At this time of year lots of birds are finding mates and protecting their territories. One of the ways they do these things is by showing off - singing, performing aerobatic displays and even dancing.
Grebes - One of the best shows is happening on lakes right now, where great crested grebes have donned beautiful costumes. Early in the winter, grebes begin to grow long black and chestnut-coloured feathers, which stand out in a thick 'ruff' on either side of their white faces. The crest of feathers on top of their heads grows bigger too. With their bright, white fronts, they are stunning birds. All these feathers play a big part in their dances - some of which are quite short, and others long and complicated. Grebes do some of their dances on the water and others on a platform of sticks or reeds.
The grebes' simplest and most common 'dance' is head shaking. They may do this on its on own, or as part of a longer dance. The male and female grebes face each other, stretch their necks up and either shake their heads and feathers from sided to side or up and down.
Grebes adopt many strange positions, which may involve stretching their necks, their wings or even their toes! A bird waiting for its mate to come up from under the water may perform a 'cat display' where it hunches its body and spreads its wings either side of its body. When the other bird surfaces, the first bird rises up until it is almost standing in the water, showing its white front.
Best and most famous of all is the 'weed dance'. If you are lucky enough to see this, you will never forget it! You will probably first see the birds shaking their heads and then they turn and swim away from each other, before diving to find weed (or maybe a stick). They come up and swim fast towards each other and then both rise up out of the water so that they are 'standing' tall in the water and their breasts are touching, both swinging their heads quickly from side to side. They have to tread water furiously to stay up while they are doing this.
Dunnocks - You may think dunnocks are quite dull - brown and grey, they creep along the ground like mice, trying not to be noticed. But at this time of year, it is worth watching them carefully. While most birds have just one mate at a time, some dunnocks have two or three, leading to some strange behaviour. Before mating, the female dunnock stands in front of the male as she droops and shivers her wings with her tail raised and shaking quickly. Sometimes, as many as 10 dunnocks get together in a group to face each other, flicking one wing quickly open and shut.
Robins - in the spring, you may see robins squabbling or even fighting fiercely, but the 'dance' that male and female robins do before mating is quite different. They stand and face each other, bob their heads in a bow and flick their wings. Sometimes the male feeds the female a titbit, which probably helps her decide whether he will be a good mate who will find plenty of food for their babies. Later in the year, young robins make the same sort of movement when they are begging for food from their parents.
Birds of prey - Did you know that birds of prey can do flying stunts every bit as thrilling as jet planes? This is a great time of year to see these aerobatics. Birds such as buzzards, sparrowhawks and red kites show off their skills to each other especially in the spring time. The birds fly up in tight spirals and then circle round and round in the sky, or they may do far more breathtaking stunts, such as falling and plunging and turning somersaults, sometimes gripping a twig or prey in their talons, or even locking talons with their partner.
We've all heard the sound of birds singing, or the racket of seagulls or rooks squawking. If you listen carefully to birds singing you might know which bird is making which noise. But why do birds make the noises they do? What does it all mean? You can click on any of the blue links in this post to find out more and hear some bird song for yourself.
Look at me! Birds often sing to attract attention to themselves. They are either defending their territory or trying to attract a mate, or sometimes both at the same time. This kind of bird song is often the most beautiful to listen to. It's almost always the male that sings like this. When you hear the melodious song of the blackbird or the clear and repetitive song of a songthrush, it's because they are showing off to attract a female or defend their territory against other birds. One of the most famous bird songs of all is the song of the nightingale. These birds arrive in some southern parts of the UK around April. The males quickly find themselves a territory and then start singing loudly to warn off other males and to attract a female. Nightingales are one of the few birds that sing during the night as well as during the day. The males carry on singing day and night until they have found a mate. There are only a few female birds that sing, these include female robins which sing in the winter to establish their winter territories and female dunnocks.
Watch out! Birds also make alarm calls to alert other birds to danger. These calls can be the shrill alerts of blackbirds and redshanks, or quieter sounds, like the soft ticks and chacks you hear from the bushes, that let you know a wren, robin, song thrush or warbler has spotted you. These different shacks, ticks, tacks and clucks all sound quite similar and it is often very difficult to pin point where they are coming from. That's because when birds make alarm calls they throw their voices so that predators don't know where to look to find them.
Are you with me? If you see a flock of geese flying overhead, or a gang of tits moving through a wood in search of food, they will often be making some sounds. These aren't full songs, and they aren't alarm calls either. These are called contact calls, and they are ways that members of a flock keep in touch. They tend to be softer and easier to identify than alarm calls.
Did you know that you can use your computer to make your wildlife discoveries even more exciting, particularly the little ones?
The tiniest fly on your windowsill will blow up to an incredible size with a scanner. What looks like a minute dot will become an amazing insect with long antennae, stripes, and hairy legs. When you scan your picture you need to crop it so you scan only the insect. Once you have done this enlarge the picture on your computer screen to see it like you've never seen it before.
If you don't have a scanner you can use a camera. Put your bug dead bug on a piece of white paper and get as close as you can without it going blurry. Upload the photo to your computer and see how enormous it looks on your screen.
You can also scan in flower petals and leaves. They won't fade or go smelly like the real thing. You can use the images to create really nice backgrounds, borders and patterns for any work you are doing on the computer or to make a creepy crawly poster for your room.
If you're using a scanner don't try to scan anything that is living or wet.