A May morning – and what better place to bE than the Washburn valley? I had joined our WNS bird-watching group for a gentle ramble upstream from the Lindley Wood reservoir. The countryside had been refreshed by overnight rain, and we were bathed in the heavy scent of may blossom as we walked along the track between the reservoir and a steep wooded bank, chock full, or so it seemed, with singing birds. We picked out chaffinches, blackbirds, song thrushes, willow warblers, chiffchaff and blackcap, and there was a brief disagreement as to whether a beautiful rich song was that of a garden warbler or another blackcap. I was secretly pleased to find that even the experts find this a hard identification to make. The old wisdom had it that the garden warbler’s song is more sustained and even than the blackcap’s. However, nothing in life is that simple. As the season progresses, blackcaps elaborate their songs and, it is whispered, even borrow ideas from their neighbouring garden warblers! We waited, scanning the bushes and trees for a glimpse of the singer but it remained obstinately invisible.
On our right, the top end of the reservoir was busy too. Four small waders were flitting about on a muddy spit. Closer examination revealed them to be little ringed plovers and, as we watched, one of the males began a courtship display, fanning out his tail feathers and chasing after the females. A pair of great crested grebes had built a nest, perched on a raised mound just off shore. The female was sitting and the male patrolled the waters nearby. At one point he came over to greet his mate, bringing a small gift of weed to add to the mound. Male grebes are attentive fathers. When the young hatch, both parents care for them, escorting their flotilla of fluffy chicks, teaching them what is good to eat and, when they get tired of swimming, carrying them around on their backs. If you see a pair of adult grebes later in the season, look at them carefully, and you may see small striped heads poking out from the feathers between a parent’s wings.
One of the advantages of walking with a group of naturalists is there are so many sharp pairs of eyes on the lookout and so much pooled expertise to draw on. I hopped straight over the stile, not even noticing the tiny beetle crawling on one of the posts. It turned out to be a pine ladybird, black with four minute red spots, a much rarer relative of our familiar garden visitor. As we crossed a bridge, two members of the group scrambled down to the streamside below and checked a small dark-coloured smudge on a stone – no bit of decaying vegetation this, but spraint, the territorial scent mark left by an otter which had been making its way along the river, perhaps during the previous night. Welcome evidence that this elusive mammal is now becoming established on our local patch.