Somerset is an important stop-off point and destination for many migratory birds and one of the best places to see them is the Somerset Levels. A visit to our Catcott and Westhay Nature Reserves is a good place to start looking for some of these birds.
Ducks - Look out for the pretty Pintails, that breed in northern areas of Europe and Asia and seek shelter here as temperatures plummet - you will see that they are aptly named. Many Wigeon, also visit Somerset during the winter and they can often be found grazing in large flocks.
Waders - Striking Oystercatchers (pic right), are large, attractive, noisy plover-like birds, with massive long orange or red bills used for smashing or prying open molluscs. Their red legs and eyes are other obvious features. The Lapwing, is another common but declining resident, that can be seen in large numbers at out Catcott Reserve.
Swans - Bewick’s Swan (pic right), look out for the bill pattern that clearly distinguishes this swan from the common and resident Mute Swan when walking on the Levels.
Passeriformes - The Redwing (pic below right) is slightly smaller than the related Song Thrush. Its most striking identification features are the red flanks and underwing, and the creamy white stripe above the eye. Try and spot them at the Cheddar Complex.
The Fieldfare winters in large numbers in the UK and nests in trees. Unusually for a thrush, it often nests in small colonies, possibly for protection from crows. Migrating birds and wintering birds often form large flocks, particularly with Redwings.
Listen for the pleasant song of Siskins, a mix of twitters and trills. It is found in forested areas, both coniferous and mixed woodland, where it feeds on seeds of all kinds, especially of alder and conifers. The alder lined droves at Catcott are regular haunts for these wintering finches - look out for its striking yellow and black plumage.
These winter visitors are one type of migrant to and from the UK. Can you name another three types of migrant and some species?
Mistletoe is a parasitic shrub, that you can see in the crowns of broad-leaved trees, particularly Apple, Lime, Hawthorn and Poplar.
It is surrounded by myths and legends, important in Christmas festivities. The ‘stimulating’ custom of kissing underneath a branch of mistletoe goes back as far as the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a time to eat, drink and be merry. Mistletoe was also associated with primitive marriage rites because of a belief that it bestowed fertility. Sometimes, to prevent ardour getting out of hand, after each kiss a berry was removed - no more berries, no more kissing!
Norway Spruce is popularly planted for use as a Christmas tree. Every Christmas, the Norwegian capital city, Oslo, provides the cities of New York, London, Edinburgh and Washington D.C. with a Norwegian Spruce, which is placed at the most central square of each city. This is mainly a sign of gratitude for the aid these countries gave during the Second World War.
A press release from Umeå University, Sweden, stated that a Norway Spruce clone named Old Tjikko, carbon dated as 9,550 years old, is the oldest living tree.
Unusual Winter Trees
The great majority of conifer trees are evergreen, with leaves usually remaining on the tree for several years before falling. The Larch is the only deciduous conifer growing commonly in the UK.
The Holm, or Holly Oak, is the only evergreen oak found commonly in the UK. It takes its name from holm, an ancient name for holly, due to resemblances in foliage. The Holm Oak is one of the top three trees used in the establishment of truffle orchards as they grow in association with the tree's roots.
Drop Tony a line about your Somerset wildlife adventures this winter and we'll report back in the next e-newsletter. Don't forget to attach your photos.
Oystercatcher © Brian Phipps
Bewick Swan © Jonathan Davidson
Redwing © Lynne Newton