Today marks the spring equinox. The birds think it’s spring, although this week we have been pitched back into winter. The weather has been damp and chilly, quite unlike the temperatures a fortnight ago, when we worked in the garden in shirtsleeves. Today, at least it’s sunny but bitterly cold in the wind. The birds go by the light rather than by the temperature, and activity has been increasing over the past month. The dawn chorus is tuning up.
Whatever the weather, a blackbird has been singing from the top of a tree, morning and evening. Even when gales bend the branches, it hangs on, swaying about precariously while the need to lay claim to its territory compels it to sing. Another one, further away, answers it, equally determined to protect its domain.
It’s not just the males who are in the mood to repel invaders. A female has taken to tapping on our half-glazed kitchen door from first light. Presumably, she thinks the bird in the glass is an interloper. It’s obviously a violent contest, since she attacks the window pane with beak and claw, making quite a mess. She is very wary, but I just managed to get a fuzzy shot of her as she hopped away over the terrace.
The female blackbird is not the only one to do this. A blue tit has taken to attaching itself to our windows and tapping gently at its reflection. The “intruder” clearly doesn’t offend it as much as the blackbird’s does. As the light changes during the day, the blue tit moves between windows around the house.
In previous years, we have had a manic wagtail, which was seriously dischuffed by its reflection in our car wing mirror. And made plenty of mess on the bodywork in the process. It, too, was outraged by its reflection in an upstairs window.
A rare sighting
The woodpeckers have been active, too. The largest of them, the green woodpecker, has been making what I call its laughing jackass cry for several weeks now. I have yet to hear it drilling rapidly on wood, which is apparently a mating call.
The next one down in size, the greater spotted woodpecker gives itself away by its demented staccato call. We’ve seen one clinging to the bird feeder. That was a male, like the one in the picture. You can tell from the red spot on the back of its head. Both males and females have the red under-feathers.
Best of all, though, is a sighting of a rare lesser spotted woodpecker. I have never seen one at all, let alone here. From my desk, the bare branches of a walnut tree are visible. The other day, a small-ish bird, about the size of a sparrow, was scrambling about gymnastically on the outer twigs.
At first, I thought it was a goldfinch because of the red patch on its head, and the size. As I watched, I realised I was wrong. The bird didn’t have the other features, and it tapped at the branches like a woodpecker. It had barred white stripes on a black back and a dirty grey front. The bird looked a bit dishevelled, as if it had just got out of bed. Impossible to get a shot of it, since it was moving around too much.
Further research showed it was definitely a lesser spotted woodpecker, a pic épeichette in French. In England and Wales, there are estimated only to be 1,500 breeding pairs. I couldn’t find comparable figures for France. All I could discover was that the population in Northern Europe fluctuates considerably, year on year, and that they are more common in Northern France than further south.
The one I saw was a male, since only the males have the red patch on the head. For a photo, I have had to resort to Wikimedia Commons. The one below shows both a male (left of the trunk) and some females. Photoshopped, I suspect, since you’d be extremely lucky to get a shot like this, but it illustrates how they look.
Although usually solitary birds, lesser spotted woodpeckers sometimes band up with flocks of other small birds, such as long-tailed tits, to forage for insects. Their beaks are less strong and rigid than those of other woodpeckers, so they make nests in existing holes in dead trees. We have plenty of those around here, so I do hope he will find a mate and breed.
Birds in decline
It’s good to see all of these birds, since we have been concerned for some time about the decline in some species of small bird. Most of the land around us is either pasture or woodland. I don’t use pesticides or chemicals in the garden, and we have deliberately left part of our woodland wild. I hope that the decline may be starting to reverse here.
When we were in lockdown last year, we took pleasure in these small things as winter turned to spring in its usual erratic way. While the situation continues, and the opportunities to travel anywhere are severely limited, we have come to realise how important it is to appreciate what you have around you. And we are so lucky to live where we do.
In other news, in a week that marked the first anniversary of lockdown no. 1, about a third of the French population is back in lockdown no. 3. For the moment, this doesn’t include our region. The French vaccination programme, already behind schedule, took a further knock when the AstraZeneca vaccine was temporarily withdrawn over fears about blood clotting. It has now been reinstated. Let’s hope this starts to dent the infection figures, which have been spiralling again in France this week.
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