Home arrow 2010 Diary arrow March 2010. Cold Spring Ending.
March 2010. Cold Spring Ending. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jos   

White-backed Woodpecker

Cold, cold spring. With blankets of snow and sub-zero temperatures, signs of spring in the first half of the month were few and far between - no migrants, no spring flowers, no early butterflies. Instead, as in months previous, it was the feeders that kept me active, a fine variety of woodpeckers visiting daily, including a new White-backed Woodpecker (taking the winter's tally to three birds), plus a Grey-headed Woodpecker.

Then came the last ten days of the month, all change ...incoming migrants - Cranes, a Merlin on my land, a Golden Eagle, flocks of Garganey, the floodgates were beginning to open.




1 March. The Mysterious Case of the Missing Nuthatch.

Eurasian NuthatchLithuania appears to lie on the cline of the caesia and europaea races of Eurasian Nuthatch, the division a broad zone running north of the capital, warmer-coloured birds more reminiscent of caesia to the south and west, paler birds closer to europaea to the north-east. Over the last decade, suggesting this zone of convergence is edging northwards, warmer-coloured birds have gradually edged out the pale birds in my Vilnius garden, the latter now the exception rather than rule. At my Labanoras feeding station, however, just 80 km further north, pale birds still predominate ...or at least they did, literally overnight they vanished!


Eurasian Nuthatch


So, to the mysterious case of the missing Nuthatch. A resident species, Nuthatches have been a year-round feature at my feeders, both Labanoras and Vilnius, ever since they were established. The Labanoras birds, as well as breeding in the woodland, visited the feeders on a daily basis. Winter 2009/2010 began much as usual -two or three pairs in and out throughout the day, frequently taking nuts and storing them in nearby nestboxes. All continued without sign of decline, then on a single weekend in mid-November, the birds disappeared. Not a single bird since, not at the feeders, not in the forest.


Populations in my Vilnius garden, and elsewhere as far as I can tell, remain unchanged, so what happened to the birds?

Eurasian NuthatchThey dispersed or migrated? Possible, but why? Largely a sedentary species, birds have never left the forest before. Indeed, if anything, winter usually sees numbers slightly higher as occasional birds arrive with roving tit flocks.

They succuumbed? A distinct possibility, but the cause?

Disease? No signs of illness were noted, could a sudden catastrophic illness remove all the local birds in the space of one week?

Food poisoning? Had toxins been present in the peanuts? A visiting Lesser Spotted Woodpecker also disappeared in December, but toxins seem unlikely - no other birds have been affected and the same food is used in Vilnius, the Nuthatches there unaffected.

Predation? Sparrowhawk, Great Grey Shrike and Pygmy Owl have all been hunting at the feeders this winter. Did one of these find Nuthatches easy to catch, possibly also taking the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker? It seems unlikely however that any predator would catch all the birds in a single week.

Weather? Nothing untoward at the time of disappearance, rather typical November mildness. In past years, regardless of severity of the winter, birds have not dispersed.

So I have no answer. Vanishing into thin air without explanation, my feeding station is left a quieter place, a vacant spot remaining for their return. I hope, as the breeding season approaches, I am able to report on the 'Mysterious Case of the Returning Nuthatch'!


6-9 March. Winter Punch.

A long cold winter, relentless months of sub-zero and snow. A week back, with temperatures edging above freezing, it had appeared the end was finally in sight. Some hope! With a final brutal punch, the snow is back and weekend temperatures are plummeting to minus 21 C again! Argh!!!

In Vilnius, all ticked over nicely in the garden, all the regulars visiting in abundance, a male Sparrowhawk darting through too.

Grey-headed Woodpecker



Up at Labanoras, with the sun sparkling bright, forest and meadow looked glorious. A Red Fox sunbathed in the snow, Ravens and Common Buzzard soared in display and, hinting of a spring to come, Great Tit song resounded through the woodland. Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers were abundant at the feeders, a female White-backed Woodpecker also paying a visit. In the alder swamp beyond, two Black Woodpeckers were active, bashing stumps and calling throughout the day. The Grey-headed Woodpecker also visited, spending 20 minutes at the feeders and, perhaps better, both Coal and Willow Tits moved through in a roving flock, rare visitors to my forest this winter.

