Annual influx of migrant birds well under way
Spring has sprung and the first migrant birds have already made landfall on our shores. The annual influx of very large numbers of birds arriving here to breed during the summer normally happens between mid-March and early May and those arriving can be lumped into three broad groups: the early birds, the mainstreamers and the latecomers.
The wise words of proverbs are generally accepted as being true even when no supporting evidence is produced and as far as migration is concerned the early bird should, literally, catch the worm.
But there are dangers in being too early: temperatures may still be low, the weather may turn nasty and food may be in short supply. If it is cold, insects may not be on the wing and buds may not be trees and shrubs.
The Wheatear and the Chiffchaff are usually the earliest of the early birds to arrive. The handsome Wheatear is most often seen along the coast when it arrives from Africa. Its name is interpreted as a linguistic corruption of 'white rear' referring to the large patch of white feathers above its black tail that becomes so obvious when the bird opens its wings and flies ahead of a coastal walker.
The Chiffchaff is a nondescript little brownish-greyish-greenish warbler that flits actively about in cover nervously wagging its tail and never affording very long views of itself. However, while its appearance may not be widely known its song is distinctive as it sings its name in a slow, measured but forceful and repetitive way: 'chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff'.
Sand Martins and Sandwich Terns are not far behind and may arrive in the south before the end of March. Swallows don't normally arrive until April and lead the charge of the mainstreamers who come flooding in during that month. House Martins and Cuckoos are later mainstreamers or early latecomers. The very familiar and so well-known song of the male Cuckoo is seldom heard before the very end of April or into early May.
Spotted Flycatchers and Swifts are latecomers. Swifts - those most aerial of birds - come from South Africa and while they don't arrive until May they are gone again by August. The call of the Cuckoo may herald the arrival of summer, but the shrill, ringing screams of small parties of Swifts flying in tight formation around the rooftops in towns is one of the lovely sounds of warm evenings in high summer.