The prospect of lockdown as the most exciting season of the year for wildlife got underway was daunting to say the least, but fortunately through singular and fairly consistently paced walks, I’ve been able to see what’s about around my southern corner of Milton Keynes, while keeping to the best routes for social distancing and considering my timing carefully. It has also been an ideal time to use the garden for sky watching more than ever before, bringing some bird species I haven’t previously seen or heard from home.
Though there are a few fairly local places I like to travel to at this time of year, there is usually more than enough wildlife to keep me busy on my local patch. There are a range of habitats around Tattenhoe and the surrounding areas which make it well worth scanning for passing migratory birds from late March to early May. The woodlands and parkland meadows usually produce several species of butterfly and quieter periods can offer glimpses of some of the elusive resident mammals. Social distancing can be carried out here without much difficulty, so long as the narrow woodland footpaths and thin red ways between housing and hedgerows are usually avoided.
On my walks early April saw the return of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, which quickly gained in numbers as males began to occupy and defend territories. There was a brief movement of Willow Warblers with 6 singing males on 7th April, only two of which seemed to have remained since. The morning of the 8th produced my eagerly anticipated first Redstart of the year, unfortunately perched from a far from ideal place for photography in a private car park. Fortunately, an even better consolation prize followed immediately after with a northbound Cuckoo passing over Tattenhoe Park. This was my first Cuckoo for the Tattenhoe area since 2017 and the first reported in Bucks this year, just about photographed as a mere speck in the distance but nonetheless unmistakable in shape and flight.
One frequent passage visitor I think I have probably missed a few more of is the Wheatear, with just a single male seen so far stopping by on 17th April. Fortunately, lucky timing has given me sightings of some other unusual flyovers for this corner of MK included a Goosander heading north on the first day of the month and a Green Sandpiper, which also flew north on the 16th. Another local scarcity, the Ring Ouzel, dropped into Tattenhoe Park on the 9th, spotted in the exact same treeline as my previous one in October 2018. After many days of hoping for them last year it was great to see one here again, though the photo opportunities were cut short by a male Blackbird keen to prevent it from foraging around one of the fields!
Keeping an eye on the skies from home for longer periods than usual has also produced a few pleasant surprises including migrating Meadow Pipits, Linnets and a pair of Kestrels. All three of these are fairly common species locally but never seen over my suburban garden before, well away from the scrubby grassland habitats I tend to associate them with. Tagging in with the citizen science of “nocmig” or nocturnal migration, I’ve also been using my Tascam DR-05 sound recorder in the hopes of picking up bird movements at night. With a bucket, bubble wrap and the recorder on a tripod, my nocturnal recording setup is nowhere near as advanced or expensive as those I follow online but it has yielded some satisfying finds. So far the highlights have been two occurrences of Moorhen, a local resident species but rarely anywhere near my garden, Coot, which is an infrequent visitor to Tattenhoe’s waterways on at 2.53am on 26th March and an Oystercatcher, a rare flyover for this corner of MK, making a single call at 00.50 on 5th April.
After bringing the recorder back inside, I use Audacity to amplify the sounds of the recordings, then looking for blips in the spectrogram, the smallest of which are usually bird vocalizations. I’ve already known most of the calls I’ve picked up on them so far, though looking at other people’s recordings on Twitter and researching the vocals of various birds on xeno-canto.org has also been very helpful in identifying them since I started this last year. It hasn’t produced as many bird species as I had initially hoped for so far, but picking up just the occasional call of one that I don’t usually see from my garden or even my sometimes lengthy walks in recent years has made it well worthwhile.
In recent years, aided largely by spring migration, April has had a knack for bringing new species to my Tattenhoe birds list and 2020 has been no exception, bringing me the 126th since 2008 with my first ever Wood Warbler, singing his heart out while foraging the canopy of a thicket in the Tattenhoe Valley Park on 26th April. Being a rare visitor to Bucks with less than 5 reported across the county annually in recent years, this was easily my most exciting bird find of the year so far. As expected, this was a passing visit and there was no sign of him the next day. A bird I had been holding out hope for over several years, slap bang in the middle of a place I had already been to countless times. It just goes to show a local area with decent habitat, even in an urban setting can still be full of surprises after years of being watched.
A couple of days later, one of the trademarks of summer, the Swift arrived over my garden, with three hawking in the murky morning skies. Today as I type this on 4th May, at least 5 have been lingering around the nearby sky, performing aerobatics, and frequently chasing each-other from the late morning and into the afternoon.
Onto non avian wildlife, early April produced a huge butterfly boom across the local area. It didn’t take long for Orange-tips to appear in mass just about everywhere I looked, while Speckled Woods started to appear around the woodland edges and Holly Blues made passing visits to the garden, occasionally basking. The eagerly anticipated dragonfly and damselfly season finally got going for me on 4th May with two Large Reds emerging from one of the balancing ponds. A disappointingly late start to the season compared with other recent years, but with so many fine sunny days recently, I suspect many of them may have already gone missed on their maiden flights. 2020 also seems to be the year of the Cuckoo flower in Tattenhoe, with many more appearing around the woodland and parkland meadows than I can say I’ve seen before.
Lockdown life has taken some adjusting to, but it has been comforting to at least see a portion of what has been going on out there within compliance to the guidelines. It’s been a good spring so far, especially for birds and with these difficult times still looming over us, I’m feeling luckier than ever to have the parks, lakes and woodland of MK on my doorstep. Stay safe everyone.
Tattenhoe, 5th May 2020
All photos courtesy of Harry Appleyard