Singing up to secure his patch

The male great tit is thinking ahead to spring.
The male great tit is thinking ahead to spring.

Written by Heather Elvidge

This is one of those months when missing a weather forecast means you’re sure to be caught in the rain. However, it has been 
remarkably mild.

Indeed, reports last week would have us believe that spring is on its way. While most of the sightings logged at Nature’s Calendar have come from southern counties, ladybirds have been seen in Darlington, snowdrops were flowering in North Yorkshire and rooks were nesting in Aberdeen.

We shouldn’t get too carried away by this. As the old saying goes, one swallow does not make a summer. But it does demonstrate how unseasonable the weather has been, with temperatures around 3C above normal for January.

Talking of swallows, a few of these summer visitors have decided to remain in Devon rather than fly to South Africa. Maybe similar observations in the past explain some of the odd beliefs about migrating birds. Swallows were said to spend the winter in mud at the bottom of ponds; cuckoos hid in hollow logs, or turned into hawks until summer came again.

On fine mornings recently there has been a dawn chorus, although a few key voices are missing. The blackbird, for instance - we won’t hear him until next month.

But on sunny afternoons great tits are singing in woods and gardens. The male leaves the winter flock for a while, to lay claim to his spring territory. His distinctive “teacher, teacher”, with the emphasis on the first note, rings out above the general twittering of sparrows and finches. Sometimes the great tit will reverse the notes, or insert another syllable. It all means the same – this is my patch.

But mild or not, this is January. Days are still short and wild food is scarce, so any singing doesn’t last for long. Birds face the serious matter of finding food. And that’s where we come in. Our bird table offerings really make a difference.

If you have regular feathered visitors, then the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch would like to hear from you. It’s happening this weekend, the 25th and 26th. See for details.

Red-letter day

January 25 is a busy day in the calendar. Christians remember the conversion of St Paul, who was transformed by a vision from persecutor of the faithful into a tireless missionary. Much theology was founded on Paul’s writings, particularly his advice to various Christian communities.

The Scots will be celebrating Robert Burns with a haggis supper, followed by readings of his poems and renditions of his best-loved songs. The evening ends, naturally, with Auld Lang Syne.

In Wales it’s the feast day of St Dwynwen, a fifth-century nun who became the patron saint of lovers.

Folklore lays great store by St Paul’s Day. An old verse says that if the 25th is sunny, we’ll have a good year. If it brings wind and rain, the harvest months will be blighted, while a misty, cloudy day warns of disease among birds and beasts.

But don’t despair if the day is grim. Although the 25th has a reputation for prediction that stretches back centuries, it doesn’t work too well today.