With the snow having drifted across my access road to a depth equal to the top of the bonnet, my car's snow-plough tendancies failed - bit of a struggle to get out, just another winter's day on my land!

Back in Vilnius, on a day of yet more snow, a notable event in the garden - after an absence of three years, a Middle Spotted Woodpecker returned to the peanut feeders, a welcome returnee. The male Sparrowhawk attacked again too.





11 March. Into the night.

Lithuania celebrated Independence Day, or at least Independence Mark II - the result of an unsuccessful history, Independence Mark I is celebrated in February! Anyhow, as soldiers marched in the capital, locals waved their flags and fireworks exploded over the cathedral, my celebrations took me north, off on a quest to find mammals of the night. 

Frozen sunset

Arriving some hours before sunset, rewards appeared before even venturing into the depths of the forest - a Snow Bunting dancing across frozen snowfields, a White-backed Woodpecker in a small roadside grove. In the forest itself, snow still deep and the temperature heading towards another night of minus 12 C, all was quiet, barely a bird to disturb the stillness. Meandering off at all angles, numerous animal trails - Roe Deer, Red Deer in abundance, Red Fox too. Here and there, giant pads of Elk, small prints of a martin as well.

 Wild Boar

As sun began its descent, so the first mammals put in an appearance - two Roe Deer, one Red Fox. The sun dropped, a family of Wild Boar sauntered onto the track, four well-grown piglets in tow. Darkness, however, failed to live up to expectations - one more Red Fox, one unidentified pair of eyes darting off to the left.

A Ural Owl called in the distance, but the night was now cold and largely still. Vague hopes for a Lynx would have to wait for another night, back to the capital I went.



12-13 March. Hunting for Spring.

12 March, dazzling sunshine, but still sub-zero, night temperatures dropping to minus 12 C. With most watercourses still weeks away from a melt, spring pickings remained pitifully meagre, but ever the optimist, out I wandered, determined to scrape something that resembled a sign of spring. Baltoji Voke was still frozen, as were large parts of the Neris River, the only nearby locality that offered potential was Electrenai, the lake largely ice-free due to the warm waters from the power station.

So it was, I spent the day there - all the usual harbingers of a spring remained stubbornly absent - no Skylarks overhead, no Reed Buntings, no Starlings - but birds there were, not only the long-staying Pygmy Cormorant, but also the first Great Cormorants returning to their breeding colonies, 19 present on this day. Ah, a hint of spring! And on the waters beyond, more signs of a winter about to expire - hundreds of Common Goldeneyes present, many in display. Also several dozen Goosanders, but other than that, very little.


Middle Spotted Woodpecker



Next day, the lure of my feeders called again, up to Labanoras I went. Great and Blue Tits in song, woodpeckers drumming for the first time this year, but with fresh snow overnight, it was truly a struggle to imagine spring was lurking in this quarter! Nevertheless, a most excellent outing - albeit very much a 'window day', sat in my cabin admiring the view outside.





White-backed Woodpecker






Activity at the feeders remained as good as ever, a buzz of birds all day. A nervous Grey-headed Woodpecker edged down to the feeders on occasion, Great and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers more frequently. Beyond, a male Black Woodpecker jumped from alder to alder throughout the day, a very showy bird, but nice as all these birds were, the star of the day arrived just a little later. A first-year bird, judging by his patchy-red crown, the star was a male White-backed Woodpecker, the first male this winter, thereby taking the winter's tally to three birds. Metres from the cabin window, my woodland seemed to take his fancy, a loud drumming ricocheting through the trees - hopefully attracting the females, a second successive season of breeding in the offing.







16 March, roads atrocious, minus 12 C tonight, but an end in sight! Rising temperatures and a possible 6C by the weekend, migrants will be flooding in! Settled on snow today, a family of Whooper Swans, three cygnets.


