The picture above of Dunlin and Knot ought to make you want to go to Bridgwater Bay to see the flocks massing there now, as Chris Chappell suggests.
The Somerset countryside looks very different now that the foliage has gone from trees and hedges, and the vegetation has shrivelled 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 sun. After a dry October, the rain in November has redressed the balance, and the rivers and rhynes are now brimming with flood water. Haw frosts turn the trees and bushes into a bejewelled fantasy, another treat for the photographer.
Large parties of tits will pass through the treetops, feeding on the minute insect larvae they find in the clefts and crevices of the branches. You may see dozens of long tailed tits, mixed with other species. Finches gather in large noisy flocks, settling in the tops of trees, where the goldfinches will sing enthusiastically, and may be joined by chaffinches and sometimes the very pretty siskins.
And after the first frosts of winter, and as the last of the remaining leaves fall from deciduous trees, the shapes and patterns of the different species are revealed. Oak, ash and beech all have distinctive profiles, and can easily be identified when stripped of leaves. Also revealed are the old nests of birds, in trees and hedgerows, mostly abandoned, but some will be taken over by other creatures seeking shelter for the winter. You may see anything from the tiny delicate nests of gold crests to the substantial constructions of crows and buzzards. Unusually, the rooks, which nest communally, 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. 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.
In a major project that started in 2009 with negotiations with local people and landowners, through to September 2014 when the sea wall was breached, Steart Marshes is now a unique wildlife reserve, with 250 hectares of re-created salt marshes. As planned, as the eco-system re-establishes, this has become a haven for ducks, waders, herons and egrets. The grassland areas support skylarks, linnets, stonechat and much more. Avocet now breed on the site, a symbolic point in the progress of this project. On a fine day it is a spectacular place, and the winter flocks of waders such as dunlin and knot are a fine sight, thousands taking to the air as the tide comes in and dislodges them from their feeding grounds. Dunlin murmurations are stunning, as a flock of thousands turn from white to grey as they switch direction. Golden plover, curlew, redshank and snipe all feed there, and great numbers of shelduck sift their away across the mudflats. Other special birds you may see are little ringed plover, spoonbill and short eared owl. Marsh harrier now quarter the marshes for prey, dropping with feet and talons outstretched as they do so.
Wintering ducks and waders have now arrived en masse, and are busy feeding on the marshes and moors. As water levels rise during the autumn turning summer grazing land into shallow meres and wetland fens. This habitat attracts a variety of birds that overwinter here, principally ducks and wading species. Individually, the ducks are strikingly plumaged, or at least the males are, 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 in 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, the female speckled and streaked browns.
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 buds, but is now making a comeback. A bird that has joined our winter population is the blackcap, many of which have altered their behaviour such that our summer birds are replaced by birds from eastern Europe. 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, 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
Dunlin at Bridgwater bay
Fieldfare feasts on Hawthorn berries