Winter brings migrant birds, often in large numbers. Chris Chappell makes sure we can locate and identify these in his notes for this month.
December is a really good time to get out for a bracing walk, whether you decide to explore Exmoor, the coastal areas on the Bristol Channel, or the Levels. The trees are now bare of leaves, and this makes watching birds and animals that much easier. Look for flocks of siskins and lesser redpolls feeding on catkins in birch or alder trees. Both 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, where the winds have blown down the tree seeds. Large numbers of winter ducks are now established on the moors, along with snipe, lapwing and golden plover. These in turn attract various raptors, peregrine, marsh harrier and hen harrier, looking for a meal.
Some special winter visitors to look out for in Somerset include bird species such as short eared owls, whooper swans and woodcocks. The short eared owls travel here from Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia for the winter, and the number seen varies greatly with the severity of the winter in northern Europe. They frequently hunt in daylight, and the sight of these broad-winged birds weaving across coastal marshes in search of small rodents is lovely to see. They have the appearance of a large moth, turning and banking as they fly. Pale underneath, and golden brown above, a with startling yellow eyes, they may be found at coastal areas such as the Steart Peninsula, or hunting over the levels. Whooper swans have arrived on the levels, travelling from Iceland for the winter. The same size as mute swans, their main difference is a large triangular pale yellow beak with variable black markings, a straighter neck, giving them a rather elegant appearance, and of course, their whooping call, which is something between a honk and a bugle. They like to feed on a good expanse of open water. Large numbers of woodcock come to Britain from Russia and Finland to overwinter, a bird that is not normally seen in the West Country in spring and summer. You are most likely to see one dashing off through woodland, having risen from their resting place at your feet. Woodcock are beautifully camouflaged when sitting in bracken and leaf litter, and rely on this, not moving unless they really have to. The woodcock may be confused with the snipe, but the woodcock has a more dumpy appearance, with different markings, and while they feed in the same manner, probing deep into mud and soil for invertebrates, the woodcock is more bonded to woodland edges, where it prefers to roost.
Tracks in the mud or snow
In cold weather, the tracks left in the snow (or mud) 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.
Photographs of Whooper Swan and Buzzard © Chris Chappell.
Photograph of rabbit tracks © Martin Prothero.