Shovelers' grunts and peewits' mews are worth listening for say Chris Chappell.
Shorter days and colder nights bring many changes to the countryside, as birds and animals prepare for the winter. Reptiles, hedgehogs and dormice are now in hibernation and will largely remain dormant until spring.
Redwing and fieldfare, along with migrant and resident blackbirds are feeding on the heavy berry crop, quickly stripping the branches of fruits. Fieldfare and redwing are striking birds, the fieldfare a large thrush with a noisy chattering cackle, the redwing the smallest thrush, and mostly silent, but has a high chip-chip call when disturbed.
Migrant ducks have now settled in on the levels, noisy flocks of wigeon and teal are dominant, plus shoveler and pintail. Snipe, lapwing and golden plover will also spend the winter on the flooded levels, all spectacular birds when seen in close-up. All birds spend a great deal of their lives preening, as they will not survive if their plumage is not in good condition, this is all the more important for water birds.
Many birds exhibit flocking behaviour at this time of year. Starlings are well known on the Avalon marshes, providing a twice daily display as the arrive at, and leave their roost. But many other birds also gather in large numbers; linnets and goldfinches in particular form flocks of some hundreds. This is thought to be primarily a tactic to avoid predation, as raptors are thought to find it hard to distinguish individual birds within a swirling mass.
The shoveler duck cuts a slightly comic figure with oversize bill and bright eyes, plus orange feet. They often feed by swimming in a small circle to stir up the sediments they feed from. Groups of shoveler keep up a grunting contact call, and as a heavy bird, their wings make a very distinctive rattle when they take off. While just a handful of shoveler stay here to breed, they are fairly common in winter, birds that have arrived from the north, while our breeding birds will head south.
And after the first frosts of winter, and as the last of the remaining leaves fall from deciduous trees, the shapes and patterns of the different species are revealed. Oak, ash and beech all have distinctive profiles, and can easily be identified when stripped of leaves. Also revealed are the old nests of birds, in trees and hedgerows, now abandoned, but some will be taken over by other creatures seeking shelter for the winter. You may see anything from the tiny delicate nests of goldcrests to the substantial constructions of crows and buzzards. Unusually, the rooks, which nest communally, will guard and even repair their nests during the winter. They are very early breeders, starting in late February or early March. The rooks are now easier to watch in the bare branches, and you will see each pair keeping watch over their nest, to prevent their neighbours from helping themselves to nesting material. Roe deer, normally hidden in the foliage, are more easily spotted grazing at the edge of a wood.
The wigeon (anas penelope) is arguably the most striking of our common winter ducks, the drake beautifully coloured in shades of grey and pink, russet neck and head, black and white rump, cream crown to the head, and black and white rear end. The beak is pale blue, with a black tip. The female wigeon a subtle mixture of dappled scalloped brown. They are a medium sized duck, smaller than a mallard. Both sexes are pale underneath and have dark eyes. Wigeon survive on vegetable matter, often seen grazing on lush grass. The males have a loud whistle, which is distinctive, and they will call noisily when excited. It is estimated some 450,000 wigeon arrive in the UK from Scandinavia, Iceland and Russia each autumn, and leave in early spring to return to their breeding grounds.
Wader in ornithology is a very broad term describing (in the UK) birds that feed on shorelines and mudflats, marshes, and wet meadowland. This includes plovers (such as peewit, golden plover) sandpipers, curlew, snipe and more. Different waders can be hard to distinguish, dunlin and knot being very similar, but with experience, their behaviour, wing patterns and flight will enable each species to be identified.
Winter is the time to see these birds, as populations that breed in northern Europe overwinter here. And the coast and levels of Somerset are some of the best places to find many species, where they may form large flocks. Those of you who are familiar with the starling displays will be equally impressed with a large flock of dunlin as they turn in the bright sun over Bridgwater Bay.
The lapwing, or peewit, is common in winter, and can be seen in impressive numbers over the Somerset lowlands. They are often joined by golden plover, also in flocks. Golden plover have pointed wings, and tend to fly in formation, compared to the broad wings and rather random flight of the lapwing. Lapwing are quite noisy when disturbed, their distinctive mewing a classic sound of winter marshlands. The golden plover have a high pitched peeping call.
Wildlife in the garden
As the weather turns colder, birds will increasingly be drawn to feeders in the garden, and provide a chance for you to watch them close up. A large range of species will come to most gardens, depending on the local environment. The very pretty bullfinch will happily eat seeds from a feeder, a bird that has traditionally been persecuted because of its fondness for fruit blossom buds, but is now making a comeback. A bird that has joined our winter population is the blackcap, many of which have altered their behaviour such that our summer birds are replaced by birds from eastern Europe. The reed bunting is now common at feeders in gardens adjacent to any marshy lowland areas. Nearby wooded areas the great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch will also be seen. The fieldfares and redwings are attracted to berries on shrubs, and when those run out, are very fond of soft apples left on the ground, so do leave some behind if you have an apple tree or orchard. Another visitor you may see is the brambling, often travelling with other finches, the male is a striking bird with buff chest, grey speckled head, but most distinctively, a black Zorro like mask around the eyes.
It is worth providing different types of seed feeders, as goldfinches prefer small seeds like niger, the tits will feed from a upturned coconut half on a string, full of fat. Other species will struggle to get to this, and so cannot compete. And do allow for ground feeders such as robin and dunnock, plus of course the blackbirds, making sure the feed is not too near any cover that cats may spring from.
For those with a garden, it is a good time to think about what you might plant before spring. Choosing shrubs that bear berries, such as pyracantha, will attract birds. Buddleia is well known for attracting butterflies. If you have space for a climber, clematis cirrhosa is an evergreen, winter flowering plant, which will feed bees even in winter, and provides year round greenery and dense growth for robins or blackbirds to use as nesting sites. And if you have room for some tree saplings, all the better. Just one tree will support hundreds of species, from lichens to beetles. Talk to you garden centre for advice.
All photographs courtesy of Chris Chappell.