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Nature Notes – first swallow seen on April 15 seems very late

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I eventually saw my first swallow on April 15, which seemed very late. I have now seen house martins, but still no sand martins – which is odd because they are often the earliest Hirundinidae family of passerine birds.

This weekend I will be looking out for the arrival of the swifts, as they normally turn up in the first few days of May.

There are plenty of other summer migrants already here – announcing their arrival with dawn to dusk singing. Chiffchaff and blackcaps have primarily arrived from Africa – although some do over-winter here. They seem to be particularly abundant this year.

A swfit (pic: Philip Croft).
A swfit (pic: Philip Croft).

Reed, sedge and other warblers have also arrived – enlivening our local reedbeds. Cuckoos have also been reported – although I haven’t been lucky enough to hear one as yet. They are increasingly scarce.

I have had some unusual visitors to my bird feeders during April. I was pleased to have a great spotted woodpecker and pair of reed buntings. Some people may see these species on their feeders more often – but they were new for us. I didn’t know whether the cold was reducing their normal food supply.

The RSPB ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ results for 2022 were recently published and the most recorded garden bird was house sparrow – followed by blue tit, starling, wood pigeon, blackbird, robin, goldfinch, great tit, magpie and chaffinch.

Greenfinch. Picture: Christine Bulpitt.
Greenfinch. Picture: Christine Bulpitt.

There were 1,778,000 house sparrows seen, which is still a decline of 57 per cent since 1979.

To compare, the blue tit population has increased by nearly 15 per cent since the same date.

The rest of the top ten has also seen a lot of fluctuation in figures over the past 40 years. This is not an inaccurate record of the birds I see in our garden – although I imagine wren and dunnock are somewhat more common than this list suggests.

Wood pigeon.
Wood pigeon.

They are two of my favourite songbirds but, being small and brown, many people may overlook them.

It is interesting to see house sparrow and starlings now near the top of the list. Records suggest that the population of both species have halved since the 1970s but there is certainly evidence of numbers recovering in West Norfolk. I do think we should be worried about the decline of some of our finches though. Greenfinch and chaffinch numbers seem to have really dipped in recent years. Some people have attributed this to a disease called trichomonosis which may be spread by many birds coming together at garden bird tables. The RSPB give advice about keeping your bird table clean on their website.

It is also a fact that birds can have very localised territories and this is often dependent on very specific habitat characteristics. For the decade we have lived at our current house we have always enjoyed the presence of coal tit and goldcrest.

But our neighbours cut down some large conifers in their garden last year and both species disappeared overnight.

We sometimes don’t realise that local birds have such specific preferences.

I often think that ecological impact assessments undertaken prior to development overlook this type of local detail – which means that species that may have frequented an area for decades are suddenly left with no place to go.

International dawn chorus day was on May 1. If you don’t get up early very often (like me) it is well worth making the effort for a spring dawn chorus – especially if you can get down to a wood or wetland area.


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