Nature is waking up and over the coming months and we can bundle up less to go out and enjoy it. Stephen Dunstan places his bets on which of the migrant birds that went south for the winter will win the race back to the Fylde, while hares take up boxing.

In Cheltenham Festival month the bookies favourite for first bird back to the Fylde Coast would probably be the Sand Martin. They normally begin to appear in the second week of March, and the best place to see one is Marton Mere nature reserve. If you’re not familiar with them but do know their cousin the House Martin, this is a bird with brown upperparts and lacking a white rump. It’s more aquatic in habits, and generally nests in holes excavated in river banks.

Sand Martins (Creative Commons)

To see a Sand Martin in Blackpool the best bet is to get to Marton Mere early evening. As dusk approaches individuals begin to skim over the water hawking insects before roosting in the reeds. If you are familiar with the Mere you will know that there is a specially installed artificial Sand Martin ‘hotel’ to encourage breeding. Unfortunately the birds have other ideas and though it has been there several years they have never adopted it. There have been nesting birds local to Blackpool in recent years though, including in sand excavations at Ream Hills.

Vying with the Sand Martin at the head of the betting market would be the Wheatear. Wheatears are thrush-like birds whose name is basically a corruption of ‘white arse’, referring to their conspicuous rump. If you aren’t familiar with Wheatears this is the best way to spot one, as it’s bright behind bobs up and down in an undulating flight. Once you’ve got your eye in they are a charming bird, the females being a nuanced mix of pale colours and the males having a striking outfit of blue back, peachy undersides and contrasting black ‘Zorro’ face mask and wings.

Wheatear (Creative Commons)

Wheatear don’t nest on the Fylde, and the birds we see are heading to sites further north or inland of us. The species is one of several that engage in ‘leapfrog migration’. That is to say that the birds that summer furthest north also winter furthest south, leapfrogging their congeners. This is something that you would generally have to take on trust as one Wheatear looks a lot like another, but some of the birds heading further north are noticeably larger and more colourful and often referred to as Greenland Wheatear.

Wheatears can be fairly liberal in habitat choice on migration, and can be happy to stop over in ploughed fields and on golf courses. Probably the best bet to see one though is to visit either end of our coastline, at Rossall Point and St Annes Dunes early in the day. Birds will make landfall at these sites and gradually move inland as levels of human disturbance increase.

A decent outside bet with a good track record of March arrivals it the Sandwich Tern. Terns are smaller, more graceful relatives of gulls and all migrate south for the winter. The Sandwich Tern is invariably the first one to return. Whilst they generally aren’t seen until mid-month it’s also the case that they are more easily missed as they are offshore and less people are looking for them. Once you get familiar with their harsh ‘kerrick’ call though, you can clock them passing whilst you walk along the Promenade.

Sandwich Terns (Creative Commons)

Sandwich Terns don’t nest on the Fylde, but birds are seen all summer on fishing sorties from places they do breed including Foulney and Walney Islands on the far side of Morecambe Bay. Observation of ringed birds loafing on local beaches in the autumn have shown at this time have moved hundreds of miles from other colonies.

The other species I was referring to at the start of the piece are Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Both were exclusively summer visitors in the past, but both now winter in small numbers. To grossly simplify, Chiffchaffs are probably adapting to climate change whilst a Continental population of Blackcaps started to come to feed from British bird tables in a more surprising development. Their songs will be gracing us soon, one a repetitive ‘chiff chaff’ and the other a rich and varied melody sometimes confused with Nightingales.

This is also a good month to observe Whooper Swan return to Iceland, large numbers pass offshore some mornings whilst there will also be groups over the town coming cross country from the Ouse Washes in eastern England. Hares are also worth looking out for, as they engage in their ‘mad March’ behaviours of boxing with each other. It may be worth not broadcasting sites where hares are seen in too much detail as poaching still occurs locally.

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