Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THREE dunnocks flirting in the topmost branches of the oak with much tail and wing flicking, two grey squirrels playing Catch-me around its trunk, tails quivering and claws scrabbling for purchase: it was 15th February and enough to make one believe in the St Valentine story – courtship starts here!

It’s a charming idea but the natural world isn’t that simple. Two months ago, stepson Chris in Snowdonia reported ravens in their spectacular aeronautic displays overhead. Ravens are early nesters – sitting on the nest, a huge untidy pile of sticks often on a rocky ledge, brooding a full clutch of eggs as the snow falls around them! Herons, too, begin early. They nest colonially, using the same small area of trees (scotch pines are favourites) year after year. I always feel slightly disoriented seeing these long-legged, generally statuesque birds balanced on high branches which rock in the wind. The young of both ravens and herons take time to develop – they’re big birds after all. They have a comparatively long dependency on parents – there’s a lot to learn. So only one, carefully nurtured brood a season. Compare ravens (incubation: 21days, fledge after 45) with blackbirds (27 days from egg laid to fledge, and three or four broods a year).

Long-tailed tits also start the process early. Our resident pair are already scouring our window frames for cobwebs to bind together the intricate fabric of their nest. The early start is because such an elaborate structure – an elasticated bag of grasses, moss, lichen and feathers that can expand to accommodate a family of up to 12 along with both parents - takes time to build. Unsurprisingly they generally only raise one brood a year.

To me the most surprising nester is the crossbill. This stout finch with its beak cleverly adapted to tweak out seeds from cones can nest at any time of year – depending, I suppose, on food availability. In our area I have watched crossbills in Timble Ings, the rosy-red males, and lime-green females looking exotic in our drab winter woodland. Records suggest that locally crossbills nest in winter, so they are concluding parent duties just as most other small birds are beginning.

For most species, the season is just beginning. Territory must be established to ensure a food supply for themselves and the family to come. That’s where birdsong comes in, and in these last few sunny days of February I have taken pleasure in the growing volume of song in and around the oak tree.