliot...The Waste Land
In fact April has been very kind to me, providing visits to Bass Rock, The Northern Pennines, Druridge Bay, Holywell and of course time spent on the local patch. There was certainly a wide range of weather patterns during the month and perhaps this has accounted for spring moving slowly on patch. It seemed that a Badger watch at the end of the month was going to be washed (hailed) out until the sun shone just before the event which brought not only my best ever sightings of Badgers, but also Roe Deer, Fox and Rabbit amongst an evening of bird song including a reeling Grasshopper Warbler. The change in wind direction ensured that the Badgers sensed we were there so were far more nervous than on a previous occasion that I visited the site, so our sightings although very good were brief ones as the Badgers sniffed the air and kept returning underground. We left them in peace after not too long, but long enough for the cold to begin to seep through my many layers of clothing, so cold that at least we weren’t bothered by insects. It was very good to learn so much about the area and its history from the guy who had led us. He’d been visiting for many years and was of the old school, from whom we commented that you can learn so much. There are not enough of these folk around now and far too much competitiveness around in some quarters these days, something I prefer to remain well clear of. I think modern technology, although having very positive elements has made things, lets just say very different. No photographic images this time for reasons of putting the animal’s needs first, which should of course be a common sense tactic, but sadly it is one that is not always followed by some. On the theme of Badgers, it was sad to note three or four dead ones on the side of the road as we returned from the Northern Pennines trip a couple of days before.
So to patch. As the title of the blog suggests spring has in general moved slowly this year. Although the Great Crested Grebes arrived early in the year there has been no ongoing nesting as yet. More of that anon. Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Sand Martin and Swallow all made later appearances than we have become accustomed to in recent years. Even the ground vegetation seemed backward in many places. The first Chiffchaff was noted on 22nd March, but not in the numbers that were expected, Sand Martin and smaller numbers of Swallow appeared over the lake on 11th April along with a single early Common Tern (this species wasn’t seen again until several days had lapsed), a single House Martin was seen over the lake on 18th April and there has since been growing numbers appearing, Willow Warbler was heard on 21st April and I found two male Blackcaps together in my garden that same day. There does seem to have been an influx of both species and by the 22nd April both Willow Warbler and Blackcap were being heard and seen in numbers. As I say all of these species apart from the early Common Tern were later than usual, sometimes by several days.
Butterflies began to appear in number on the warm day of 5th April with large numbers of Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies on the wing. I found an early Speckled Wood Butterfly near the church grounds on13th April and it was interesting that this was the same area that I had found my very first Speckled Wood Butterfly on patch some years ago during the advance off this species. I’ve since had a number in the garden and in fact this is perhaps the most common species of butterfly I now find there. They appear to like to feed in the nearby trees and perch on the holly bush in on sunny days. At the time of writing I have just failed in an attempt to photograph a male Speckled Wood Butterfly. I was keen to get the image to compare the size difference with what I think must have been a larger female that I photographed last week. Comma Butterfly appeared in the garden as a fly through on 23rd April. Small White and Green Veined White Butterflies have also been seen during the month and I understand Orange Tip Butterfly has been seen near the lake in late April, but this one was not seen by me.
Speckled Wood Butterfly visiting garden
As for the Great Crested Grebes, it has been a strange spring. The more immature pair (I think) arrived early in February, disappeared for a short time and then returned, following which there was much display (and as mentioned in a previous blog many photographers). They have had several attempts at nesting and at times it was difficult to know just how many nests they were working on. The birds were sitting on eggs for quite a time, but by 9th April had abandoned the nest. Why, we don’t know. It could simply be that these birds are inexperienced, the eggs could have been predated. There are plenty of rats about, although I haven’t seen any in the area where the nest is, and the Grey Heron is now often to be seen, but I know it has wrongly been accused of predation of the grebe’s eggs in the past. There has also been inappropriate action from at least two photographers who walked around the back of the reeds and almost into them in an attempt to get an image. I witnessed one of these occasions. Again, surely common sense would suggest that this will cause disturbance! Comes back to what I said earlier about putting the welfare of subject of the photograph first. That is what should be of prime consideration, but clearly isn’t for some! By the 11th this pair was involved in nest building again and the female was lying flat on the nest inviting mounting, but it appeared that the male didn’t take up the offer but instead just added to the nest. That is assuming I have the sexes correct, as we shouldn’t forget the issue of reversed mounting in grebes. This nest was not continued. On 18th April one of the pair was trying out the Coot’s nest but soon left it. Sam tells me that a Coot's nest has been tried again and that this pair is actively building nests again at the end of April.
Whilst inexperience might be hindering the pair of grebes on the small lake I’m not sure why the more mature and regular pair have not yet nested. They have displayed and had a few attempts at nests which were then simply left, although I hear they are building again at the end of April. This pair would normally be well on with eggs by now. Again the problem is unknown. They have certainly successfully coped in worse weather in the past than we have had of late. I know that they have recently displayed and mated again, so hopefully they can move forward now. I certainly don’t think the wire around the floating ‘thing’ helps these birds and may well put them off and of course there are plenty of rats to deal with. Maybe this pair is just getting old! I noted on 16th April that there looked to be the start of some display when one of the pair approached the other one with reeds in the bill. The second bird appeared uninterested and simply swam away and the reed was just dropped back into the water. It seems unlikely now that either pair of Great Crested Grebes will produce a second viable brood this year. We can only hope that they are successful with one.
Great Crested Grebe beside another nest attempt
We still have a pair of Shoveller present and although not really suitable habitat, I do wonder if they might nest here. Time will tell. The Coots have certainly been active and I watched groups of them displaying during the month.
So all in all it’s been a strange month. Most of my time on patch during April has been spent in the vicinity of the lake and the village surrounds so I will need to spread my wings a little more in May.I have my copy of the Northumbria Bird Atlas now, although I’ve only given it a cursory glance so far it looks especially good value. I only learned recently that a copy is to be presented to all schools and libraries in the area and that is certainly to be applauded. I certainly hope that these copies are made good use of.