Basin Notes - Jan 2013

Early Birds

The mild weather over Christmas and into the New Year appeared to have briefly misled some bird species into thinking spring and the mating season were about to arrive.

Walking around the Basin Reserve it became clear that a number of great tits were trying to claim territories using their characteristic 'teacher -teacher' call, and twice I heard the drumming sound of great-spotted woodpeckers.

The great-spotted woodpecker has no song to declare its presence to potential mates and claim a territory, although it does have a brief contact call. The drumming, created by rapidly striking a tree with its beak, is the woodpecker equivalent of a song and serves the same purposes as song in other species.

Woodpeckers have studied by engineers as well as ornithologists. The woodpecker strikes a tree between 10 and 40 times a second. In most animal species such rapid blows with the head would cause damage to the brain. The physical adaptations which protect a woodpecker's brain from damage have been mimicked in sophisticated machinery which has to withstand similar pressures from rapid vibration.

A further unusual physical adaptation of the woodpecker is to be found at the tail. It is extremely stiff, and along with the bird's sharp claws, been it provides the leverage to facilitate both the rapid drumming and the force required for the bird to prise gaps in bark when exploring for food. Once located, the food can be extracted with an unusually long tongue, which in the case of the great-spotted woodpecker can extend about 40 mm beyond the tip of the bill.

Most of the song and drumming heard around the Basin subsided with the arrival of the snow in mid-January, although the robin can still be heard as it shifts from its weak winter call to its more exuberant and louder spring call.

For most species, nest building lies well into the future, but for the dipper it will start very soon. They build a sophisticated, domed structure which can occupy both the male and female over a period of about 28 days. Given that the first eggs are laid as early as the beginning of March, you should be able to spot them carrying nesting materials in the next couple of weeks.

The dipper's nest is almost always built over running water. Young dippers can dive and swim several days before they can fly, which means that if the nest is disturbed or predated before they have fledged they may be able to survive by taking refuge in the stream. The main food source for the dipper is the larval stage of water-based invertebrates which are most plentiful in late winter. This plentiful supply of food in late winter is thought to be the main reason for the early nesting behaviour.

There was a happy coincidence last week. Burns' Night was the same day as the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. In addition to blowing the dust off your Kilmarnock Edition to enjoy some of the wonderful references to birds and nature to be found in Burns' poems, you could also have spent a happy hour observing and recording the birds in your garden or local park.