Chris Chappell gives us lots of help in identifying the numerous birds to be seen in November.
As winter approaches many birds of different species will flock together. You may see a party of long-tailed-tits moving through the trees, calling as they move, with a little high pitched trill, and a regular 'tsk-tsk', often accompanied by blue and great tits. Finches will gather in the tree tops in large noisy groups, chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch and siskin together. Look out for the very pretty brambling, chaffinch sized, but with orange breast and pale underbelly. Feeding in numbers offers protection for the flock, as any predator, such is more likely to be spotted. Large numbers of birds also make it more difficult for a raptor to focus on individual prey. You may notice that pied wagtails will appear in towns and villages, calling noisily from the rooftops, as they search for spiders and flies. They often roost in large numbers, even in the heart of busy city centres. Mixed crows will be found feeding in the fields, carrion crows, rooks, and jackdaws together, combing the ground for insects and worms. A freshly ploughed field will attract the crows, and gulls, and also buzzards, which are happy to feed on worms if they are readily available.
Catcott Lows Reserve
Catcott Lows comes into life during the winter, when the reserve turns from a meadow to a mere. As the autumn rains raise the water level, winter ducks and waders arrive to take advantage of the conditions. Wigeon, teal, shoveler, gadwall, mallard, and pintail will feed here for the next few months, so it is a good place to observe ducks and learn to identify the various species. Wigeon make up the largest numbers, the male with cream yellow coloured cap, milk chocolate head, and pink to grey body, bluish beak with a black tip, but always identified by its whistling call, which will be heard constantly when excited or alarmed. The female wigeon is rather less distinctive, with dark head, black and white back, and buff flanks. The smaller teal (male) has strong head markings, brown head, with bright mossy green patch running back from the eye. The teal blue/green flash is on the wing, and the body is mottled grey white. The female is a relatively subdued mottled brown bird but with the greeny blue wing bar. Teal are also very vocal, but the call is a plaintive squeal, audible from some distance to reveal their presence, a characteristic sound of winter marshes. The shoveler is a larger duck with huge bill, rather comic in appearance, the male bright green head and neck, chestnut flanks, and white chest, the female mottled brown. The call is more of a grunt than a quack.
In addition to the ducks, which have travelled from their breeding grounds in northern Europe, you should see snipe, little egret, great white egret, and grey herons. In the air, kestrel, buzzard and marsh harriers are regularly seen, and the rare migrant hen harrier may make an appearance. Short eared owls patrol the reserve in winter, hunting for voles and mice. A good sized flock of lapwing are normally present at Catcott, these also winter visitors from the north. Other rare visitors are spoonbill and glossy ibis. Roe deer are usually present, browsing at a safe distance to the rear of the reserve.
Flocks of the winter thrushes, fieldfare and redwing have arrived from their breeding territories in northern Europe, and will be seen feeding on the heavy berry crop. The fieldfare is a large striking bird, but is most readily identified by a noisy clattering cackle, which is made continually in flight. The redwing is a small thrush, and quite shy, and can be identified by a strong cream stripe over the eye, and the eponymous red wing, which is a russet splash, just under each wing. They make a little 'wik' call. Many of our resident flocks of birds are swollen by winter visitors, blackbirds, robins and starlings amongst them.
An increasing number of species are now recorded coming to garden feeders. What you may attract will depend on the landscape around your garden. Near wooded areas, great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch will happily take advantage of peanut feeders. Gardens closer to the moors may attract reed buntings, which are seed eaters. Bullfinches are now regularly seen on feeders. These pretty birds are making a good recovery from having become quite rare. Squirrels can be a problem, and depending how you feel about them, there are feeders with protective cages to allow smaller birds to feed in peace. It is not unusual for a sparrowhawk to swoop in and snatch a blue tit, and these cages will prevent that too, but of course the sparrowhawk does have to eat. Somerset Wildlife Trust has a discount arrangement with a supplier of bird foods. Ideally you would supply seeds for finches, nuts for sparrows and tits, and sprinkle mixed food for ground feeders such as blackbird, robin and dunnock. The feeders and feeding area should be positioned well away from any cover that a cat may use to prey on the birds.
Feed the birds
Tree in Silhouette
Reed Bunting and Blue Tit
Photographs © Chris Chappell