Bright and beautiful

At times the winter months can seem endlessly grey: the trees are bare, the grass is a paler shade of green and the sky often lacks any hint of blue. So when the days finally lengthen and the warmth of the sun can be felt breathing new life into the countryside, our birds suddenly spring into life. Now is the time to secure a mate and start a family and, in a bid to do this, the males begin singing their hearts out.

But it’s not all about song, at this time of the year most of our birds are wearing their Sunday best and their appearance is at its finest. The brightest male blue tit stands a better chance of securing a mate than those that don’t quite match up, and now is arguably the best time of the year to see many of our birds at their most colourful. The blue crown, wings and tail of male blue tits are at their most intense right now.

One bird that takes some beating is the male bullfinch. The black cap, soft grey back, white rump and black tail all come together to really set off the wonderful rosy pink underparts. The song doesn’t match the showy appearance, though, and could make it a contender for the weakest of all our songbirds, but it is all about the seeing, and bullfinches can be quite obvious in their favoured scrubby woodland-edge habitat.

Often overlooked, probably as a result of how common it is, the male mallard is definitely worth a second glance when in its spring finery. The body is largely vermiculated greys, smudged brown in places but the head and breast are where it’s at. The bill is a lovely greeny yellow, sporting a small black nail at the tip; the head is a deep green that has a wonderful gloss when hit by sunlight, and a gleaming white collar separates the head from the dark chocolate breast, making the mallard a stunning bird.

Another common bird not to miss is the moorhen. In full breeding plumage, it is a delight to behold. The bright red beak is tipped with equally bright yellow, the head and body is blue-black with hints of purple, while the coffee-coloured back contrasts beautifully with the most amazing green legs and huge feet.

There are many more to see, but it is invariably the males that will be more colourful. Most, but not all, female birds are drab in comparison. They don’t normally have to attract a mate, so don’t always need showy colours. But more importantly, most need to melt into the background when sitting on the nest. In the main it is the female bird that does most of the incubation of the eggs, but there are exceptions to this rule. With both dotterel and red-necked phalarope, the female is brighter than the male. This is because it is the male that sits on the eggs and it is the female that initiates the pair formation in both birds by displaying to the males. In some species, in particular seabirds, the male and female plumage is identical. As parental care is more equally shared, the need to look different is negated, but breeding plumage is still acquired and their appearance in spring is beautiful. The deep red mouth and legs of the black guillemot contrast superbly with the jet-black body, making it a must-see seabird.

Once the breeding season nears its end, the adult birds undergo a moult in which varying amounts of feathers that have become tattered and worn are replaced. The result of this is, more often than not, a much drabber winter plumage.

So spring is the time to enjoy the wonderful colours of our breeding birds and here are 10 not to miss…

  • Blue tit – widespread, all year round
  • Bullfinch – widespread, all year round
  • Mallard – widespread, all year round
  • Moorhen – widespread, all year round
  • Dotterel – summer visitor to mountain habitats, mainly Scotland, but can be seen on passage. Pendle Hill, Lancashire is a traditional staging site in April-May
  • Red-necked phalarope – rare summer visitor to Fetlar, Shetland, May-July
  • Black guillemot – found on rocky coasts from South Wales to Shetland, including most of the coastline of Ireland
  • Wheatear – common summer visitor to our upland habitats, April-September
  • Grey wagtail – widespread along our waterways, all year round
  • Redstart – summer visitor to our oak woodlands, particularly in the west, April-September

Check out the Mapstore on the British Trust for Ornithology website for free distribution maps of all of Britain’s breeding and wintering birds.

Magazine of the Ramblers