Even your garden has wildlife opportunities this month says Chris Chappell
The winter migrant thrushes have arrived, and fieldfare, redwing and blackbird will be seen stripping holly, yew, cotoneaster and hawthorn of their berries. Fieldfare and redwing are striking birds, the loud cackle of the larger fieldfare often heard overhead, with distinctive grey head, brown back and long tail. The redwing, the smallest thrush seen in the UK, is characterised by a very strong eye strip, and large russet patch under the wing. Both redwing and fieldfare often land on the top of tall trees to survey the landscape, then swoop down to feed on berry bearing shrubs and trees.
Many birds exhibit flocking behaviour at this time of year. Starlings are well known on the Avalon marshes, providing a twice daily display as the arrive at, and leave their roost. But many other birds also gather in large numbers; linnets and goldfinches in particular form flocks of some hundreds. This is primarily a tactic to avoid predation, as raptors are thought to find it hard to distinguish individual birds within a swirling mass.
On the Levels, a dry autumn has meant that some of the areas that rely on winter flooding are yet to provide enough water for the winter ducks. However, where there is open water for visiting ducks to feed wigeon, shoveler and teal are about, plus a big influx of common snipe. The shoveler cuts a slightly comic figure with oversize bill and bright eyes. They often feed by swimming in a small circle to stir up the sediments they feed from. Groups of shoveler keep up a grunting contact call, and as a heavy bird, their wings make a very distinctive rattle when they take off. While just a handful of shoveler stay here to breed, they are common in winter, birds that have arrived from the north, while our breeding birds will head south.
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, now 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.
This intriguing small songbird is often hard to spot, subtly camouflaged against the bark of a tree, where it feeds by prising out insects from cracks and crevasses in the tree bark with a long curved beak. The plumage is streaked brown on the back, and highly camouflaged, while the underside is almost pure white. But now that the leaves have fallen from deciduous trees, there is a greater chance of a sighting. The treecreeper characteristically lands on the base of a tree, working upwards, and then dropping down to the next tree from a height. It has a high-pitched, descending call, a bit like a wren, but less boisterous. When disturbed, it can run up the trunk at speed, like a mouse, using its large claws to cling to the tree. It may be seen with other birds such as tits, but the call will distinguish it, once you know it. They do not travel far during their lifetime, and have established territories.
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, the males more brightly coloured, but females have a delicate beauty when seen up close, 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.
Wildlife in the garden
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 seeds 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.
For those with a garden, it is a good time to think about what you might plant before spring. Choosing shrubs that bear berries, such as pyracantha, will attract birds. Buddleia is well known for attracting butterflies. If you have space for a climber, Clematis cirrhosa is an evergreen, winter flowering plant, which will feed bees even in winter, and provides year round greenery and dense growth for robins or blackbirds to use as nesting sites. And if you have room for some tree saplings, all the better. Just one tree will support hundreds of species, from lichens to beetles. Talk to you garden centre for advice.
Photographs and text courtesy of Chris Chappell
Drake shoveler preening
Blackbird on cotoneaster
Old Man's Beard