Pair of Common Eider © Mark Lewis

There are many species that can be used to mark the progress of Spring. Some of the most anticipated are the songs of Chiffchaff in late March and Willow Warbler in early April, and the arrival of Swifts in May. However, perhaps the first step on any annual walk through Spring is the song of the Skylark. In some areas, Skylarks tend to be elusive (if present at all) through the winter, reappearing in small numbers in early February. Once arrived, they waste no time at all in getting down to the business of establishing territory and finding a mate. The song is usually delivered from a high, hovering bird which then parachutes down to the ground, and can last for a very long time. This full display isn’t usually given this early in the year, with song flights in February tending to be shorter, but you can hear one in full flow here. This was recorded in April 2019. Even if Skylark don’t breed near you, you can still listen out for them making their way to their breeding grounds. They have a distinctive flight call and are usually pretty vocal as they go. You can hear the sounds of migrating birds here

While many birds are still establishing territories or finding partners, some are already well into their breeding cycles. Common Crossbill may well be on nests by February, but breeding can happen from any time between December and June. They like to breed in mature coniferous woodland and if they are nesting or feeding they can be quite elusive. Luckily they can be located through their songs and calls. A nice example of a song can be heard here. This bird was recorded in Spain. The song itself doesn’t tell us that – but the distant calls of Bee-eater in the background are a bit of a giveaway that this is not Scotland! Phenological records (i.e. those that are related to the timing of events in a birds life cycle) are valuable, especially when considered against a backdrop of climate change. Over a long period of time, reporting events like the first singing Skylark will help scientists track how birds adapt to the changing climate, and reporting singing Crossbill will provide valuable evidence of, and information on the timing of breeding.

A good example of a bird whose life cycle has changed in response to climate change is the Barn Owl. According to the Barn Owl Trust, the average laying date for this species has advanced from May 9th pre 1990, to April 17th! And of course if Barn Owl are laying eggs around April 17th, then before then, they will be going through the process of courtship, and finding somewhere to nest. By February they may well be settled on a location (if not a nest itself) and they will stay nearby for the duration of the breeding season. Although Barn Owl are crepuscular (i.e. active at dawn and dusk) they are most vocal at night. The Sound Approach describes their calls along with many other elements of its natural history, and is full of fantastic recordings of the sounds that they make. If you can tear your ears away from the chilling screeches of the owls, listen out for some glamorous backing vocals from things like Red-necked Nightjar and Arabian Wolf! Courtship screeches can be heard around Barn Owl territories through February, and if you hear one, that’s a really good sign that they will breed. Breeding records for owls are very important and your local bird recorder will be interested in hearing about them.

February and March are great times to bump into wandering American wildfowl. The theory is that they are already on this side of the pond, so to speak, and are going through the sort of northward movement that they would be doing if they were on the right side of the Atlantic. For some reason diving ducks seem to fit this trend best, so if you know of a loch that has good numbers of Tufted Duck, go and take a look. It may well be that your ‘Tufties’ have attracted a Ring-necked Duck or even better, a Lesser Scaup. Other wildfowl worth looking out for include American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal. These are dabbling ducks and wigeon will frequently graze on grass, so these two are less reliant on large expanses of open water and can be found in more marshy habitats. Again, look out for large groups of ‘carrier species’ like Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal.

While we are on the subject of wildfowl, let’s not ignore the geese. Any flocks of geese are worth checking for unusual interlopers, but at this time of year and after storms we may set our sights higher than hoping for the odd White-fronted Goose in with the Pink-feet. Canada Geese may not invoke excitement most of the time, but what about Canada Geese that have actually come from Canada? In among flocks of Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, look out for small, square headed and tiny billed versions of Canada Geese – the Cackling Goose, named after its laugh like calls. These birds can be tricky to identify as there are all manner of races of Cackling and ‘Lesser’ Canada Goose, smaller versions of our familiar Canada Goose. Don’t let that detract from the bird itself though. The cutest goose you’ll ever see, an ID challenge, and an incredible journey as well.

The west coast would be well worth checking for seabirds. Little Auk may have been blown inshore, but gulls should be the focus for someone looking for a real rarity. We may see increased numbers of Iceland and Glaucous gull in western areas or the northern isles. Among these may be some rarer visitors. The Kumlien’s Gull is essentially an American version of our Iceland gull, but adults or adult like birds have varying amounts of black or grey at the wingtips, separating them from ‘our’ Iceland gull which have pure white wingtips. If you were really up for a challenge, how about picking an American Herring Gull out of the crowd? Younger birds are probably the easiest ones to pick out so fingers crossed it’s a first winter. Identifying any other age class may just be too much of a challenge on a blustery winters day.