Reach for your camera to catch the tones of winter. Chris Chappell suggests possible subjects.
The Somerset countryside looks very different now the leaves have gone from trees and hedges, and the vegetation has browned and died back. However, there is a different kind of beauty in the greys and browns, as mists hang over the moors in a wintry sunset. There are always opportunities for photographers of all abilities.
Winter thrushes have arrived in numbers, and redwings and fieldfares can now be seen feeding on the berries. The redwing, the smallest thrush is more easily identified by the very strong markings around the eye, and the red, which is more russet, is actually under the wing, and not always visible. The fieldfare is a large grey and brown speckled bird, and often very noisy, emitting a loud cackle as it flies overhead. On the levels, great flocks of lapwing and golden plover can be seen, usually when a patrolling buzzard or harrier appears.
After the first frosts of winter, the last of the remaining leaves are falling from deciduous trees, to reveal the shapes and patterns of the different species. Oak, ash and beech all have distinctive profiles, and can easily be identified when stripped of leaves. Also revealed are the nests of birds, in trees and hedgerows, mostly abandoned, but some will be taken over by other creatures seeking shelter for the winter. An exception are the rooks, which nest communally, and will guard and even repair their nests during the winter. They are very early breeders, starting in late February or early March. The rooks are now easier to watch in the bare branches, and you will see each pair keeping watch over their nest, to prevent their neighbours from helping themselves to nesting material. The bare trees and bushes, combined with shorter days, also provide an opportunity to see other birds and mammals, as they are forced into the open to feed. Roe deer, normally hidden in the foliage, are more easily spotted grazing at the edge of a wood.
Animals you probably won't see but should be aware of, are hedgehogs, bats and dormice, as they will be in hibernation for the winter. These creatures must not be disturbed when hibernating, as doing so will place their survival at risk. All three have been very much in decline, as environmental factors have impinged on their very specific needs. Dormice will curl up in a ball of grasses and leaves at the bottom of a hedge or, sometimes use old nesting material in a bird box. Hedgehogs will make a hibernaculum by burrowing deep into leaf litter, often in a garden, or wood. Bats choose protected humid places to hibernate, usually caves, old buildings and hollow trees, where they cluster together.
Water levels rise during the autumn turning summer grazing land into shallow meres and wetland fens. This habitat attracts a variety of birds that over winter here, principally ducks and wading species. Individually, the ducks are strikingly plumaged, or at least the males , and lovely to watch. Teal are small noisy ducks, the males with chestnut head, a dark green panel around the eye white black and luminous green on the side, on dappled grey, and speckled underside. Under the tail a noticeable buff area surrounded by black. The call is a high pitched peeping. Wigeon are also small, but very distinct with russet neck topped by yellow cap, blue beak with black tip, the body similar to teal, but without the bright green flash. Their call is a whistle, unique to the wigeon. Another very pretty duck is the pintail, which as the name suggests has a very long tail. A larger duck, they like to dabble is slightly deeper water, so they are often upended, with pintail in the air. With white front sweeping up in a line behind the dark chocolate head, pale blue and black beak, grey speckled body with white and black streaks on the back, plus black and white under. Pintail are generally quiet, but do make a muffled chuckling noise. The other ducks you may see are gadwall, subtly mottled in grey and brown, with black under the tail, and a white patch under the wing, and shoveler, easily identified in either sex by the huge spatulate bill. The male shoveler has a bright yellow eye on a green head, white front and buff sides.
As the weather turns colder, birds will increasingly be drawn to feeders in the garden, and provide a chance for you to watch them close up. A large range of species will come to most gardens, depending on the local environment. The very pretty bullfinch will happily eat pea-nuts from a feeder, a bird that has traditionally been persecuted because of its fondness for fruit blossom, but is now making a comeback. A bird that has joined our winter population is the blackcap, many of which have altered their behaviour from summer migrant to resident, presumably due to warmer winters. The reed bunting is now common at feeders in gardens adjacent to any marshy lowland areas. Nearby wooded areas the great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch will also be seen. The fieldfares and redwings are attracted to berries on shrubs, and when those run out, are very fond of soft apples left on the ground, so do leave some behind if you have an orchard. Another visitor you may see is the brambling, often travelling with other finches, usually chaffinches, the male is a striking bird with buff chest, grey speckled head, but most distinctively, a black Zorro like mask around the eyes.
It is worth providing different types of seed feeders, as goldfinches prefer small seeds like niger, the tits will feed from a upturned coconut half on a string, full of fat. Other species will struggle to get to this, and so cannot compete. And do allow for ground feeders such as robin and dunnock, plus of course the blackbirds, making sure the feed is not too near any cover that cats may spring from.
Photographs and text courtesy of Chris Chappell