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Signs of spring update: chiffchaffs, swallows and... basking sharks

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 16:29 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

However you choose to mark it, spring is officially here. We're past the first of March, the equinox has happened and the somewhat arbitrary 21st marker was yesterday. For me though, spring is when the chiffchaffs start singing. And boy have they started singing...

Over the last few days we've had reports of their song in Marsham Heath in Norfolk, in Newport and Colwyn Bay in Wales, in Coventry, up at Oxford University, in Tamworth and in Wenlock Edge in Shropshire.

The earliest report was from Heathdweller, who pointed us to the Herts Bird Club website where one lucky person reported chiffchaff song on 14 March. Can anyone beat that? (If you're none the wiser about what a chiffchaff sounds like, the RSPB have a recording.)

One swallow might not make a summer but it's enough to get this office excited. Last week, Paul Stancliffe at the BTO told me there had been a steady trickle of swallow sightings which was gradually moving northwards. One was spotted in Lancashire on Thursday.

Our Twitter folk could beat that, though. Binocularface reported that one had been seen the day before in Southerfield, Cumbria. How long before these beauties get to Scotland?

Another summer migrant to get the pulses racing is the sand martin. Overall its progress this year is on a par with the swallows. But one's got further north. To Lothian in Sotland to be precise on 13 March. This, tweeted dOSssDaz, was a new record.

I spoke with Stephen Welch, the Bird Recorder for Lothian, to confirm. "It must be a record," he said. "The report was at Musselburgh, over the boating pond at 11am. The sighting was by ex-RSPB Frank Hamilton, who has been birding here since the mid-1950s at least. I have searched the Lothian master database of about 500,000 records back to 1992, and found no others earlier. It would be very unlikely to have had an earlier one in years to 1992, there is a definite trend towards earlier arrival in recent years."

Stephen also pointed out that chiffchaff song has reached Scotland too. It's great to hear that after the bitterly cold Scottish March, spring has now arrived there too. First records of chiffchaffs are usually singles, he said, "but it seems they hit a sweet spot and all arrived together (in a manner similar to whitethroats, which in my experience tend to arrive all of a sudden)."

Another highlight from Paul at the BTO this week was the arrival of two white-spotted bluethroats (one at Spurn, East Yorks, the other at Oulton Broad, Suffolk).

It's less noticeable to us of course but spring's also been very busy out at sea. As Maya Plass, marine biologist and Autumnwatch guest presenter, so succinctly tweeted yesterday: "Nutrient upwelling = plankton = basking shark etc = Springtime!"

The most exciting is the basking shark. The Wildlife Trusts was in touch yesterday with news that on Sunday it had received the first official basking shark sighting for 2011. Scuba divers spotted the monster of the deep 50m from Roskilly Beach in Newlyn, Cornwall.

The Trusts said that the first sightings are usually in May. But the pattern has been shifting. Warmer seas mean the earlier arrival of the shark's food sources. And that's where the 'nutrient upswelling' Maya talked of comes in. A 50 miles long algae bloom was found yesterday off the southern coast of Cornwall and Devon, also a few weeks earlier than expected.

Possibly not a coincidence that it's brought with it the first of this year's basking sharks.

Meanwhile back to the birds. The RSPB today said it's getting more and more calls from worried householders reporting birds nesting in their lofts and attics. No cause for concern it says, the culprits (usually sparrows or starlings) aren't trapped and are very unlikely to cause any damage. So please don't disturb them.

Keep us posted

As always, we'd love it if you kept us posted about your spring. Post a comment right here and let us know. Or if you're on Twitter like us, tweet with the hashtag #ukspring and also see what other people are experiencing. There's a great discussion over on our Springwatch photo group on early spring. If you have photos, please post them there.


  • Comment number 1.

    Blashford lakes in Ringwood, Hampshire, can beat your chiffchaff earliest record.
    The ranger there (Robert Chapman) recorded his first chiffchaffs on march 11th :)


  • Comment number 2.

    found a rather ragged looking comma butterfly sunning itself on lyllandii hedge yesterday 21/3. to go with the handfull of tortoishell and brimstones about over last few days.

    no frogspawn in any of usual places so far this year!!


  • Comment number 3.

    Frog spawn in garden pond for three weeks now. More than in previous years and greater numbers of frogs

  • Comment number 4.

    Frog spawn in our garden pond in Y043 for three weeks now. More spawn than in previous years and greater number of frogs

  • Comment number 5.

    Nature is the best love photographing & learning about birds! You have some gr8 info on them. xcellent

  • Comment number 6.

    Heard chiffchaffs for the first time this year when I was out for a walk to the Victoria park in Aberdeen on Sunday 20th march.

