Wildlife to see January 2020

Sunset - Chris Chappell

Whilst we are in mid winter, there is always plenty to see in the natural world, and soon the longer days will make it easier to get out to enjoy the countryside. Many birds will sing on the better days.

A mild and wet winter thus far has led to some unseasonal appearances of butterflies and bees, with a bumble bee collecting pollen in my garden on New Year's Eve.  Peacock and red admiral butterflies may be seen all year round when the sun shines.  It is well worth buying some winter flowering plants if you don't have any.

The flooded levels have pushed the wading birds onto the areas higher ground, as many areas of water are too deep for birds such as snipe, lapwing and golden plover to feed.  But it is a good time to spot a barn owl hunting along the river banks and flood defences, where mice and voles have been forced to take refuge.  A day on the levels will always be well rewarded, be it a sighting of the magnificent marsh harriers hunting over the reed bed, or the exquisite bearded tits (or reedlings) feeding on the reed mace heads.

Robin

Robin - Chris Chappell

Whilst we are in mid winter, there is always plenty to see in the natural world, and soon the longer days will make it easier to get out to enjoy the countryside. Many birds will sing on the better days.  Robin, dunnock, great tit, wren and many others will often perch on a high point as they establish territories.  The song thrush will join in later in the month. Starlings chatter noisily in large groups as they gather in a tree or on telegraph wires prior to heading to roost en masse.  Starlings often mimic other bird calls, which can be misleading, the plaintiff cry of a buzzard is often included in their repertoire.  This early bird song is in preparation for the spring and the breeding season.

On  the fields and moors, huge flocks of lapwing (or peewit) have arrived from the north, outnumbering our dwindling native population by a factor of three to one.  At times they fill the skies, wheeling acrobatically, and mewing loudly.  They are quick to take fright, particularly if a predatory raptor appears, rising in unison from the ground, calling noisily, but soon settle again. 

Spider's web with droplets

Spider's web with droplets - Chris Chappell

The lapwings feed on the marshy ground, probing for worms and insects.  Somerset is a key county for their winter migration.  Individually, they are remarkable looking birds, with an impressive crest, and subtle myriad colours in the iridescent scalloped back feathers. 

The lapwing are frequently joined by flocks of golden plover, sometimes in thousands, a similarly sized bird to the lapwing, mainly speckled brown with pale underparts in winter plumage. The golden plover have a distinctive, rather plaintive high-pitched two-tone call.

Shoveler silhouette

Shoveler silhouette - Chris Chappell

Winter duck numbers are now established in great flocks on the flooded fields and moors. Watched from a hide, they make quite a spectacle, feeding voraciously, while the combined squeaks grunts and whistles of teal, shoveler and wigeon make an entertaining soundtrack.  Bird-watching demands patience, and quiet. Be prepared to sit and wait to see what develops, from time to time the ducks will be spooked by a passing sparrowhawk or diving peregrine falcon, and there will be a great splash and clatter of wings, as they rise in unison, calling loudly in alarm.  A quick circuit of the open water and they will soon settle again, landing with feet and wings out to slow their movement. 

At other times, the birds will settle down to a mass preening session, which involves a lot of noisy splashing around.  This is very amusing  to watch, as they contort themselves to reach every feather. Preening is vital for all birds, but all the more essential for wetland birds, and a major part of their daily routine.  As with most birds, oil is produced in a gland under the tail, and this is spread throughout the plumage using the beak, waterproofing the feathers.

An Evening on the Levels

Seeing the day out on a fine winter evening  is a very special experience on the Somerset Levels, as birds move to their roosting sites. 

Avoiding the crush at Ham Wall, which has become rather over popular due to the starling roost, you may prefer to find a spot where you can look and listen in peace.  Aller Moor across to Burrow Mump is a good area to pause and watch as hundreds of lapwing drift in silently looking for a safe place to spend the night.  Smaller flocks of golden plover will join them, and sometimes dunlin. Large flocks of starlings cross this area most evenings, often flying low, and the murmur of thousands of wings is truly extraordinary.  Snipe may flash by unseen, their rasping call giving them away. 

Male teal

Male teal - Chris Chappell

As the sun goes down, the sky turns deep blue, truly magical.  Large numbers of fieldfare spend the day feeding on the moors, and they go to roost with a raucous cackle. These days you may see a flock of cattle egrets leaving their feeding ground with the cows, and heading for a tree roost.  Add to this the squeak and whistle of teal and wigeon, the harsh craik of a passing heron. The eerie squeal of the water rail further add to the atmosphere, more heard than seen.

Warblers in winter

Most warbler species have long since flown south for the winter, but increasingly some species are remainers, taking advantage of milder, shorter winters here.  Over the past 45 years the Cetti's warbler has became a year round resident in many parts of England, and is now common where the habitat is suitable.  They like reed beds, large and small, and copses and scrub near water. Cetti's will call all year round on fine days, they are furtive warblers, but noisy, so you may be startled by their explosive call, but barely see the bird itself.  It is a very smart bird dark brown and paler underneath,  with a wide tail, rather like a large wren.

The chiff chaff is now a common over wintering warbler, not normally heard singing in the depths  of winter, but as soon as there is a hint of spring, you may hear their distinctive call.  They are pretty, delicate birds, shades of olive green with a small eye stripe and dark legs.  Very similar to the willow warbler, but this species does not normally stay for the winter months.

And the other common winter warbler is the blackcap, now regularly  seen on bird feeders and in gardens, the male with mushroom shades of brown, and a rich glossy black cap, the female a creamy brown head.  However, it is likely that the blackcaps you see may come from the continent, to replace the summer visitors that have gone south for winter.  Their exact movements are still the subject of study.

Male blackbird eating berries

Male blackbird - Chris Chappell

Feed the birds

Great enjoyment can be had by watching the birds attracted to feeders in your  garden, and the food you provide is an important supplement to the wild food available. This is particularly important in cold spells, when the food on your bird table may be all that is accessible while there is snow on the ground, or if the earth is frozen.

Fieldfare among berries

Fieldfare among berries - Chris Chappell

It is important to keep the feeders clean.  Mouldy food is thought to spread disease among birds, leading to a drop in greenfinch numbers in particular.  Take care not to attract birds to  spot where a cat may prey on them. Rotting apples left on the ground are popular with all the thrush species.

Sunset with flying birds

Sunset - Chris Chappell