Nightingales in November

NIGHTINGALES IN NOVEMBER

To Zachary – for bringing immense joy into our lives

NIGHTINGALES IN NOVEMBER

A Year in the Lives of Twelve British Birds

Mike Dilger

Contents

Introduction

The Species

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Further Reading

Acknowledgements

Index

Introduction

Operating as a small set of islands, located at a temperate latitude and positioned just off the edge of a huge continental land mass, the British Isles are blessed with both clearly marked seasons and a wonderfully varied climate. Despite temperatures varying by 25°C between January and August, and daylight hours more than doubling between the winter and summer solstices, our predictably unpredictable climate never quite approaches the searing heat, mind-numbing cold or seasonal deluges regularly experienced in other corners of the world. The weather, however, must never be taken for granted, and the constantly changing seasons have a profound effect on all who live here. Of course we humans can insulate ourselves from the worst excesses of the weather – by opening our windows in the summer and turning on the lights during the dark days of winter – but our wildlife doesn't have that luxury.

With spring and summer a time for pairing, mating and rearing in Britain, autumn representing the season of preparation, winter then becomes the time for our wildlife to either hibernate, in an effort to bypass the season completely, or hunker down in full survival mode. Unable to hibernate like our amphibians, reptiles and many mammals, the power of flight has given birds another option – that of simply migrating abroad until conditions improve. Leaving behind those resident birds willing to take their chances here all year round, the ‘fair weather' summer migrants will simply be replaced as they leave by hardier winter visitors arriving from much colder continental climates. The warming influence of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift will ensure those birds spending the winter in Britain are able to positively thrive in the relatively
benign conditions offered here, while the long and warm summer months will ensure plenty of time in which to raise broods. When we also factor in the immense array of habitats here – from forests to farmland and estuaries to islands – it is perhaps no surprise that Britain punches well above its weight in terms of biological diversity.

How and when nature responds to the changing of the seasons is in fact a fully-fledged science. Phenology, in plain English, is the study of recurring biological events, such as flowering and leaf fall in plants, and the hibernation and migration of animals. Certainly in Britain, this kind of data has historically been gathered on little more than an ad hoc basis. However, recently it has begun to be collated in a far more systematic manner, now that its roll in understanding how climate change affects the natural world is better understood. Of course wandering around the Staffordshire countryside as a child in the 1970s and 1980s I was certainly unaware of the term ‘phenology'. But as someone who has always been happiest outdoors, I intuitively understood that Robins were one of the very few birds to sing on Christmas Day, the appearance of a Cuckoo was always the sign that spring had arrived and hooting Tawny Owls meant the descent into winter had begun.

It's also a measure of the unique popularity of birds in Britain that I am by no means alone in taking great pleasure from noting down my first Swallow in April, or the precise week in May that Blue Tits start bringing caterpillars back to their brood. I'd like to think a substantial number of us effectively adopt ‘nature's calendar' to signpost our year rather than perhaps using the human-orientated dates typical throughout a more traditional calendar. The very fact that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has over 1.1 million members and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) rings around a million birds each year certainly shows that both birdwatching and the amateur study of birds have grown into hugely popular pastimes.
Right now is also an exciting time to be a bird enthusiast, as cutting-edge technology and advances in filming and photography are revealing more about our feathered friends than we ever thought possible. So it is with these facts in mind that I have attempted to generate this alternative almanac. Compiled from monographs, academic papers, my own knowledge and the most recent scientific developments, I have hopefully produced, in an easily digestible form, a slightly different way of marking the year – through the joy of birds.

I believe the twelve birds chosen represent the best of British. I've picked iconic birds that the vast majority of readers will be instantly familiar with and are most likely to see or hear somewhere, at some point during the year. For several of the twelve, the furthest you will have to search is your own back garden or local park, while others may require a bit more effort to catch up with, due to geographical and habitat preferences, or a certain level of rarity. I've selected species with varying and contrasting life histories, so in addition to year-round residents, both summer and winter visitors have been included. Whereas the allegiance of Robins, Tawny Owls and Blue Tits to the Union Jack flag is assured, the nationality of some birds, such as Cuckoos, Puffins and Nightingales, should perhaps now be questioned. Does, for example, being here for little more than six weeks of the year entitle Cuckoos to British citizenship?! Certainly those birds just spending part of their year in Britain won't see international borders or frontiers in quite the same way we do. Instead they might recognise the Sahara Desert, or a cold and wet British spring, as the key obstacles that need to be overcome if they are to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

In writing a book like this, I'm aware that dates may not only vary with location, but also change between years. But as many birds are creatures of habit, with a remarkable sense of timing, most of the key events in the lives of each of the twelve birds can be reasonably closely synchronised across
most of Britain, in most years. Also, while trying to piece together the jigsaw pieces as to exactly where and what each of our twelve species are up to each month, the realisation dawned on me that even for our most familiar birds, we still know a lot less about their lives than we think we do. The Blue Tit, for example, tops the ‘most intensively ringed bird species' poll every year, but the specifics as to exactly who they associate with, and how far they range during winter, is still far from clear.

My great hope is that this book will encourage and inspire all of us to take another look at what the birds in our back garden and beyond are
actually
doing. Because it's only when enough people take the time to observe, study and enjoy the behaviour of these fascinating birds that we will finally begin to understand why so many continue their alarming decline… and if anybody sees a Nightingale in November, then please let me know
exactly
what it was doing!

Mike Dilger

December 2015

The Species

Bewick's Swan

The first arrival of Bewick's Swans back from their summer break in the Arctic Russian Federation, is always a red-letter day in the life of the few select sites lucky enough to host this spectacular bird in winter. Bewick's Swans are long-lived birds that tend to practise the art of monogamy, with many parents often staying as a pair, quite literally, until ‘death do they part'. Taking a long, circuitous migratory route from their breeding grounds as a family, these family units will also play an important part in the swans' winter life too. Those parents returning from a successful breeding season with up to two or three youngsters, who are willing to back them up in any disagreement with other swans, will quickly become a powerful and domineering unit. Certainly at those locations where many swans are vying for the best feeding and roosting spots, pairs without cygnets and single birds will be pushed down the pecking order as family groups bulldoze all before them out of the way. Feeding on anything from aquatic plants to the remains of cereal and root crops in fields, it is vital that as many calories are consumed as possible before the Bewick's Swans attempt the tough return leg back north of the Arctic Circle in the following spring.

Peregrine

The self-styled fastest bird on Earth, the Peregrine has bounced back from an almost terminal decline in its fortunes, caused primarily by the chemical DDT which was responsible for eggshell thinning certainly into the 1960s. As well as occupying their traditional home of mountain crags and sea cliffs, Peregrines have recently begun to enter our urban landscapes, attracted by the high-rise buildings
and never-ending supply of pigeons and other city-dwelling birds. Any established pairs will be keen to stay close to their breeding territory for most of the year, which will usually begin with spectacular display flights, before the first eggs are laid in early spring. Any young successfully fledging will be at the bottom of a very steep learning curve as they take tuition from their parents in the art of hunting. Harnessing their speed and killing techniques will be vital for the young birds as they begin to venture out on their own as summer finally turns to autumn.

Lapwing

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