  • Comment number 7.

    Near Doncaster on Monday there was a small bird perched on a roof ridge, facing me, it had a white face and chest and appeared to be black surrounding all this white.
    It was somewhere between chaffinch and starling sized, could it possibly have been a House Martin or a Pied Flycatcher this early, March 21.
    Unfortunately it didn't turn side ways to give a glimpse of it's stance.

    I can't think of another Black and White bird this size, it definitely didn't have the red face of a Swallow

  • Comment number 8.

    @John, we know that house martins have reached Cheshire but haven't heard of any as far north as Doncaster. You're right about the flycatcher, it's probably too early for them.

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm told by Mike Rogers of the Hawk & Owl Trust that the Peregrine's of Bath have 3 eggs as of last week...

  • Comment number 10.

    Saw my first pair of swallows yesterday, Penwithick, St Austell Cornwall, couldn't believe it when I saw them.

  • Comment number 11.

    hurrah the frogs are back! 35 making quite a racket,must be about a kilo of spawn. the way they were going for it,i expect there will be triple that by tomorrow.

    1 swallow last evening. may not make a summer but felt like july today.

  • Comment number 12.

    Frog spawn appeared about a month ago. Blackbirds nest building about 10 feet from the front door and much to my astonishment i have a Mallard nesting at the back of my pond which is 6 foot from my conserveratory doors !

    There is some odd behaviour which if someone could clarify would be great. The Mallards appear early AM, the female sits on the nest most of the morning with Hubby standing nearby, eats me out of house & home and then disappears. Did that for about 1 - 2 weeks, then a couple of days ago she started to stay on the nest most of the day with male nowhere to be seen. Nest / depression appears to have a leafy covering over, i have not touched it as i think ( hope ) there may be eggs underneath.

    Can anyone tell me if female mallards lay eggs over a period of days before starting to incubate ? and is leaving the nest / eggs normal behaviour ?

  • Comment number 13.

    Question answered.

    There are now 3 or 4 duck eggs under the leaves....looks like I'm going to be a dad..Yay

  • Comment number 14.

    Saturday 02/04/2011 at 0930 while walking in Willesborough Ashford Kent (TN24 ) saw over head one single House Martin, nice to know that spring has got here. Later the same walk by streams and ditches saw about 50M away an Egret flying I believe to be a Cattle Egret as black legs & feet ( not yellow ) & more pointed wing. good to see them back this year & a bit early unless they over wintered here

  • Comment number 15.

    This is as more of a question than a comment. I'm not great at identifying birds but I saw a very small, rounded, bird, lovely pale green on topside with pale whitish underbelly to yellowish throat, hopping around in the willow outside my kitchen window in suburban Nottingham (the garden is very 'shrubby' and quite a large park nearby). After lots of searching of internet I think its a wood warbler. Ruled out chiffchaffs and willow warbler as it seemed much brighter green. But would it be in this "[sub]urban" environment - it was very pretty - any responses welcome. Look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks. Sam

  • Comment number 16.

    THis morning (8th April) saw two Ring Ouzels and also Wheaatear on Barton Hills NNR in Bedfordshire. Also noticed that the Pasque Flowers wer giving a good display which is about two weeks earlier than normal.
    Sams bird could be a Wood Warbler on passage but could also be a Willow Warbler as these can be quite yellow. Wood Warbler has a very yellow upper breast contasting sharply with the very white belly. Sadly Wood Warblers seem to be decreasing in eastern England although they do occur in the Peak District, they tend to be birds of mature woodland but could occur elsewhere on passage.

  • Comment number 17.

    Yesterday (Friday), I had the sort-of birdwatching day that makes you feel splendidly magnificent. An absolutely glorious day led to me spending most of the day at Whisby Nature Park near Lincoln. Unbroken sunshine throughout and temperatures that peaked at 23 degrees.

    Lincolnshire's spring has not just erupted but exploded in magnificent, mellifluous fashion. Among the birch trees et al, the captivating chorus of newly-arrived Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Willow Warblers descended upon my sole functioning ear (I am totally deaf in my right) at its opulent, orchestral best. Everywhere me and my birdwatching friend Chris walked, the vernal voices followed us, accompanied ably by Britain's prevalent resident passerines.

    And then, for the very first time, I heard the Crowning Crooner of Spring kick his sumptuous syrinx into awe-striking action. Honeyed tones advertising his presence to all available females, I listened, hands over my mouth in utter delight to this elusive charmer. Lifer Number 197. Step forward, Mr Nightingale and take a bow. You hypnotised me with your dulcet tones and sent me home smiling Thank you. When will our paths cross again?



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