Edward's Birding Diary
The mimicry of Starlings
Snowy March brought record numbers of Redpolls to my garden with more than 100 at the feeders – mostly darker types, but also an increasing number of pale Redpolls turn up in late winter, including a couple of good Arctic Redpoll candidates, but no classic adult hornemanni unfortunately. Otherwise March is the crossover between winter birding and the onset of spring. The days get rapidly longer, the weather improves, in theory, and most importantly the first migrants begin to return. The identity of the first returning migrant species is a matter of debate.
Above: Why do Arctic Redpolls as clear cut as this never show up in my garden?
The general public consider it to be the Golden Plover (it isn't), birders often talk of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which disappear completely over winter and are very conspicuous on their return, but a good argument could be made for Gannets or Fulmars being the first migrants. Both disappear for very short periods over mid-winter and probably don't go far as they are back by mid-January. In fact I saw Gannets at the end of December this year so it's debatable whether they are true migrants. Early migrants include Oystercatchers, Whooper Swans, Greylag Geese but my garden reverberated with the sounds of Golden Plovers, Whimbrels and White Wagtail in early March, far ahead of schedule. The source of these songs was of course one of the local Starlings, whose skill for mimicry never ceases to amaze me. I've now heard Starlings give convincing renditions of Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Snipe, Ringed Plover, Redwing (very frequently), Redpoll and Snow Bunting and I'm probably forgetting a few. What really impressed me about the bird I heard in early March was its memory. It can't possibly have heard a Whimbrel calling since early September at the very latest, yet here it was six months later in a conifer in my garden doing a very passable impression of one of Iceland's commonest moorland birds. How on earth do they retain the song of a Whimbrel in their bird-sized brains? Another trip to Vatnsleysa on a quest for a King Eider failed but I was rewarded by the site of several thousand cooing Common Eiders and my first three Harlequins of the year.
Below: The Starling is a beautiful bird. No really. Photo by Sigmundur Ásgeirsson