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Nature Notes: Singing into spring

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Song thrush
Song thrush

The days are lengthening, the buds are breaking, the birds are singing, well some of them are!

This is a month bursting with optimism in the natural world, and I find some of it brushes off on me.

Forget politics, forget the economy, just go out and gaze at the first flowers of spring and listen to the birds that are tuning up, some even already in full song, getting on with the serious business of perpetuating their own species, but luckily (maybe not a coincidence) for us in a way that brings us joy. Not just pleasure though — research has established that immersing ourselves in nature has positive health benefits, lowering stress levels and blood pressure, and besides, a good walk in the countryside exercises our joints and muscles. Free therapy for all.

This month, snowdrops and winter aconites are fully out, enlivening roadsides, parks and churchyards with dots of pure white and bright yellow. Just now there are marvellous displays of both native and hybrid snowdrops in the Botanic Garden, creatively planted in many of the beds and notably in the brook-side bank near the main entrance.

Back in the bird world, the robins, which have been singing on and off all winter, can still be heard, and have now been joined by great tits, the latter belting out their insistent, mainly two-tone piping, expending much energy in their efforts to attract a mate and start prospecting for a suitable nest-site. Blackbirds and song thrushes have now joined the chorus. If blackbirds were as rare as nightingales, we would rate them more highly as their song is rich, varied and highly tuneful. The song thrush by contrast repeats short phrases a few or several times in a somewhat monotonous, though still musical, fashion.


One of the loudest singers is also one of our smallest birds. Wrens are tiny, but they belt out a stream of trills and whistles, audible over a considerable distance. One of the earliest of the spring songbirds, and one of my favourites, is another member of the thrush family, but one not so often seen as it prefers larger gardens or parks and wilder hedges and woodland.

The mistle thrush, the largest member of the family and one of the earliest in the year to start, has already begun singing in earnest. Haunting and melancholy, the song consists of short phrases in a minor key with distinct pauses between, delivered with great energy, usually from a perch high in a tall tree, even in blustery weather. Indeed, one of the mistle thrush’s folk names is ‘storm cock’ in reference to its hardy indifference to the elements.

Larger than the song thrush, the mistle thrush is grey-brown with very regular black spots on its chest and belly. I always know when I hear its lusty song that the year is on the turn and the days are getting longer.

This month I also want to give prominence to a special bird, and one that is not seen very often, even by keen birdwatchers. This is our rarest, largest and most elusive finch, the hawfinch. I often think of it as parrot-like, with its large head and massive, powerful bill strong enough, it is said, to crack open cherry stones.

It is a rare breeding bird, with only between 500 and 1,000 pairs, mainly in the south and west, but in some winters their numbers are swollen by visitors from the continent, and this is one such year.

Last November, large numbers started arriving in the UK, and many are still with us. This is probably the result of a good breeding season in north and central Europe, combined with local crop failures that deprived them of winter sustenance. By contrast, our woodlands and hedgerows are full of nuts and berries following fine weather last spring so they have plenty to feed on here.

Hawfinches have a distinct preference for tall trees, especially hornbeams, though they will also feed on the ground. This month there have been regular sightings in the grounds of the National Trust’s Wimpole Hall. The previous big influx of these beautiful birds was 10 years ago. Let us hope we don’t have to wait so long next time.

For wildlife updates and the chance to participate in records and surveys, visit the Natural History of Cambridge website at nathistcam.org.uk.

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