On these bright, late February mornings, there is a real sense that spring is in the air. No longer is it just the wistful tones of the Robins that punctuate the still chill air. Instead, other songsters have joined the chorus: the ‘thrice-repeated’ notes of Song Thrush, the ‘teacher-teacher’ of Great Tit and the rich warbling song of Blackbird have been added over recent weeks. Just last week it was the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song of Yellowhammer that was added to my morning walks through the mixed-age plantations.
Yellowhammers seem to do well in the younger-aged compartments of conifers, making the most of the snag lines of old stumps that run in parallel lines across the recently replanted blocks. Throughout the spring and early summer months, their delightful song can be heard and individual birds can be watched back to neat nests tucked within the grassy cover that sits alongside the snag lines.
For me, as a child, the Yellowhammer was a farmland bird inhabiting the richer hedgerows of the Sussex borderlands. It was a similar story when I first arrived in Norfolk; living in the north of the county it was the winter flocks on game cover that I most remember. However, when I moved to the Brecks the Yellowhammer became a bird of the forest, favouring the open areas of clearfell for breeding and then moving onto the surrounding farmland in winter, where we might catch them in our nets, set for licensed bird ringing.
The Yellowhammer is a bunting, its robust bill an indication of its preference for larger seeds and grains, much like its relative the Reed Bunting. During the breeding season, however, insects and other invertebrates dominate the diet. Birds can be spotted feeding on open ground and then watched back to their nests. The nest itself often has a ‘doorstep’, a little gathering of material that protrudes at the front of the nest. Tucked within the nest cup will be the eggs, an off-white colour often tinged with purple, onto which are finely-scribbled purple-brown or black markings. The first eggs are likely to be laid during April, so the breeding season proper is still a little way off but it will run for several months, the birds attempting two or even three broods during this period.
At this time of the year I like to get my bearings on where territories are being established. Because I have a regular ‘beat’ I can soon work out where to focus my nest recording efforts later in the season. The work done now will make the task of finding and monitoring nests that much easier come the busy spring months.