Northerly gales halt arrival of African migrants
The recent run of bitterly cold northerly winds has all but brought to a standstill the spring arrival of birds to the Dales, which have been wintering south of the Sahara Desert.
In most years by mid-April the air is full of the song of newly-arrived species such as wheatears, swallows and willow warblers as they forage for insects over the ripening pastures and in the fresh green foliage of hedgerows and woodlands.
Yet despite a small arrival of migrants during the mild spell at the end of March and first few days of April, we are still awaiting the main influx of species. Most of 'our' birds are probably held up in France or Spain, waiting for suitable conditions to make their passage across the English Channel. Such conditions consist of light southerly winds and clear skies, something we would all welcome.
Many of our most familiar Dales birds are only with us for the summer months and travel many thousands of miles to spend those months here. These include swallows and their insect-eating cousins the martins and swifts, plus the warblers and flycatchers. The ring ousel, a larger hill country relative of the blackbird with a white crescent on its chest, makes a pilgrimage from southern Africa to feed in the lush pastures of the Three Peaks.
The migratory skills of these species are legendary. Studies of nestling swallows have shown that after fledging the chicks go south with their parents to Sub-Saharan Africa where there are flies aplenty to feed these aerial masters over the winter. What is truly amazing is that they often return the following year to exactly the same barn as they were born in, a return trip of 8,000 miles - all without an atlas! Just how these tiny birds manage this feat of navigation is unknown, thought they are thought to use the combination of an in-built compass and an ability to use the stars to find their way home.
Arrested migration is the term ornithologists give to the phenomenon where birds have to stop their long-distance flights mid-way due to unfavourable weather conditions. It is a mixed blessing for bird-watchers, as the first fine spell of weather with southerly winds will probably bring spectacular numbers of birds to our region, singing loudly and generally being very approachable as they battle to be first to establish their territories once here. If the weather turns fair, get out and enjoy this spectacle for yourself.
A beautiful sight at the moment is the white blossom of blackthorn, which is very prominent in the hedgerows. The blackthorn - a native thorny shrub which yields the famous sloe berries in the autumn - is often found in Dales' field boundaries and in April gives a wonderful show of small white flowers. Later in the year small green leaves appear on the shrub and it is a favoured nest site for small birds, which benefit from its impenetrable defences. In the woodlands ivory-white anemones and bright yellow celandines are bursting forward at ground level to take advantage of the sunlight, before it is shaded out by the newly-emerging leaves on the trees above.
Remember that while enjoying the outdoors this month, many footpaths in the Dales remain closed. There are plenty of good habitats that can be seen from roads and trackways, and in a few places woodlands away from livestock are being opened up once a risk-assessment has taken place. Check with the National Park and local authorities for the latest updates before venturing out.
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