Spring- blossoms and polygamy.

Spring has crept in under the cover of winter, kicking back the blanket of dark mornings and early dusks. Still, sunshine is a fickle beast; weak, and wan, glancing in and out of our days on the farm.  Yet, the garden is waking . Golden daffodils nod their heads in time to the trill of a blackbird perched on a hawthorn branch. A string  of pearl white snow drops trace along the side of the farmhouse , their delicate flower heads outlining long forgotten borders. Buds and new shoots burst up and out, ready for warmer days.

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Bird life on the patch is changing with the coming of Spring. The starlings have left, after a long winter vacation. Their absence is conspicuous. Peace reigns once more, and I do not miss the noisy, whirring, chattering din above our heads.

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The house sparrows have reappeared after their winter absence, and have set about tidying up last years nest sites. For the second year in a row a pair of sparrows have stolen the house martins nest. Calf hair from the sheds seems to be a popular choice of nesting material, and the females busily flit about gathering beakfulls of it.

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The bird feeders are a constant hive of activity, with blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and robin being regulars at the ‘buffet’. Four or five blue tits on a feeder in one sitting is common, suggesting our garden provides for up to 20 of this species. A willow warbler has started to appear, shy and flighty, but his visits are infrequent. A pair of collared doves often come to perch side by side on the swing set, preening and cooing at each other. A dunnock, or Hedge sparrow, now comes to sift through the debris at the foot of the feeders. Last year a single pair frequented the garden, this year I have counted four on one occasion. They are busy, unassuming little birds, similar in size to the house sparrow but with a sleaker silhouette. The population expansion on our patch matches the general trend around the uk;  numbers are increasing, but the species remains on the Amber list. Their ‘plain jane’ appearance hides a rather quirky reproductive trait.  Dunnocks practice monogamy and polygamy. Depending on the territory available to them , their ‘mating’ relationships can be polygynous (one male, multiple females),  polyandrous (one female, multiple males) or even polygnandrous (multiples of both sexes). Quite a lot of nest hopping for such an unobtrusive bird.

Nest swap

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Sparrow interloper with House Martin nest

The other morning I had to resort to using the double buggy at nap time. Neither C (2.5 year old) nor F (6.5 month old) would succumb to sleep and were becoming progressively whingey . Going for a walk seemed like the perfect solution. The motion of the buggy was guaranteed to send at least one child off to sleep, affording me some peace. I strapped the girls into their seats and listened to the bird song filling the air. The sparrows that nest on the farm yard were chattering away, collared doves were kee-keeing to each other and the jackdaws were shrieking. Within a few steps both girls were fast asleep.  As I wheeled the buggy through the garden gate  a cacophony of sparrow chirps and cheeps made me glance up at the roof of the farm house. A male sparrow sat perched on top of the sky dish, tilting his head to get a better view of the strange four wheeled contraption beneath him. His mate suddenly flew by and disappeared into what I thought was a swallows nest, attached to the farmhouse gable wall. I had seen some black and white blurs dashing across the yard for a few weeks now and had assumed  that the swallows which nest in the cowshed had returned early. However I now knew I was wrong. The birds that I had seen swooping around above the farm were actually  house martins. What a silly mistake! The only reason I realised my error was because one of them  was clinging to the gable wall a few feet above me and several feet to the left of the sparrows. There was glob of mud by the bird’s feet, and others flew in circles close by. They were trying to build a new nest.

I ran back inside to grab my camera, but when I got back the bird had gone. Only the patch of mud remained. The girls began to stir so I quickly got on with our walk.

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The view down our country lane

 

I headed out of the gate and onto the road which runs right alongside the yard.At this time of year the hedgerows are teaming with wild flowers but my identification skills are pretty basic. I can pick out red campion and cow parsley but that is about all without the help of a guide. On our return three black and white birds with forked tails perched on the telephone wires. I couldn’t get close enough to get a decent photo but I am pretty sure they were some of our House Martins.

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Three Martins on the telegraph wires.

 

The following morning I checked the site of the new nest. Still nothing apart from the first blob of mud and no sign of the House Martins.

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The single blob of mud just below the gable roof.

 

 After I settled the baby for her morning nap, I sat down at the computer to try and find some information about House Martins. I realised I knew hardly anything about them. My first port of call was the RSPB website, which has lots of easy to understand facts (great for my current ‘baby brain’ state!). I soon discovered that House Martins are a member of the ‘Hirundine’ family, which includes Swallows, House and Sand Martins. They are on the Amber list of UK bird species due to a decline in population numbers in recent years.

BBC Nature has a great guide to identifying swifts,swallows and martins . The main identifying features of House Martins are their

  • Dark blue black plumage over its head and back
  • Purely white underside
  • White rump
  • Short forked tail

More info on identification can be found here.

House Martin nests are formed from mud (which we have more than enough of on the farm!) mixed with grass. A single nest can take 1000 beak-fulls of mud to create! Nowadays House Martins are quite happy to nest under the eaves of our houses, but natural nest sites are on cliffs. There are still a handful of these sites around the UK, one of which (quite close to us) was featured on Iolo’s secret life of birds.

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One of the nests left from last year.

 

 Our farm is an ideal spot for them to nest. They like mixed agricultural land (we tick that box!) and feed on aerial insects (we have plenty of these too!). Their nests often found in ‘colonies’ of four or five close together. Sure enough there are 3 nests dotted under the eaves of our farm house. Two I remember have survived from last year, but one of these is now home to a sparrow family. Apparently it is common for sparrows to take over nests, and harass the adult birds or destroy eggs, although there are ways to prevent this. If only I’d known sooner!

House Martins are migratory birds and arrive here in April . Once Summer is over they head for Africa, though little is known about their wintering grounds. The BTO have been running a House Martin survey for the last few years in order to gain more knowledge about these birds.  I have signed up and am looking forward to participating!  I’ll keep the blog updated with the goings on of our nests. In the meantime, if you have any stories about House Martins local to you I would love to hear them.