Pied Wagtail - Neil Tackaberry Flickr CC

I wrote recently about edgelands. A bird that is absolutely typical of edgeland environments, always there but easily overlooked, is the pied wagtail. Any supermarket car park, warehouse courtyard, or suburban street is likely to have its population of these pretty, dainty little birds. They seem happy to thrive on concrete and tarmac as easily as they do on grassland, and some of them have picked up the knack of taking insects from car radiators and so have come to inhabit motorway service stations as a rich source of food. They are infinitely adaptable, and largely invisible, except when they form one of their spectacular urban roosts. These can hold hundreds of birds, who seem to take refuge in the security offered by large buildings and street lighting. Some have even been known to make use of heating pipes as perches in winter. They’re one of the avian world’s great copers, and they are likely to inspire affection, as in this verse from John Clare

Little Trotty Wagtail, he went in the rain
And twittering, tottering sideways, he ne’er got straight again.
He stooped to get a worm and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.
Little Trotty Wagtail, he waddled in the mud
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water pudge and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
Little Trotty Wagtail, you nimble all about
And in the dimpling water pudge, you waddle in and out.
Your home is nigh at hand and in the warm pig stye.
So, Little Master Wagtail, I’ll bid you a goodbye.

One of their favourite environments is a golf course, and right now they’re one of the few signs of life on the links near my home. Up till a couple of weeks ago much of the landscape was populated by large – by current standards – flocks of fieldfares and redwings. These proud winter visitors would march across the carefully mown links in serried ranks, picking up worms and whatever insects they could find. Now they’re gone, flown back to cooler environments in northern Europe and Asia where they breed. The pochards too have left the lakes, leaving the mallard to patrol the shores and build their nests. Soon the males will depart for their bachelor colonies where they will moult and preen, leaving the females to do the work of bringing up the young alone.

These losses have left a palpable vacuum, which only highlights how narrow a range of life a golf course can sustain, in spite of the rolling green vistas. From the point of view of insect life, the grass might as well be tarmac. It will be filled again in a few weeks’ time when the house martins and swallows return. Soon there will be hundreds of these lovely, fast-flying creatures skimming the greens. They will have come all the way up from Africa, a miracle of navigation that never fails to intrigue and thrill me, for they weigh no more than a few grams, yet they return to the place of their birth year after year. Their return – usually some time close to St George’s day – marks a high spot in the year for me. I often give a shout of welcome when I see the first one. We are lucky here: the tall eaves of the hotel nearby make a perfect place for them to roost, and they do so in large numbers. I don’t think I’ve seen so many house martins in one place since I was a child.

Much of course will depend on the weather. If it is a warm summer they will flourish, but if, as has been the case in recent years, it is not they will suffer for want of food. We’ve not had a winter to speak of this year in the Midlands, and already temperatures are hitting the high teens, so maybe there will be a minor upsurge in the populations, which have undoubtedly lately dwindled.

Only yesterday I came across a small clump of bluebells in full bloom, huddled beneath the sheltering walls of our local churchyard. I usually associate these quintessentially British flowers with a May bloom, but there they were, clearly having started to flower in late March. What sort of omen this might be I have no idea: I just welcome these small signs of hope for a year to come.

Image: Neil Tackaberry Flickr Creative Commons

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