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Winter 2007/2008

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Apart from the limitations imposed by shorter daylight hours and the dreaded four letter word - work, I find winter the most exciting of the seasons. Whether you are braving the cold on the wash coast, practicing your field- craft in a local wood, or observing birds on your garden feeders; winter usually offers more drama than the other seasons.

Partly this is due to an influx of raptors following their prey to the more benevolent climate of Lincolnshire and East Anglia. Summering Hobbies are replaced by Merlins and Peregrines. Compensation for the one or two pairs of breeding Montague's Harriers, are wintering Hen Harriers and an increasing tendency for summering Marsh Harriers to deny the lure of migration to sunnier climes and over winter here too. If voles and other small mammals are scarce in Scandinavia, and other parts of continental Europe, Short Eared Owls join the ranks of our resident Barn Owls to hunt by day and with much luck, or a handy tip off, its' nocturnal cousin the Long Eared Owl can be found roosting in thick hedges and copses. Only a few years ago, one such roost was discovered in our own Rippingale Fen.

Just before Christmas I witnessed a real life drama in our garden. I was admiring a male Great Spotted Woodpecker on our peanut feeder through my binoculars, one of a regular pair that frequent our garden, when a Sparrowhawk dived in. I had to lower the binoculars to get a wider view of the action, but in the confusion of "clacking" Blackbirds I did not see whether the Sparrowhawk had taken the Woodpecker or not. Over he next few days we regularly saw the female but no sign of its' mate. I feared the worst. Happily, early in the new year; it reappeared. I knew it was the same one because it used the same route to thee feeder via its favourite tree trunks and perches, but thankfully it looks none the worst for its' ordeal.

Our windfall cooking apples proved a huge attraction to Blackbirds peaking at 25 along with a single Song Thrush and Fieldfare. By the twelth day of Christmas there was not an apple left and the Blackbird population in the garden was back down to its usual four or so birds.

One of my favourite destinations at this time of year is Holkham in north Norfolk. A national nature reserve occupies much of this area and includes a range of habitats including the sea, a wide sandy beach, extensive sand dunes, pine woodland and a superb area of grazing marsh with "flashes" of fresh water and small reed-beds. If this is not enough to whet your appetite, cross the A149 in to the estate of Holkham Hall to experience perfectly preserved parkland with ancient oaks and beeches, a deer herd and a lake in a valley below the imposing hall.

Pink-footed Geese at Holkam

The grazing marsh at Holkham provides the amazing spectacle and sound track of thousands of wild geese. By far the most common are Pink-footed Geese; around 80-100,000 winter around the Wash but other species will be present too. Over two recent trips I notched up a total of 8 different species of geese including Snow Geese and a Ross's Goose, both more typical of North America and thought to have migrated south down the wrong side of the arctic.

Every now and then the massed Geese will rise up in a clamour of noise in response to one of the birds of prey that are almost constantly present. Both Marsh and Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Merlins, Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are all regular.

Snow Buntings

When you have had your fill of the wild goose chase, walk through the wood to the dunes and the bay beyond. Small birds are worth examining closely because in addition to the more usual Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and Linnets, you might find Rock Pipits, Twite, Snow Buntings and if you are really lucky perhaps a few Shore Larks.

If there are not too many dog walkers there will be waders and gulls along the shores and the chance of sea duck, grebes and divers on the sea.

For those with difficulty walking or just less energy, there are other venues that offer good winter birdwatching possibilities. Eyebrook reservoir, for example can be viewed from the comfort of your car from the road that circles two thirds of this productive inland water. Eyebrook is actually worth visiting at any time of year but winter can be particularly good with a wide range of wildfowl including regular Goosander and Smew , an interesting gull roost and usually an assortment of waders including Ruff, Golden Plover and Dunlin.

Canada and Brent Geese

Frieston Shore has good access for wheelchairs along one side of the lagoon and includes a large hide. High tide visits are best as waders and wildfowl will often fly in from the salt marsh to feed and roost in the lagoon.

Barnacle Goose (centre) with Canada Geese
Even the car park can afford great views of birds and on my last visit I photographed Brent, Canada, Barnacle and Greylag Geese all within 30 metres of the car as well as some very confiding Black-tailed Godwits.

Black-tailed Godwit

The bushes around the car park area are always worth checking for tree sparrows too.

Finally don't forget our furry friends! The Grey Seals with their pups are at Donna Nook in the north of Lincolnshire and Common Seals can be seen, albeit distantly, hauled up on the mud from Holbeach Marsh. Deer are more easily observed in the woods at this time of year with little under-story and leaves to get in the way and up to four species are now resident in the southwest of Lincolnshire.

Even our gardens can host a surprising variety of mammals. The regular Muntjac , mentioned in previous editions of Country Eye even managed a cameo appearance for the family on Christmas Day! Bank Voles and Grey Squirrels continue to forage under the bird-tables and unfortunately, House Mice continue to share the garage with our vehicles and tools.

So wrap up warm and go and watch some wildlife!

Ian Misselbrook
January 2008.


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