20-21 March. Spring Hath Sprung!

An unfamiliar warmth in the air, I stumbled out from my house to sit upon the garden step, Skylarks migrating over, bird song from the forest, spring had finally arrived, yippee!

Only days earlier, meadow and field had remained under a blanket of snow, temperatures stubbornly refusing to climb above zero. Today was all change - under a second consecutive day of sun and Common Cranetemperatures rising to plus 10 C, the land was now a patchwork of snow, bare grass and shallow pools of meltwater. And into this new landscape, birds galore, the floodgates were beginning to creak open - Skylarks everywhere, many migrating north, some already rising in song, here and there a Starling, always a bird to warm the heart, the first returnee. At Electrenai, still the only lake of significance to lose much of its ice, the change in a week was notable - rafts of birds now bobbed on the quiet waters, a minimum of 1000 Coots, 150 Tufted Ducks and 600 Goldeneye leading the packs. Scoped through, a solitary Greylag in their midst, the first two Smew of the season, plus the first Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe. Skylarks continued northward, three Wood Larks skimmed low, then high in the sunny sky, my first Cranes of the year, a pair drifting over the lake, gradually heading south. Spring was truly here.

In reedbeds adjacent, a gang of Grey Herons rose, a Reed Bunting sang, whilst on the lake the local Cormorant tally was now in excess of 40, everything in increased numbers or newly arrived. The resident White-tailed Eagle, today spooking the Coots, must surely look down with contentment, abundant dinners have returned form the south.


And so to the next day, Labanoras, my land. Six months of winter, the shackles were finally off, I arrived to mists rising off the remaining snow. Melodious yodelling adjacent, ah wonderful, my Cranes had returned, the pair strutting a hillside. Honoured to have these breeding on my land, their return is always a magical moment. Savoured the experience, Skylarks tumbling overhead, a first Starling already atop his nestbox. 

Forest, March 2010



Ahead, my track vanished into a deep pool of floodwater. With the car laden with nestboxes and a sack of grain however, I really fancied getting my car across the meadow if I could - a decidedly dodgy proposition in the days of snow melt, in years past my car sinking into a quagmire! Fortunately, though snow was in active melt, the actual ground was still frozen solid, so progress was relatively easy. Five Lapwings flopped over, my first of the year, Common Ravens circled in display.


Chucked up a few of the new nestboxes (the plan is to have over 200 fairly soon), then retired to the feeders. With temperatures up to 7 C, activity was less hectic than of late, but still all the favourites were in place, including the Grey-headed Woodpecker which spent no less than 40 minutes on the feeder!!! In the wider forest, still decked in snow, a symphony of woodpeckers - Grey-headed Woodpecker yaffling and drumming, Middle Spotted Woodpecker hammering away and, defending territory, the new White-backed Woodpecker loud and vocal. Possibly a second male White-backed Woodpecker at the opposite end of the wood, an interesting development if it turns out.



However, bird of the day was still awaiting me - back in the meadows, now shroud in dank fog, a bird whipped past, then doubled and shot back again, a female Merlin! Fantastic, a new bird for my land, species number 147! (CLICK HERE for Full Labanoras Species List)

And then, just proving spring had truly arrived, it began to rain. Farewell for me, back home I went.


25-27 March. Voila, Truly Spring.

The first butterflies of the year, skeins of geese northbound, Cranes yodelling and summer birds back in the garden.

The 25th, a glorious sunny day, a quick glance down the garden and there were the summer birds back - two Song Thrushes hopping through the shrubbery, a male Chaffinch pinking from an apple tree. Surely time for my first visit of the season to Baltoji Voke.

White StorkSuperb it was too. Though most pools remained frozen, skeins of White-fronted Geese passed over and, crowded onto the first waters free of ice, 13 Greylag Geese mingled with Mallard, Wigeon and Pintail, now in numbers several dozen high. Amongst them two Smew, a few Tufted Ducks and Pochards. On Lake Papis, the reed island was again alive with noise, numerous Black-headed Gulls back at the colony, a few Common Gulls thrown in. Two White-tailed Eagles on the ice, the first Marsh Harrier of the year, plenty to spook the gulls. Overhead, a Crane soared in the sunny skies and wafts of Lapwing drifted over. Truly spring had arrived. And with it, the opening of the butterfly season - two Small Tortoiseshells and a Peacock on this day.

