Audio: Listen out for love birds

WHAT does Valentine's Day mean to you? For most men, I guess, it's just another date in the calendar that must not be forgotten at all costs. .

By Ian Barthorpe, of RSPB Minsmere

WHAT does Valentine's Day mean to you? For most men, I guess, it's just another date in the calendar that must not be forgotten at all costs.

Another day on which you need to treat your loved one to something special - and I don't just mean a bunch of roses or a box of chocolates. I'm sure the ladies will agree that while these are nice, a little thought and imagination will be even better received.

If you enjoy watching the wildlife in your garden, you may have noticed that love, or at least courtship, is starting in earnest among our garden birds. Courtship often involves gifts, with males bringing food to their potential mates to demonstrate their skills at gathering food, and to help the female produce eggs more easily.

Watch your garden birds and you'll see many signs of courtship signalling the impending spring. Use your ears, and you'll notice many more, as the most obvious form of courtship for most birds is singing.

Singing is a means of defining territory: an area that male birds will defend from rivals and will supply them with enough food for the breeding season. Birdsong also serves to attract a mate. The stronger and more tuneful the song, the more likely it is that the male will attract a female. Finally, males sing to warn rivals to stay away from their female and territory.

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Few birds sing in winter as they do not need to attract a mate, and they roam around in search of food. The most obvious exception is the robin. Male and female robins both defend winter feeding territories. Therefore, robins sing throughout the year. The winter song is subtly different, and even female robins sing - very unusual.

As the days lengthen, robins are beginning to pair up and the males can be heard singing from any suitable bush in their territory. They even sing at night, under street lights, so don't be fooled into thinking you've got a nightingale in the garden. Nightingales are still in Africa and won't return until April. Even then they are rare in gardens! The robin's sweet song is certainly tuneful, yet can be strangely overlooked once other species find their voice.

My personal favourite birdsong belongs to the sadly declining song thrush. They often start singing around Christmas, though I only heard my first one in Beccles this year in early February. Song thrushes sing from a high perch, repeating and adding phrases to create a superb rich song. If there's a song thrush near you, make the most of it and listen to that fabulous song.

The closely related blackbird has the UK's most popular song, possibly due to its familiarity. Blackbirds sing from many chimney tops and aerials, and thus attract the attention of families walking to school, gardeners, or whoever has the job of clearing frost from the windscreen on a cold morning. Blackbirds may be just starting to sing near you.

Other early songsters to listen for in the garden include the loud trill of the wren, the cheery chaffinch, the delicate dunnock or the repeated notes of blue tits and great tits. Perhaps less welcome for some, and certainly considered less tuneful, you should also be able to hear the mournful cooing of woodpigeons or the more frantic notes of collared doves.

Song is not the only form of courtship though, as many birds have elaborate displays, or acquire particularly impressive plumage to attract a mate.

Woodpigeons and collared doves can be seen flapping loudly upwards before gliding down on open wings in a simple courtship flight. Rooks and jackdaws may be seen tumbling through the sky in a play-like flight.

If you visit RSPB Minsmere nature reserve on a clear day, you may be lucky enough to see a far more impressive courtship flight: sky-dancing marsh harriers. Marsh harriers are large birds of prey that nest in reedbeds, so to attract a mate they perform a superb series of twists, dives and somersaults high above, often likened to a rollercoaster. It's well worth seeing.

Another reedbed specialist is the bittern: a rare, brown heron that has its stronghold at Minsmere. Male bitterns attract a mate with a unique deep call, referred to as a boom. The boom is so deep that it can be heard for up to one mile away. Only 75 males were heard in the UK last year - a huge increase on the previous spring - with 11 males at Minsmere. They can be heard booming from mid February to late May, especially early in the morning.

Minsmere is a fantastic place to visit in early spring. The snowdrops are flowering and the daffodils around the visitor centre are in bud already. The first blackthorn blossom will follow soon. Look out for courting frogs and toads in the pond towards the end of February. Out on the reserve, the male ducks, or drakes, are sporting their finest plumage, flicking tails, bobbing heads and splashing around in an effort to impress a female.

This week there's another great reason to bring the children to Minsmere. On Tuesday, we're celebrating National Nestbox Week with a fun-filled day of activities. There's a chance to make your own nestbox to attract blue tits to nest in the garden. Kits are limited, so advance booking is recommended (ring 01728 648281). Nestboxes will cost �4 per child. There will be other craft activities to enjoy too.

You can also try to win your own nestbox in a simple competition, learn about different types of nestbox and tips to attract wildlife into the garden, or enjoy some special children's snacks in the tearoom. If you don't want to make one, there will be a wide range of nestboxes to buy in the shop. And, of course, you can try to spot a sky-dancing harrier, hear a booming bittern, or simply enjoy watching the tits and finches on the feeders outside the visitor centre.

So if you love the birds in your garden, why not help them find somewhere to nest this spring and give them a new nestbox.

It's not just the birds either. You can also buy nestboxes for bees, ladybirds, bats, hedgehogs and even toads. Go on, give your wildlife a treat this Valentine's Day.

Diary dates

(Booking essential. All events at Minsmere unless stated, tel: 01728 648281)

� Tuesday, 17 February at 9.30 am: Birdwatching for beginners

� Tuesday, 17 February from 10.30 am to 2.30 pm: Nests and nestboxes

� Thursday, 19 February at 10.30 am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings (call 01728 688303 for bookings)

� Thursday, 19 and Friday, 27 February at 10 am: Winter wander

� Friday, 20 February at 10 am: Family wildlife walk

� Tuesday, 24 February at 9.30 am: An historical tour of Minsmere

� Saturday, 28 February and Tuesday, 10 March at 8 am: Woodlarks and warblers on Westleton Heath

� Sunday, 1 and Saturday, 14 March at 9.30 am: Weekend wildlife walk

� Wednesday, 4 and Monday, 9 March at 9.30 am: Discovering Minsmere

� Saturday, 7 March at 11 am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings Farmers Market

� Saturday, 7 March at 2 pm: Minsmere Wildlife Explorers Group

� Saturday, 14 March at 10 am: Digi-scoping demo


For general enquiries: The RSPB, UK Headquarters, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL. Tel: 01767 680551. E-mail

RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, Westleton, Saxmundham, Suffolk, IP17 3BY. Tel: 01728 648281. E-mail Website:

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