Search the yew trees in your churchyard, says Chris Chappell for the chance of seeing a Hawfinch.
The days are drawing out, and while it is mid-winter, there is plenty to see as you explore all that Somerset has to offer. The low sun provides inspiration for the artist and photographer, casting long shadows of the bare trees on the fields. Beautiful sunsets bathe the land in pink and grey as flocks of birds head to roost. There is always inspiration to be found in the natural world.
Recent rains have restored the levels to their proper flooded state, following a dry autumn. This allows migrant ducks to feed in the right depth of water, and the softened ground attracts waders, from curlew to snipe, each probing for food. Different species of duck have their own feeding methods, dabbling ducks feed upended in the water, from mallard to pintail, whereas diving ducks will swim down to the bottom of the water, and stir up the detritus to find food. Common diving duck species are pochard and tufted duck.
On the Somerset levels, there are spectacular displays of wintering lapwing and golden plover. Both species may be seen feeding together in large flocks, similar in size and shape on the ground, but totally different in colour, wing shape and flight pattern. The lapwing with black iridescent back and bib, chestnut rump and the white underneath, plus a crest. The golden plover speckled golden brown, and almost white underneath, at least in winter plumage. Thousands of birds will take to the air when disturbed by a hunting raptor. On a bright day the make a stunning sight as the birds change colour, turning in the sun, as their pale underside changes from white to black.
Rooks are noisily repairing their nests, the rookeries have suffered from the ravages of winter gales and in need of some work. They will spend much of the day combing the fields for insects and invertebrates, often mixed with other corvid species. Rooks breed very early in the year, and will start to lay eggs in February.
The hawfinch is the biggest British finch, with large steely-grey anvil shaped bill, black bib, and distinctive markings and colouration, giving them a striking appearance. There is a small breeding population in the UK, but in the southwest they are rare winter visitors, and in most years just a few will be seen. They are shy birds, generally quiet, or just emitting a small peep, and despite their bulky appearance, they are hard to spot at the best of times.
However, this winter has seen an 'irruption' of these birds, probably due to wild berry crop failures in Germany and Romania, where they would normally spend the winter. They are most often found feeding on yew berries and shoots, and are therefore currently to be spotted in many Somerset churchyards. Previous irruptions occurred in 1990 and 1983, therefore this is a rather special event in the birding world.
Winter bird behaviour
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.
SWT Catcott Reserve
Catcott reserve is a little short of ducks this year, as the lack of water earlier in the winter seems to have forced them to settle in elsewhere. However, some very special birds have been seen there, short eared owl and hen harrier in particular. In addition the marsh harrier, peregrine falcon, sparrowhawk, buzzard and kestrel are all regular visitors. Roe deer are often seen browsing on the perimeter of the reserve. Catcott is also home to a flock of greylag geese, this large goose breeds at Catcott, where the reserve provides the protected are they need.
At the reserve entrance, you can leave the car by the road and head east along a muddy track toward the tower hide. This is accessed on the right, via a walkway through a delightful wood, comprised of mixed deciduous trees, including many alder trees, a species that thrives with its roots in very damp soil. The woods are a prime spot for spotting tree creepers, woodpeckers, and many woodland species. From the tower hide you may watch little grebes, or sometimes an otter. There is an alternative route back to your car, heading clockwise around the reed bed, where you may hear a squealing water rail, the noisy Cetti's warbler. It is always a treat to Catcott, there will always be much to see, you will need good boots or wellies
Photographs © Chris Chappell
Golden Plover at Steart
Male Blackcap among cotoneaster berries