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Winter Birding Special

I will never forget the day, more than 20 years ago when I was reclining on a sea wall watching some migrant waders during a sultry august afternoon with my friend, the wild life artist and ornithologist Richard Hull, when he said to me,

“The thing I like most about autumn is that it heralds the onset of winter and some really exciting bird watching.”

I remember looking at him incredulously, as in my mind nothing beat the excitement of spring, with long light evenings and reasonable weather to enjoy the throngs of returning summer migrants. Yet, I now find myself agreeing with him, or at least to the extent that as I grow older, I appreciate the special charms of every season; including winter.

Certainly much of the magic of winter lies in the minds images of the breeding grounds from which these winter visitors originate. Whooper Swans that have raised their young in Iceland, under the beady eyes of immense White-tailed Sea Eagles, Bewick’s Swans from northern Siberia and White-fronted Geese from Russia all capture my imagination.


Of particular relevance to Lincolnshire are the Brent Geese. Many thousands winter on our coast and good places to see them are Frampton Marsh (only 20 miles from Rippingale), Frieston Shore or the northern shore of the mouth of the Witham, near Boston. Their musical honking is evocative of English salt-marsh , but this goose breeds more northerly than any other species that visits our shores, up to 80 degrees north, and is equally at home in western Siberia as east Lincolnshire.



Apart from our own feral breeding population of Greylag and Canada Geese that breed in Rippingale and Dunsby Fens, and can be seen doing a “flypast” over the village most mornings, the other species most likely to be encountered near Rippingale is the Pink Footed Goose. The population that winters in Lincolnshire breeds in Iceland and Greenland and the skeins of geese flying in perfect “V” formation over our fenland landscape are likely to be Pink-feet in search of food. In early winter they feed on waste potatoes left in the field after harvesting or wheat grains in stubble. Unfortunately this latter resource is quite scarce as modern farming practice rarely leaves over wintering stubbles any more. Later in the winter their diet turns to grass or sprouting wheat, which obviously does not enamour them with farmers. Some of the late Countryside Stewardship schemes encouraged the provision of grazing pastures for geese which when coupled with shooting to scare geese off wheat fields has proved quite effective. It is hoped similar schemes will be in place in the new Environmental Stewardship.


White-fronted geese are also on my “Rippingale List” but to be honest, only on one occasion and that was during our last really hard winter of ‘86/87. However really close views can be obtained at Holkham Marsh in Norfolk, and Eyebrook Reservoir in Rutland also attracts some in most winters.


Both Whooper and Bewick’s Swans are regular on our fens. This winter I have seen Bewick’s Swans wintering with the more common Mute Swans from Deeping High Bank and I am hopeful that the Whooper Swans that spent most of last February and March on Dowsby and Surfleet Fens will return soon.


Wintering raptors always provide excitement and every winter sees a few Merlin, Peregrine and Hen Harriers in favoured habitats. This winter has been noted for the numbers of Short-eared Owls. Single birds have been seen hunting low along the dykes of all our local fens but a peak of seven birds over the old set aside grassland at Hawthorpe (only 3 miles from our village) has been a well watched spectacle. Whilst waiting for the owls to emerge (usually after 3.00 pm) a pair of wintering Stonechats, heathland breeding birds, have engaged birders attentions and buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks usually all put in an appearance.

The explanation for the presence of these beautiful owls in such numbers is thought to be related to the cyclically low breeding numbers of voles and lemmings on the continent.


Finally don’t forget to carry on feeding the birds in your garden. As well as contributing to their survival, late winter and early spring is often the best time to attract something rarer to your feeding station. Brambing, Siskin and Redpoll have all appeared in my garden at this time of year and I live in constant hope of seeing something even more scarce!


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