A friend, snowed in during the bad weather in mid February, told us how she had been entertained by a flock of thirty long-tailed tits visiting her garden and crowding onto the fat balls, forming a feathery globe decorated with protruding long tails. Very much a winter treat. I was especially interested because about that time our feeders were being visited by just one or two long-tails – a pair, I would guess, feeding up in preparation for the arduous task of building their beautiful nest, an elastic bag-shaped structure incorporating moss, lichen spiders webs and hundreds of feathers. The shift from flocking to pairing among garden birds is one of the key signs of season’s change.
Since the weather took an unwelcome shift back into winter, I cherish these signs even more, and there are others. My sister in the Scottish Highlands rang to say she’s seen her first frogspawn of the year in her garden pond. She does live at sea level so perhaps the microclimate of her garden is more inviting to frogs newly emerging from hibernation. However, she’d also seen spawn in the drainage ditches beside the forestry track leading up into the mountains. Her local frogs seem to favour wayside ditches. Perhaps the overhanging vegetation affords shelter from predators – but not always. Susie also told me of a ditch beside a nearby main road where an enterprising heron has taken up position. He’s not deterred by passing traffic, having learned that cars pose no threat and that his chosen patch is far too valuable to desert even for a few minutes. Possibly he is slurping up frogspawn but I think it more likely that he’s catching frogs, too driven by the urge to mate to be cautious.
Nearer to home, there was also good news. A friend who lives in the wilds above Oakworth reported that she had heard her first curlew of the year. Populations of curlews are declining but here in the dales we still have goodly numbers coming to our moors to nest. It’s particularly important that we look after them: being ground nesting birds they are particularly vulnerable to disturbance by dogs and off-track walkers. Our friend said the call – that wonderfully evocative cur-leuw – was a tad tentative, a kind of “Do I have to do this?” kind of call. Still – it’s a start and, as soon as weather and arthritis permit I plan to go over to Middleton and Denton to check on our Wharfedale contingent of this iconic bird – the emblem of the WNS.