RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Spring brings sweet songs, foreign tales and new life

It was not so much a case of four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie as four and twenty blue tits served up in a frying pan.

This photo is what I saw from my kitchen window at the end of last summer.

They had enjoyed a record breeding year. Three or four families converged on their frying pan swimming pool and had a lovely time in the hot days. Most of them are still there in the frost of early February.

You can just about see 11 blue tits and also a great tit in my rather hazy digital photo and that was only half the gang.

Having recorded the numbers of breeding birds in this nature reserve at West Dean for the past 37 years, I find blue tits have only once before had such a good breeding success and that was in 1983.

Many readers will remember last spring as well, for there were many reports of blue tits doing well, raising large families, throughout the county.

With 54 species having bred in this tiny 40-acre reserve of hazel coppice and oak standards, that is exceptional and shows proper management by volunteers working for the Sussex Wildlife Trust and West Dean Estate.

If only more landowners would manage their coppice properly. Thousands of acres in Sussex are no longer given care and attention.

The blue tits are the commonest birds to breed after robin, blackbird, chaffinch and pheasant. But they cheated a bit because they took a fancy to all the dormice nesting boxes which were put up in the reserve. However, dormice did manage to stake a claim on five of the 50 boxes put up for them.

One of the rarest birds was a barn owl which lived in the garage for a season. Two were seen and I had high hopes for a pair to breed. They coughed up pellets of mouse bones and fur on to my old Alvis every night. I didn’t mind. By dissecting the pellets I found their diet was short-tailed field voles and yellow-necked mice.

Also in the garage was a treecreeper. She made the usual untidy little nest, the thinnest nest of any British species, squeezed into a crescent shape, of wood chips, twigs, rootlets, grass, hair, wool, bark strips and feathers, behind a loose larch-lap cladding. She and one other were the only two in the reserve.

The male used to give the highest, thinnest vibrating little squeak of song, almost like a silent dog whistle, that human ear could hear.

There are still a couple of pairs every year in the reserve because loose bark is not ‘tidied up’ – inevitable destruction for many species with the human desire to urbanise gardens and wild places.

I shall carry out my 38th census, this year, and signs are already good for crossbill, redpoll, siskin – and blue tits, if the old frying pan is anything to go by.