When will the birds start to sing again? Let Chris Chappell be your guide to this and to local wetland birds.
Despite being firmly lodged in mid winter, there are always items of interest o be found in the natural world. Many birds will sing on the better days. Robin, dunnock, great tit, wren and many others will often perch on a high point as they establish territories. The song thrush will join in later in the month. Starlings chatter noisily in large groups as they gather in a tree or on telegraph wires prior to heading to roost en masse. Starlings mimic other bird calls, which can be misleading, the plaintiff cry of a buzzard is often included in their repertoire. This early bird song is in preparation for the spring and the breeding season.
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 flocks of golden plover, sometimes in thousands, a similarly sized bird to the lapwing, mainly speckled brown with pale underparts in winter plumage. The golden plover have a distinctive, rather plaintive high-pitched two-tone call.
Our ever increasing population of little egret can now be seen in small groups, feeding on fields or moorland. These small white herons will feed on any small creatures including frogs, fish and invertebrates. They are delicate birds, attractive in flight, and can be distinguished from their larger relative, the great white, by the black beak, and bright yellow feet, if the size is hard to estimate.
Winter duck numbers are now established in great flocks on the flooded fields and moors. Watched from a hide, (as at Catcott) they make quite a spectacle, feeding voraciously, while the combined squeaks grunts and whistles of teal, shoveler and wigeon (see above) make an entertaining soundtrack. Bird-watching demands patience, and quiet. Be prepared to sit and wait to see what develops, from time to time the ducks will be spooked by a passing sparrowhawk or the like, and there will be a great splashing and clatter of wings, as they rise in unison. A quick circuit of the open water and they will soon settle again, landing with feet and wings out to slow their movement. At other times, the birds will settle down to a mass preening session, which involves a lot of noisy splashing around. This is very amusing to watch, as they contort themselves to reach every feather. Preening is vital for all birds, but all the more essential for wetland birds, and a major part of their daily routine. As with most birds, oil is produced in a gland under the tail, and this is spread throughout the plumage using the beak, waterproofing the feathers.
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. The first signs of spring will soon appear, snowdrops and some species of bulbs will make an appearance by the month end, giving us hope for the coming year.
Photography and ID
One of the benefits of digital photography is that it enables you to capture what you have seen, and to quickly use the picture to identify the species seen. Shots of large flocks of birds often turn out to contain some surprises when examined in detail on your computer. A classic example is to find a peregrine in amongst the ducks and waders that have been put to flight. And even the experts use this process to pin down some of the trickier identity challenges, but it is a good learning tool for any newcomers to wildlife watching. During periods of harsh weather wildlife tends to be less cautious of presence of humans, as they are focussed on finding food, and easier to approach, and to capture on disc..
Wintry weather also provides great artistic scope for the photographer, as cobwebs are covered by frost, or as ice creates extraordinary patterns in the puddles. Misty mornings in the Somerset countryside make stunning landscapes, with a few old oaks or willows adding to the scene.
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. Buzzard and kestrel are often seen hunting for prey. As well as the winter ducks, 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, but at this time of year you may need wellies if you venture far. Look out for roe deer, gazing at you from a safe distance. If you are lucky an otter may cross your path. Smaller species such as the goldcrest, and occasionally a firecrest, may be found feeing in the tops of birch trees.
Siskin and redpoll
Take the opportunity to get out into the Somerset countryside for a bit of exercise, as 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 scattered seeds. Great spotted woodpeckers may be seen and heard, most often the 'chip-chip' of their alarm call. They have a very distinctive looping flight when disturbed.
Photographs © Chris Chappell
Redpolls and Siskins