Chris Chappell focuses on birds this month - a good time to see them in action before foliage obscures them.
Early buds are starting to appear on many shrubs and trees, daffodils are in flower, and while it is a cold start to the month, robins and great tits are noisily claiming territories. Catkins adorn the hazels and alder, listen for the song thrush, the melodic repeated phrases ringing out from top of a tree at the start and end of the day. The dunnock, which gets its name from the Old British meaning 'little brown one', has many country names; including hedge sparrow, but it is not a sparrow, but the only native member of the accentor family. Dunnocks like to sit on a high point in a hedge, and repeat the rather thin, but pretty trill. Observed closely, they are beautifully marked, in browns and greys. They are shy and reclusive birds, and tend to skulk on the ground when feeding, rather mouse-like in behaviour. This is a very good time of year to watch birds and animals, as they are very active in preparation for the spring, but easier to view while the trees and hedgerows are still bare of leaves. Rooks continue to rebuild their nests, largely destroyed by the winter storms, and a large tree, or a group of trees, will be shared by many birds. This is a slow process, as rooks constantly steal their neighbours' building materials, when their backs are turned.
This iconic bird is common on the streams and waterways of Somerset, always a delight to see a flash of silver darting past with a little squeak, so high pitched that not all of us can hear it. Kingfishers are very vulnerable in cold weather, as the ice cover will prevent them from feeding. They are also very sensitive to environmental factors, be it the straightening of river courses, which removes their nesting sites, or pollution, affecting their food source. For these reasons they are amber listed in Europe. In winter they are happy to feed in very small streams, as the moving water keeps the water ice free, and as long as there is a supply of minnows and sticklebacks, they will stay. A pair has recently been spotted on the moat around Wells Cathedral. Soon they will move downstream to seek a suitable spot to dig out a burrow in a mud bank for their nest. In Greek legend kingfishers were believed to nest at sea, and had the ability to calm the waves. The Greek name for kingfisher, Halcyon, is now synonymous with peace and tranquillity. However, they are very aggressive when defending their territories, and it may be that when they are pre-occupied with fighting, that you get a really close look at them.
Whilst the countryside may seem rather bare and bleak at the moment, with a little patience, there is still plenty to see. Westhay offers all kinds of birdlife, both aquatic and woodland species. In addition, Westhay is home to otters, and you may see a group of roe deer feeding at a safe distance. You may spot a tree creeper making its way up an alder or birch, searching out insects in the crevices in the bark. It is an exquisite creature, with a white front, striped and barred back, and thin curved beak for teasing out prey.
Bullfinches can be seen in the shrubs and bushes, the male with an unmistakable dusky pink/red front, and the female cafe crème. Both have black heads, wingtips and tail, and you will see a flash of the white rump as they take flight. They have a rather sad weeping call.
Marsh harriers hunt over the reed beds, these magnificent birds, spread their great wings in a characteristic shape, and make a wonderful sight in winter sun. They feed on small mammals and birds, and are generally silent. They are the largest harrier, the female brown with a striking cream head, and the male paler with grey mid-wing, black wing tips and greyish tail. They are joined by a few migratory hen harriers during the winter. The male hen harrier is a striking white and grey with black tipped wings, whilst the female is brown with a white ring to the base of the tail. Young males are almost indistinguishable from the female form; the two are identified together as ‘ringtails’.
Bearded Tits and Bitterns
If you are lucky, you may see bearded tits clinging to the reed heads, the males beautiful sculptured birds, long brown tails, grey heads, and a strong moustache. They make a distinctive 'pinging' call as they pass through the reeds. They are often see feeding on the ground, gathering grit which many birds need to help with the digestion of seeds. In addition there are bittern, kingfisher, and many ducks including mallard, teal, wigeon gadwall, and tufted duck. Water rail and little grebe are common here, more heard than seen. And the starlings, which deserve another mention, are present in huge numbers, their preferred roost in the reeds changes during the course of the winter, but you will always see them scooting over the reeds en route to the roost.
By the end of the month, the male bitterns begin to call. Most birds go through a process of building up the muscles used to call or sing. Therefore when the bitterns start to call, it is just a muffled grunt, and builds up to a resonant call that can be heard from several miles away.
March will bring lots of changes, so meantime enjoy the winter visitors before they leave, soon to be replaced by all our summer migrants.
This is the time to put up bird boxes, or to check and clean out the old ones. Removing the old nest material reduces the proliferation of parasites. But do take care when removing old nests, and avoid inhaling any dust produced.
Photographs © Chris Chappell (except Bearded Tit © Martin Mecnarowski)