Get yourselves ready, says Chris Chappell, for the bitterns at Westhay Moor and get those nestboxes cleaned and ready for their new owners.
The First Hint of Spring
Early bulbs poke their shoots through the leaf litter, the days lengthen, as we begin our escape from the dark days of winter. Great tits make their noisy see-saw call from the trees and hedgerows, keen to establish their territory and attract a mate. Song thrushes and dunnocks are also calling on a fine day. Collared doves perform acrobatic displays, looping and diving through the air, keen to impress. Rooks and ravens are busy nest-building. Whilst still in the heart of winter, it is nevertheless a great time to explore our wonderful county for the natural delights it has to offer. And the bare trees and shrubs lend the advantage of our being able to see wildlife with ease.
On the flooded levels, winter ducks keep up a noisy cacophony, piping teal and whistling wigeon splash about noisily on the flooded meres. The majority of these birds breed in northern Europe and eastern Russia, but as winter draws on they start to compete for mates, and there is much posturing and display behaviour as the drakes aim to attract a suitable hen. The larger shoveler will join in, grunting and squawking.
Elsewhere great crested grebes may be seen starting their elaborate courtship, always a joy to watch, involving head-wagging, parallel swimming, and much else, culminating in them presenting each other with some weed as notional nesting material. They don't call very much, but do have a loud and harsh grating call when threatened or seeing off a rival male.
Out on the levels, bearded tits are now feeding on the reed mace heads, pulling out the flowers to get to the seeds, leaving a swathe of seed debris floating below the plant. The 'beardies' are beautifully camouflaged, blending in with the rush heads, but their presence may be revealed by the descending cloud of cotton fluff. They have altered their diet for the winter, from insects to seeds, as the supply of food changes.
Short Eared Owls
The sight of short eared owl hunting in the evening light will lift the heart of any wildlife enthusiast, a welcome event in the depths of winter. These owls often hunt in daylight,, looking for their favourite prey of voles, normally hunting over grassland or moorland. The short eared owl can be hard to find, but they are present in some numbers on Exmoor, and they are often seen on Steart marshes. Another winter visitor, at least in this part of the world, they weave and dive rather like large moths, hunting for voles. They will often sit on a hillock or anthill, striking a distinctive pose, and make a great subject for the photographer.
Along with the winter ducks, Somerset is a winter refuge for large numbers of migratory common snipe. These elegant waders have long beaks that probe the depths of the mud or soft soil for the worms and insect larvae. They may be seen feeding energetically, as they pace about probing for food. The snipe will also spend long periods just resting, and due to their elaborate camouflage, will disappear into the background of reeds and grasses, making them hard to spot. They may mix in close proximity with teal and other ducks. The feet are olive green, also blending in with the vegetation. They are rapid in flight, sometimes a group of 20 or more may drop down, arriving in formation, and dispersing just as they land. They make a hoarse rasping call when taking off, but are mostly silent. The males do make an extraordinary drumming sound during courtship, made by vibrating outer tail feathers, and produced while in a steep dive at speed. However, you will be lucky to hear this in Somerset as breeding numbers are limited, and this occurs mainly on restricted and inaccessible areas. The smaller, related jack snipe is much rarer, but a few are seen here in the winter. They are secretive, and tend to sit tight until the last minute, but if disturbed, they will fly a fairly short distance and land again, whereas the common snipe will fly in a zig-zag pattern for some and land some distance away. But if you are lucky enough to spot a jack snipe, their distinctive bobbing action when feeding will help when no size comparison is available.
Much of Westhay is managed by SWT, it is large reserve with a variety of habitats. Westhay offers all kinds of birdlife, both aquatic and woodland species. In addition, Westhay is home to otters, and you may see a group of roe deer feeding in a glade. You may also spot a tree creeper making its way up an alder or birch, searching out insects in the crevices in the bark. It is an exquisite creature, with a white front, striped and barred back, and thin curved beak for teasing out prey.
Bullfinches are often seen in the shrubs and bushes, the male with an unmistakable dusky pink/red front, and the female cafe crème. Both have black heads, wingtips and tail, and you will see a flash of the white rump as they take flight. They have a rather sad sounding weeping call.
Marsh harriers hunt over the reed beds, these magnificent birds, spread their great wings in a characteristic vee shape, and make a wonderful sight in winter sun. They feed on small mammals and birds, and are generally silent. They are the largest harrier, the female brown with a honey cream head, and the male paler with grey mid-wing, black wing tips and greyish tail. They are joined by a few migratory hen harriers during the winter. The male hen harrier is a striking white and grey with black tipped wings, whilst the female is brown with a white ring to the base of the tail. Young males are almost indistinguishable from the female form; the two are identified together as ‘ringtails’, having a clear white base to the tail.
Here there are bittern, kingfisher, and many ducks including mallard, teal, wigeon, gadwall, and tufted duck. Water rail and little grebe are common here, more heard than seen. And the starlings, which deserve another mention, are often present in huge numbers, their preferred roost in the reeds changes during the course of the winter, but you will always see them scooting over the reeds en route to the roost. A special winter visitor you may see on one of the larger lakes at Westhay is the goosander, a member of the sawbill family, the size and shape of a cormorant. There the resemblance ends, the male being white with black back and green neck and head, the female largely grey, with russet head, and both have red bills.
By the end of the month, the male bitterns begin to call. Most birds go through a process of building up the muscles used to call or sing. Therefore when the bitterns start to call, it is just a muffled grunt, and builds up to a resonant call that can be heard from several miles away.
March will bring many changes, so meantime enjoy the winter visitors before they leave, soon to be replaced by all our summer migrants.
This is the time to put up bird boxes, or to check and clean out the old ones. Take care not to disturb any hibernating dormice or bats. Removing the old nest material reduces the proliferation of parasites. Take care when handling old nest material, as the nest debris contains fungal spores, so avoid inhaling any dust produced. It is easy to make your own nest boxes, there are good instructions on line. For tit boxes, it is worth fitting metal plates around the entrance, to deter squirrels and great spotted woodpeckers from raiding the nests.
All photographs © Chris Chappell, including the Redshank below.
Female Bearded Tit (or Reedling) on Reedmace