Some more advice from Chris Chappell on tracking, mobbing, feeding and kissing as activities to observe or indulge in this month.
Now that the leaves have fallen, wildlife is that much easier to see, be it flocks of birds in the hedges and trees, or a group of roe deer in the woods. You will now see the remains of the nests of birds and mice in the bare hedges, revealing just how vital the hedges are to breeding creatures. In cold weather, the tracks left in the snow provide an intriguing guide to the creatures moving about in your area. You will see the evenly spaced prints of a hunting fox, the distinctive marks left by a rabbit, or maybe the spot where a pheasant has taken flight, leaving an impression of the tail feathers in the snow as it takes off. And sometimes the bloody evidence of where a peregrine has plucked and devoured its prey. Nothing can move through snow without leaving clues. The severe flooding on the levels which has sadly affected so many homes, is also affecting birds and animals. Voles and small birds that would normally feed at the bottom of the hedges have been forced out into the open, making them easier to see, but also more vulnerable to predators.
A very special and beautiful bird that has arrived in small numbers in Somerset is the waxwing. A plump bird, a little smaller than a starling, coffee in body colour, with a grey back, and red, yellow, black and white in the tail and wing tips, and easily identifiable by its crest, and black moustache, it may be seen feeding on berries and hips.
At this time of year you may spot a buzzard being chased by crows or jackdaws. Larger birds are generally seen as a threat to smaller species, either directly or as a competitor for food source. Buzzards seem to attract more than their fair share of attention, regularly being mobbed. The buzzard will be attacked in the air, the larger bird swerving and swooping, until it gets fed up with the attention and moves on. Sparrow hawks will have the same effect on the smaller crows, but they will usually use their superior speed to escape. Small birds can be surprisingly aggressive when faced with a perceived threat. If a flock of sparrows find a little owl roosting too close to their territory, they will pursue it mercilessly, until it leaves the area.
Feed the Birds
Now is the time to start feeding the wild birds in your garden. The extensive flooding in Somerset this year has restricted the areas where most birds can find food, and they need your help. If you order bird food through the SWT it will help to support the work we undertake, and you can be sure of the quality of the bird food supplied. Please give your feeders a good clean before you fill them, to reduce the risk of spreading disease. Take time to assess the positioning of feeders and tables, to avoid problems with cats. A bird table with a roof gives small birds security from passing sparrow hawks and kestrels, if that is a concern (they have to eat too!).
The clumps of mistletoe in the tops of willows, or in orchards, are clearly visible now the other foliage has gone. Fortunately mistletoe is fairly abundant in Somerset, despite a national decline due to the removal of orchards, and changes in orchard management. Mistletoe is parasitic, tapping into the host tree for nutrients and water. It will live on many different species of tree, and does not normally harm the host. The berries are a major food source for birds, and the seeds are spread to other trees in either droppings as they lodge in clefts in a branch or trunk, or stick to a twig when a bird wipes the sticky juice from its beak. . A seedling will then sprout on the tree branch, and then send a root into the bark of the tree, and start to feed from it. It is as well to be aware that mistletoe is poisonous, when using it as decoration. There are many myths surrounding the plant, the practice of kissing under the mistletoe goes back over 400 years, the origin of this is not entirely clear, but don't let that stop you.
Photographs © as follows:
Fox prints: Martin Prothero
Waxwings and Mistletoe: Wikipedia
Landscapes: Chris Chappell
Floods near Langport