Hello to all and I hope the first few days of Spring have been good ones for you! There are signs of the changing seasons all around us, ever since the days began to lengthen after the New Year- now the birds are singing, crocuses and daffodils popping up above the soil again and the first bees are on the wing too.
The last month at Lakenheath Fen has seen a shift in the wildlife that visitors can see- marsh harriers are beginning to disperse to their spring breeding territories and the evening harrier roost consists of fewer birds. However, our common cranes are now back with us and have been here since the start of February, which is an early return (the middle of the month being more typical) and this may reflect the milder weather of January and early February. Any day now, we will hear the first bitterns calling (deep, resonant ‘booms’ echoing across the reedbeds from territorial males) and the first blackcaps and chiffchaffs will start to join the resident songsters.
Across the UK, many of our familiar garden birds will be in full song too, but it is now widely known that many popular species struggle to find enough safe spaces to nest in our gardens. March is not too late to give them a helping hand by putting up a bird box or two in your garden, if you have the space. Bird boxes come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, as different birds have different needs. Where you put your box can be very important too. One key feature for any box is that they generally need to be installed at least five feet above the ground, and out of reach of any visiting cats, either from above or below. Lastly, it is very important not to site your box in a south-facing position or where it will be exposed to sunlight during the hottest part of the day, as in the warmer months the eggs, chicks and incubating adults within can quickly get too hot. A box facing west, north, east or in-between is best.
Consistently voted as Britain’s favourite garden bird, the robin, requires quite a secluded spot to nest in. The type of box robins like is called an ‘open-fronted’ box and mounted in a tangle of ivy or within a dense shrub is a good place to put it- robins do like a well-hidden site. You may find that a wren ends up moving into a robin box as they like a similar situation.
Next come the boxes with the traditional hole entrances- and they come with two entrance hole sizes- 25mm and 32mm wide. Boxes with a 25mm hole are ideal for blue tits but will exclude larger species such as great tits and house sparrows, which need a 32mm to fit their bigger bellies through! So a 25mm hole works if you just want to attract blue tits, but a blue tit won’t turn down a larger 32mm hole so this option will suit a wider range of birds and you are more likely to get an occupant! Our house sparrows struggle for nesting sites as older buildings are taken down, often taking with them loose roof tiles and cavities in roofs which were ideal nesting spots for sparrows and also starlings too. Sparrows do like to nest together in groups and you can buy ‘terrace’ style boxes with several compartments in one wooden unit, each with their own nest hole, to help appeal to their social nature. Or, two or more separate boxes in one spot will work just as well.
If you think you’d like to put up a box or two, March is not too late as although the birds have already begun to sing and court each other, many will still be looking for a nest site to use once they are paired up. Good quality boxes will be well-joined at the edges (to help keep the occupants dry during rain) and will have a panel that can be removed for easy-cleaning out of season. Specialist nestboxes are also available for other species such as house martins, swifts and swallows. If you have a large and quiet garden, there are boxes specially designed for barn owl, tawny owl and kestrels to use if you have any of these birds of prey nearby.
For more information on nest boxes, you can either telephone the RSPB on 01767 693690 or visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/nestboxes/. If you are looking to buy boxes, then you can visit shopping.rspb.org.uk or visit an RSPB Shop at The Lodge, Titchwell or Minsmere. Nearby Lackford Lakes (Suffolk Wildlife Trust) can also offer advice in person and they sell nest boxes too.
I hope this article has been interesting and useful for anyone looking to add a nest box or two to their garden. As always, myself and the rest of the team here at RSPB Lakenheath Fen would like to wish you well for the month ahead.
By Heidi Jones
Visitor Experience Officer, RSPB Lakenheath Fen.