Two days later, the trickle was turning into a flood. Passerines were pouring in, with Chaffinches everywhere, Starlings in flocks nearing a thousand and Song Thrushes in their dozens. On the water, the ice beginning a slow retreat, duck numbers had sky-rocketed, with Wigeon alone numbering 1220, Pintail up to 150 and new arrivals including several dozen Teal, a Shoveler and a pod of 13 Garganey. Better still, always a joy to see, White Storks had arrived back, one pair atop a nest in the village, another soaring overhead. Small Tortoiseshells fluttered by and the sun attempted a degree of warmth. White Wagtails, Robins, Mistle Thrushes, all new arrivals.


 Golden Eagle


The best was still to come. On the 25th I had stood at a favoured patch, peering skyward, hoping a large raptor might migrate over. It hadn't. Today I was back at the same spot, a half hour basking in the sun, waiting and scanning the skies. I didn't really rate my chances too highly, my quest was for a bird rare in Lithuania, one I have only seen six times in ten years and more. Three of those times were in the last week of March however, so somehow I felt I was about to be rewarded. All the same, I was still mightily surprised when one did actually appear - with three White Storks circling high above, a fourth bird. A quick gander with the bins, I was watching my seventh ever Golden Eagle in Lithuania, all coincidently at this exact point! An immature bird, it soared directly overhead, trolling with the storks, slowly drifting southward.

As the Golden Eagle disappeared over meadows, I wandered on, vaguely heading in the same direction, hoping for a reacquaintance. It was not to be, but several Common Buzzards, one Rough-legged Buzzard, a Marsh Harrier and a female Hen Harrier completed a most fine raptor tally. Three Green Sandpipers too. Skylarks in their hundreds, bird song now filling the skies, it was a fine end to my morning out. Back to the city I went.




28 March. Storks, Home Again.


First in the neighbourhood, 1 p.m., down they floated, my White Storks. Nests all around still bare, but mine now sporting the ultimate in garden accessories, the return of these birds is always a high point of my spring. In the forests beyond, despite the lake still firmly in the grip of ice, spring was gathering pace - singing a mournful melody, several Redwings back on territory, plus a White-backed Woodpecker drumming and, near their nestbox, Tawny Owl giving a daytime serenade. At the feeders, an influx of Blue Tits, migratory birds too, almost all were males, the females should be days behind. In the forest however, the day’s highlight was the reappearance of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers - three months after the previous female vanished, a new lady was on the feeders, a very bright-backed individual. And no sooner had I welcomed her in and then a male appeared, perfect timing for the breeding season!

More spring birds in the meadows - no less than six Cranes, the songs of these birds now echoing across the hillsides. Also the first Grey Herons back, already carrying twigs to their nests, and thanks to a rampaging Labrador, my third-ever record of Woodcock on the land, this one rising from the regeneration zone, a good bird indeed. Other notables, all new-in, a flock of eight Mistle Thrushes (a high count for this species), three fly-over Goldeneyes, one White Wagtail and a Wood Pigeon.

The only negative of the day, I got hopelessly bogged in in a mini-quagmire and after two hours of trying to rescue the car, punctuated by a pause to watch a Grey-headed Woodpecker that called by, I eventually had to accept defeat, bringing in a tractor to get me going again! Both car and machine, ten rounds of mud-wrestling it appeared had been endured! Fortunately, rain was on the forecast for the next day.

And next day indeed the rain did come, the car evolved back to an original colour and I spent it in my garden. Birds galore, a big gang of Siskins descending on mass, crowding the feeders and making much noise. A Hawfinch too, plus all the usuals.


Last Updated ( Monday, 29 March 2010 )
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