Take Chris Chappell's advice: make the most of the winter visitors this month and be patient with bitterns.
Whilst winter is far from over, the days are lengthening, and wildlife is responding. Many common birds are competing for mates, they need to be paired off before the breeding season arrives. Great tits and song thrushes will be heard singing on sunny days, laying claim to their territory. Rooks are busy repairing their nests after the winter storms. They are the one crow species that nests communally, and you will see groups of their large nests of twigs at the crown of the largest available tree. Catkins and snowdrops herald the change of season. There are flocks of fieldfares and redwings constantly on the move, the noisy clacking of the fieldfare can be heard at the end of each day. The Somerset levels are currently host to huge flocks of lapwings, often accompanied by golden plover, enjoying the damp conditions which make easy feeding. Common snipe also abound in record numbers. You may hear the mournful call of the curlew, the largest wader in Europe. Some of the curlews are native and will breed on the protected areas of moorland. Migratory ducks and waders will remain during February, but will make their way north next month, along with the winter thrushes.
Westhay Moor Reserve
At Westhay, the waters are finally receding to allow access to all areas, but you will need good boots, or even gumboots. Westhay has many special creatures, due to the variety of habitats; reed beds, open heathland and mixed woodlands. One very special resident is the bearded tit. Not actually part of the tit family, but possibly related to Asian parrotbills, sometimes known locally as bearded reedlings. This striking bird is nationally rare, but has a good foothold on the Somerset levels, favouring the reed beds in which to feed and breed. It can be often be located by their call, a shrill 'ptchee' with the occasional trill. Slightly larger than a great tit, with a long tail, the male has a striking powder blue bead, orange and buff body, and a black moustache, rather than the eponymous beard. The female is slightly paler, and lacking moustache and pale blue head. While bearded tits are often pictured clinging to the reed tops, they actually spend a lot of time skulking under bramble thickets at the edge of the reed bed. looking for seeds and insects.
Bitterns are now just starting to call, more of a grunt than a boom, but this will change as they build up the throat and lung muscles as the male birds call to attract mates. Although a bittern may sound as if it is quite close, you will be lucky to find one in the reeds due to their exceptional camouflage. However, with patience, as always, a bittern will often be seen in flight as it looks for a new feeding spot.
Finches and tits are still feeding in large groups. Huge flocks of mixed goldfinch, greenfinch and chaffinch. plus siskins gather in the bare tree tops, singing loudly on a bright day. Bramblings are still present in good numbers, often seen feeding in thorny thickets from which they get their name. The very pretty redpoll can be seen feeding in the alder trees, while below, groups of long tailed tits, often mixed with blue and great tits, travel through willows and birches gathering seeds and insect pupae. The tits are not shy, and sometimes if you remain still they will surround you as they flit through the lower branches, which is rather magical.
Sunny days will bring out queen bumble bees, emerging from hibernation, looking for pollen from early flowers. The queen will start a new colony, often in a mouse or vole hole. You may see some early butterflies, peacock in particular will emerge early on a warm day, however, these creatures are at risk if winter returns.
March will bring lots of changes, so meantime enjoy the winter visitors before they leave, to be replaced by all our summer migrants.
Photographs of the rookery and reedbed © Chris Chappell.
Photograph of the Bearded Tit courtesy of Wikipedia.
Photograph of Bittern © Brian Phipps
(Last month's photograph titled Great White Stork , until corrected, was of course a Great White Egret. The fault was the web typist's not Chris Chappell's)