Simply Birding

It’s one of those birding weeks when anything and everything can happen. The supposedly boring land-locked county of Berkshire has played host to a flurry of superb migrant birds. The first ring ouzel on (what should be*) my local patch at Lavell’s Lake in 25 years as well as a wonderfully elegant little gull; a Slavonian grebe coming into breeding plumage;  wheatears, redstarts and yellow wagtails passing through; the first nightingales, cuckoos and house martins of the year. Two pairs of garganey continue to pop up from time to time in and around the Kennet valley. Yesterday a hoopoe was seen in a suburban garden to the northeast of Reading, though it went cunningly undetected by the local birding community.

Most of this is happening to other people, for I have remained mysteriously unwilling to haul myself any further than the immediate vicinity of my home and workplace. Fortunately, they offer splendours of their own – following on from last week’s minor fall of willow warblers (i.e., one), lunchtime on Tuesday saw a relative deluge descend on campus. At least three sang from low trees near the weather station, mixed in with many chiffchaffs.

We were passing through them on our way to see redstarts, another passage-only species on campus and an even scarcer one than willow warbler. There are surely few finer-looking birds in Britain than a male redstart. The one we saw flitting from low perch to ground and back again was in immaculate breeding plumage, the pale silver on his forehead glinting in the sun like a sliver of diamond. To see one in a place that means as much to me as Whiteknights Park is almost indescribably special: that’s the magic of patch birding.

‘Hardcore’ birders will notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is stonkingly rare, but these birds are all the better for it. Mildly unexpected or even somewhat-expected-but-hard-to-connect-with birds are the best birds. A fleeting encounter with a beautiful species in the company of friends always beats joining the twitching paparazzi for some half-dead mega-vagrant.

It’s times like this I wonder why I don’t spend more time simply birding. There are many other distractions and pleasures in the natural world, for sure. I am proud and mildly amused to frequently find myself labelled an entomologist these days. The more my taste is for small-scale, local discoveries, the more entomology has an edge over ornithology in my affections. But still, there’s nothing quite like plain old birding. To go out with few expectations or cares simply to look at birds, knowing that anything and everything can, and sometimes does, happen.

Redstart song is a lovely, lazy summer afternoon sound. Alas that they’re uncommon as a breeding species hereabouts!

*I’m just too lazy – whyever I don’t visit what is a fantastic inland birding site more often I don’t know. Though of course I do have the many pleasures of Whiteknights Park on my doorstep every day.

Willow Warblings

Gentle, nourishing, and very, very wet: the classic April shower is to the earth as a watering can is to a flower pot. There’s no rain as soft as spring rain. Neither, as it happens, is there anything as hard as spring rain that’s been repeatedly flung up and down through the troposphere until it freezes into projectiles roughly the size and density of Bird’s Eye petis pois. In the last week we’ve had plenty of both sorts of precipitation, deposited by a beautiful range of clouds from sky-covering sheets of off-white to otherworldly cumulonimbus, dark and heavy with undulating mammatus clouds.


Mammatus over east Reading, April 2016

Perhaps not coincidentally, the willow warbler’s voice calls to mind the cascade of a small waterfall, a burbling river, or a cleansing fall of rain. A descending sequence of rich, musical notes, it’s a song that washes warmth and spring cheer into your very skin:  the vocal personification of an April shower on one of the first truly warm days of the year. Not so many years ago most of southern England was bathed in willow warblings; now it’s a more sporadically enjoyed pleasure, replaced by the more prosaic (though still seasonally essential) song of the chiffchaff as the two species play out their climate-driven shift northwards.

Happily, willow warblers seem to enjoy singing as much as I can’t get enough of listening, and they do sing on migration. My first for this year was singing early one morning in our suburban back garden. The second was from low lakeside trees in Whiteknights Park. Willow warblers are unlikely to breed in either location nowadays but their passage through my everyday places of home and work, now all the more unexpected and touched with magic, is for me as swifts were for Ted Hughes*. In other words, they’re a sign that, despite everything, the global ecosystem still functions. Hope lies just around the corner.

Willow Warbler from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

*A contemporary sign of spring that I’ve yet to record this year is nature columnists quoting Ted Hughes on swifts.


The lid of the first box swung open quite easily. Inside, a haphazard arrangement of fresh moss a few centimetres deep betrayed the recent presence of a nest-building bird. Soon greater structure will emerge from the massed mess of material. First a neat saucer, roughly the dimensions of half a tennis ball. Then the lining: a carefully woven mat of hair, feathers, soft moss or grass that will cradle the eggs and developing young. When they arrive, blue and great tit eggs are miniature marvels: pale cream shaded and speckled with brown spots exactly like a Cadbury’s mini egg.

For birds, this is the season that really counts. Every atom of their being is poured into the effort of breeding. One of the charms of peeking into their lives via the medium of nest boxes is seeing how this story plays out for each individual bird. Not only are the outcomes different for each pair but they seem to have personal style along the way. Favoured nesting sites and even construction materials vary, but the building blocks for one species’ new life are generally the salvaged remnants and leftovers from others’. One box we looked into this week contained a nest of roughly half moss and half badger hair, the only one on site to contain much hair at all so far this spring.


It’s not just the birds, but the very boxes themselves that seem to have peculiarly individual destinies. Their contents are most curiously varied. One box, plastered with mucus on the outside, proved to be brim-full of fat slugs, gelatinously oozing into every available square inch of space. Another few were plugged not by slugs but spiders, their webs with incredible tensile strength that almost rendered the hinged lids unopenable. Insects too find a welcome shelter in nest boxes. Three gleaming ground beetles slunk across the rim of one; elsewhere kidney spot and orange ladybirds hulked down beneath the lids. Earwigs are common guests.

Some invertebrate occupants are less welcome: the odd isolated box hosted an explosion of fleas, carpeting the wood inside and out. They parted at the approach of my hand and leaped towards freedom. At least three stowed away in my trouser pocket to be discovered when I got home. Bumblebees are usually welcome to make use of nest boxes; less helpful was the colony of hornets last summer which so completely subsumed the original construction within their nest that it had to be replaced.  Another perhaps more universally palatable non-bird occupier was a wood mouse, its beady eye peering up at me through an impressive depth of snug leaf litter.

Amidst all these signs of new life, death was never far round the corner. Splayed feathers, fragments of bone, a shrunken skull and withered legs were all that remained of an adult great tit that must have been using a nest box as a winter roost. It was a reminder of how ephemeral the life of a small songbird is, and underlines just how vital it is for them to get as many young birds as possible off into the world over the next weeks. The grass is growing, the badgers are shedding, insects are flying, life begins and ends here.