Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

March 2015

Spring into action

March is the month when action can be seen all around and we cannot avoid noticing it. Bird song is ringing out throughout the churchyard and whilst it is assumed that this is how each pair of birds proclaims their territory it is does seem that the weather has a big effect. One cannot help feeling that sheer ‘joie de vivre’ plays a part on a sunny morning. Each species has their own repertoire which we can recognise with blackbird, wren and song thrush some of the best songsters fortunately common in our hallowed plot.
All the churchyard nest boxes have been cleaned and re-fixed by our churchyard team and will, doubtless, by now, be claimed again and new nesting material loaded in to make a warm and safe bed for eggs and nestlings. In 2014 eight boxes were occupied by blue tit, great tit or house sparrow. However the box designed for a robin was not used and has now been relocated though not so close on hand as the one that chose to nest in my pots by my greenhouse!
Birds nests are one of nature’s most fascinating things bearing in mind how greatly they vary in shape and construction. Inside our nest boxes we find blue tits and great tits which assemble the finest soft materials, mainly grass, moss and wool. These protected nests do not need the solidity and waterproofing of more exposed sites, nevertheless some unprotected, mossy nests such as those of chaffinch, gold finch and long tailed tit have sufficient strength to resist the weather. Other birds that use the protection of buildings such as swallow and martin use mud to form a cup with little lining other than a few soft feathers. House sparrows create an untidy dome using grass and feathers, often choosing a cavity in a roof, though those in our photo used our garden box meant for great tits! Perhaps living a long time in close association with man has reduced their need for caution. Our trees and shrubs offer sites for the song thrush whose nest of grass and moss is lined with mud and dung cemented with saliva, forming a robust cup. That of the blackbird is similar but less robust being found in trees and scrub with ledges in buildings a favourite alternative, not to mention amongst the potted plants in my greenhouse!
In the adjacent Maningham Wood rookery, the nests of rooks high in the swaying trees, are built with strength as a priority using sticks wedged in place and cemented together with mud. Within this secure structure a smooth lining of moss and hair is made which closely fits round the incubating bird. Magpies too make a similar construction but the nest is situated lower down, often in our hawthorn trees, and with a roof of thorny twigs making it almost impenetrable. In total contrast the nests of wood pigeon and collared dove are flimsy flattish affairs with thin twigs which would not survive long at the top of tall trees. These nests provide little protection for the eggs which can often be seen from below, shining white through the nest. Contrast this with the jackdaw which fills a roof space, hollow tree or chimney with so much twiggy material that the actual nest is inaccessible to outsiders .
Birds inhabiting open ground such as pastures, sand dunes or stony places, are not likely to be seen in our church yard, but often have little or no nest and rely upon well-camouflaged eggs to reduce predation. They would certainly not lay white eggs more common with hole-nesting species such as owls and wood peckers.
It is remarkable that each species has its own method of nesting which fits best in its own habitat and circumstances. There are inevitably some exceptions. Was the pigeon once a hole nesting bird?