Chris Chappell recommends the new tower hide at Catcott - but take your boots.
On the fields and moors, huge flocks of lapwing (or peewit) have arrived from the north, outnumbering our dwindling native population by a factor of three to one. At times they fill the skies, wheeling acrobatically, and mewing loudly. They are quick to take fright, particularly if a predatory raptor appears, rising in unison from the ground, calling noisily, but soon settle again. The lapwings feed on the marshy ground, probing for worms and insects. Somerset is a key county for their winter migration. Individually, they are remarkable looking birds, with an impressive crest, and subtle myriad colours in the iridescent scalloped back feathers. The lapwing are frequently joined by smaller flocks of golden plover, a similarly sized bird, mainly speckled brown with pale underparts in winter plumage. The golden plover have a distinctive, rather plaintive high-pitched two-tone call.
A walk on Shapwick Heath will usually be well rewarded by the great variety of birdlife to be seen. Marsh harriers quarter the reed beds looking for prey, their wings held in a distinctive vee shape, head down, scouring the terrain below. A nationally rare raptor, we are lucky to have a good population resident on the levels. Shapwick attracts a number of rare bird species; currently there is a chance of seeing a glossy ibis, whooper swans or even a short eared owl. But for those who just want a good walk, there is a lot to explore, although at this time of year you may need wellies if you venture far.
Siskin and redpoll
Take the opportunity to get out into the Somerset countryside for a healthy walk; there are many wonderful things to see. Look for flocks of siskins and lesser redpolls feeding on catkins in birch or alder trees. Both are very pretty small finch species, and they often flock together in the winter months. The male siskin has a yellow chest and face, black capped head, and brown body with dark streaks. The female siskin is a browner version without the yellow and black. The lesser redpoll a smaller, striped finch with a striking scarlet patch on the head, and crimson tinge to the chest, fairly easily identified through good binoculars. The woodland areas of Shapwick Heath, are good places to see them, and they are sometimes spotted feeding on the ground, when the winds have blown down the seeds.
While the days are getting longer, the coldest period of winter is yet to come.
Colder weather and frozen ground and water forces many creatures to change their feeding habits. An extended period of freezing weather will have a serious effect on those birds that depend fishing to survive. Herons and kingfishers seek out areas of unfrozen water, such as on estuaries and the coast. On the levels, the normally shy water rail will be driven out onto the droves, where it may find some soft ground. Otters might be seen crossing the ice, denied the usual cover afforded by the water. At home, times like these mean feeding the garden birds becomes crucial to the survival of many, when the usual food supplies are buried under snow and ice. However, snow drops and early bulbs are starting to flower, and the buds on many trees and shrubs are beginning to swell.
Thrushes and blackbirds will be seen feasting on the berry crop while it lasts. Yew, hawthorn and holly provide the bulk of the supply, along with a variety of ornamental shrubs. You may see blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares, pigeons and finches all taking the yew fruits in your local churchyard, where old trees carry a good crop.
On fine days, robins, song thrush, great tit, and blackbirds will sing to claim their territory. Blackcap and chiff-chaff now over-winter in increasing numbers, and on a really fine day the chiff-chaff may start to call. Blackcaps will happily settle in gardens, and may be see on the bird table if you are lucky.
The starling roosts are now at their peak, and while this has become a rather popular attraction, the spectacle is quite extraordinary, and an experience never forgotten. The display is best on a bright still evening, and if a raptor appears looking for a meal, this will provoke the flock into forming beautiful shapes in the sky. Take your camera and wrap up well.
A visit to Catcott will be rewarded with good numbers of our common winter ducks. The wigeon, teal and shoveler have now been joined by the very striking pintails. The male pintail is an elegant bird, with white front and neck stripe, chocolate head, grey back, and with the long black tail. The female is a pretty brown bird with a smaller tail. Their numbers peak in December, and they will return to their breeding grounds in February and March. They are 'dabbling' ducks and in order for them to feed, upend their bodies with their long tails pointing skyward. In this position they can sift through the underwater debris for nutrients. Other birds you may see are a good sized flock of lapwing, or a small group of black tailed godwits, a large wader with long bill, plus a few snipe, and little and great white egret. In addition the marsh harrier, peregrine falcon, sparrowhawk, buzzard and kestrel are all regular visitors. Scan the perimeter of the reserve for roe deer, or the occasional fox.
The new tower hide is worth seeking out, and whilst this new part of Catcott reserve is still settling down, plenty of creatures have already established themselves. The piercing screech of water rails will be heard, and with patience you may spot one feeding at the reed bed edge. On sunny days the noisy Cetti's warbler will make its distinctive call. This nationally rare, and very pretty warbler, more heard than seen, has become established as resident over the past 40 years, and is now thriving on the Somerset levels. To access the tower hide, park just off the public road, by the large reserve sign, and head east along the drove, and just as you enter the wooded area turn right across a small bridge. You will need your boots here too.
Photographs © Chris Chappell except the Pintail, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Wigeon in flight
Redpolls and Siskins
Leafless Alders revealing Buzzard's nest