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Promise of spring in a robins song
It shouldn't be too surprising that after one of the mildest Januarys on record winter is finally beginning to show its teeth. The end of February has seen snow covering large parts of the country.
THE EARLY BIRD: The robin
All through January many of the birds we consider to be garden species were contentedly feasting on a surfeit of seeds and berries in the countryside, but the snow drove them into gardens to take advantage of the nut feeders and bird tables.
By January, the staple food of many birds and small mammals, the humble earthworm, is normally buried deep, away from the threat of frost, but the prolonged mild, damp spell allowed them to remain close to the surface, harvesting the abundant vegetable matter - a by-product of last year's wonderful, productive growing season.
Recent winters have been relatively mild with little snow and few prolonged periods of frost, certainly in our area, and the small birds and mammals often have had no experience of snow during their short lives.
Fortunately, Britain is one of the most bird-friendly countries with a well established culture of feeding, but for all those birds out in the countryside, whose territory may not bring them into contact with people, the onset of snowy weather is a problem.
This may be why birds like robins, and to a lesser extent dunnocks and thrushes, are found wherever humans or animals like deer and cattle have disturbed the snow, exposing the leaf litter to their questing beaks.
Commonplace garden birds like wrens, and the increasingly common long-tailed tits and goldcrests, have enjoyed something of a population explosion during the past decade and are frequently seen on bird tables and nut baskets during the winter months.
Others, like the heathland-adapted Dartford warbler have benefited from global warming and expanded their once restricted range from a couple of colonies near Poole Harbour in Dorset.
Threatened with extinction more than once by bad winters during the last 50 years, they have been given a new lease of life and established colonies from Devon to Surrey, although, being insect and spider hunters, they will always be vulnerable in hard weather.
One of the most beautiful birds to breed in southern England is the kingfisher. They need shallow clear water, rich in small fish.
This is almost always the first wetland habitat to freeze over in cold weather, but the kingfisher, for all its diminutive size, is a great traveller and will take itself off to an estuary or a large reservoir where there is open water.
I've seen as many as six kingfishers along a half mile stretch of the Thames estuary where they were obviously enjoying a little salt with their fish.
Quite often we have a cold spell at the end of February, beginning of March, and this is when a number of common birds like robins and hedge sparrows are in the early stages of their breeding cycle. Both species need similar food and nest site requirements and there is often quite a tussle for territory. Robins, of course, are truly early birds. They have been paired for more than a month now, although a late cold snap will cool the ardour of even the most testosterone-driven male robin as it means having to spend more time feeding which, in turn, means they don't have time to sing until later in the day.
It's well worth listening for them though; one of the most attractive of all the native birdsongs at this time of year is the evening song of a robin, full of the pathos and the promise of spring.