The fickle nature of the weather at this time of year can produce some interesting effects. Just the other week for instance, before the snow came, a run of warm bright days prompted some birds to start singing. A song thrush at the bottom of our garden was in full song every morning for nearly a week, joined by blackbird, dunnock and even great tit. All of these birds were under the impression that spring was on its way and so we received an impromptu dawn chorus. Even our young cockerel tried to get in on the act. On the river, mallards were mating and a pair of mute swans was seen to deliver some half-hearted courtship display.
Of course, most of these early signs will not lead to an early nesting attempt, though some will. I suspect that within the next week or so I will find a female mallard incubating a complete clutch of eggs at the base of one of the riverside alders or limes. There will also be early-nesting robins and blackbirds, mostly likely reported from an urban area, perhaps because of the supplementary food on offer or because more of us live in towns and cities and are therefore more likely to spot a bird that happens to be nesting early.
In most years, we’ll have received reports of early nesting for around a dozen bird species by mid-February. Invariably it is the same species that are being reported, with tawny owl and collared dove joining some of those already mentioned. In fact, there has already been one report of an orphaned tawny owl youngster taken into care. Nesting so early in the year is a risky strategy; any deterioration in the weather and the attempt will fail. It seems likely, therefore, that most early nests are made in error, the birds caught out by a period of unseasonal warmth. Some birds do, however, nest very early in the year, with crossbill and tawny owl two such species. Common crossbills, some of which breed in Thetford Forest, are often sitting on eggs by the end of February, with some individuals already on eggs now.
Winter can seem to go on for a long-time but by February some of our resident species are already gearing up for the breeding season ahead. Increasingly, as the winter slips by, we will see more days that are warm and bright. Gradually, more birds will be prompted to sing and the dawn chorus will gradually build. It will, however, continue to be a stop-start affair, the promise of an approaching spring raised and dashed on more than one occasion. It does, at least, feel as if spring is approaching.