Like the bittern, build up your muscles, if not for singing then for exploring Westhay with Chris Chappell. And will you know a ringtail if you see one?
The First Hint of Spring
Early bulbs poke their shoots through the leaf litter, the days lengthen, as we begin our escape from the dark days of winter. And a great time to explore our wonderful county for the natural delights it has to offer. And the bare trees and shrubs lend the advantage of our being able to see wildlife with ease.
You may see birds such as blackbirds, robins and pigeons nesting prematurely, taking the opportunity to extend the breeding season. But as the natural sources of food are consumed, it is still important to continue feeding the birds. The yew, rowan, cotoneaster and guelder rose berries have largely been eaten. Windfall apples are a good source of food for blackbirds and other thrushes, so try to resist the urge to clear them up. Rooks are rebuilding their nests, the only crow species to nest communally, they nest early in the year and build large nests of sticks lined with whatever soft material is available. Great tits are calling, they have a variety of calls but their loud see-saw will be heard on sunny mornings. Robins and song thrushes are startling to build up their song, and the muscles they need to vocalise, as the days lengthen.
Out on the levels, bearded tits are now feeding on the reed mace heads, pulling out the flowers to get to the seeds, leaving a swathe of seed debris floating below the plant. The 'beardies' are beautifully camouflaged, blending in with the rush heads, but their presence may be revealed by the descending cloud of cotton fluff. They have altered their diet for the winter, from insects to seeds, as the supply of food changes.
Winter ducks continue to keep a noisy presence on the flooded meres. They may be joined by flocks of golden plover and lapwing. Other waders drawn to feed on the rich soils on the levels are curlew, snipe, black-tailed godwit, sometimes even dunlin, which generally prefer the coastal areas. These species are in turn preyed upon by peregrine falcon and marsh harrier. Buzzard lack the speed and agility of these two, but may catch the slower or injured birds.
Elsewhere great crested grebes may be seen starting their elaborate courtship, always a joy to watch, involving head-wagging, parallel swimming, and much else, culminating in them presenting each other with some weed as notional nesting material. They don't call very much, but do have a loud and harsh grating call when threatened or seeing off a rival male.
The Water Rail
Closely related to the moorhen, being one of the rail species that includes the coot and crakes, this strange little bird is generally reclusive, and infrequently seen for most of the year. However, during periods of cold weather, the frozen ground forces them out into the open, and you may get a chance to watch one of these charming characters. They are omnivorous, and will eat anything from tiny invertebrates to frogs, or even feed on the corpse of a duck. But the feature they are most likely to be identified by is their call. They emit a loud shriek, repeated with descending volume, which sounds more like the alarm cy of a threatened mammal than a bird. Along with this they make a variety of peeps, grunts and hisses. When one rail calls, others will respond, echoing around the reed beds, an eerie sound at nightfall. They nest deep in the reeds, a large clutch of spotted beige eggs in a round basket of reeds.
Much of Westhay is managed by SWT, it is large reserve with a variety of habitats. 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 in a glade. You may also 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 are often 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 sounding weeping call.
Marsh harriers hunt over the reed beds, these magnificent birds, spread their great wings in a characteristic vee 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 honey 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’, having a clear white base to the tail.
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. A special winter visitor you may see on one of the larger lakes at Westhay are goosander, a member of the sawbill family, the size and shape of a cormorant. There the resemblance ends, the male being white with black back and green neck and head, the female largely grey, with russet head, and both have red bills.
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 many 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. Take care not to disturb any hibernating dormice or bats. Removing the old nest material reduces the proliferation of parasites. Be careful when removing old nests, as the nest debris contains fungal spores, and avoid inhaling any dust produced.
All photographs © Chris Chappell
Female Bearded Tit (or Reedling) on Reedmace
Wren on ice