Although we are now at the end of the first week of April, the scene on the farm remains more like late February than spring. I tend to carry out the first round of breeding survey visits in the early part of April in order to get a good idea of what the resident species are up to and hopefully encounter some early spring migrants. However, the continuing cold weather means that it really does not feel like the breeding season is properly underway at all. The tits in Pheasant Covert have been keeping a low profile and it was only yesterday that there was any real vocal activity from them. Bird song from other species remains sporadic and a flock of 10 Blackbirds feeding with some Fieldfares in one of the fields this morning may suggest that these individuals were on their way to breeding grounds elsewhere, rather than preparing to breed locally. I saw the first returning Chiffchaffs quietly feeding in the bushes along the Sherburn Cut on 4th April and given the cold temperatures I am sure they were struggling to find food. They certainly showed no inclination to start singing and I haven't seen them since, and I saw none during my visit this morning. This is in stark contrast to a count of 14 (most of which were singing birds) around the farm on the 2nd April last year!
One of the targets of the early round of breeding survey visits is to see how things are shaping up for the breeding Lapwings which are the prime target species for many of the conservation measures being implemented on the farm. Last year the first Lapwing Productivity Survey visit took place on 26th March and I recorded a count suggestive of a population of 25 pairs in the area. This morning all I could manage was a single pair in the old maize field by Bogg Hall. During the week there had been one or two displaying birds in Bridge Field, but these were not present this morning. So, at the moment just two pairs might be considering nesting! I guess one can't blame these birds for being reluctant to get down to breeding in these temperatures, but it really is an amazing contrast with last year. There is a sizeable Lapwing flock frequenting the arable to the west of the farm and most of these birds are coming onto the flooded areas from time to time. Hopefully once the temperatures do eventually rise then the breeding birds will move in quickly, but in the meantime it seems they are feeding on the arable and having to evade the attention of two Peregrines (an adult and a second calendar year bird) that have been present for the past week. I've found two dead Lapwings on the farm this week and I suspect that it is likely that both fell victim to the Peregrines.
Nevertheless there are more positive things to report. There are still ca60 Snipe around the farm, mostly on North Screed, but with smaller numbers scattered around the ditches and scrapes elsewhere. A pair of Greylag Geese have a nest with seven eggs, whilst the pair of Shelduck remain in residence and a pair of Shoveler arrived on 5th April. Odd pairs of Teal have been lurking in a couple of the better vegetated ditches and there seems to be a good number of Mallard paired up and getting down to nesting. The flock of Tufted Duck on the Irrigation Pond has increased to 28, whilst the winter flock of Wigeon numbered 67 on 5th; by the first week of April last year Wigeon numbers were down to single figures. Eight skylarks were singing around the farm this morning which is suggests the population may be on course to be higher than last year, and some Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings have also begun to sing.
Other interesting sightings from the past few days include a party of four Crossbills and a Woodcock in Pheasant Covert and two Barn Owls that put on a particularly good show this morning and allowed me to obtain some reasonable photos.