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Winter Diary 2008/2009

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As I write in early January and the excitement of the autumn is long behind us, we and our wildlife are settling in for what appears to be a harsh winter. The weathermen told us that we had the coldest start to a British winter for 30 years. Certainly snow in Lincolnshire in October was unexpected but a cold December with some brief periods of snow and daily sharp frosts should strike a familiar chord with the older ones amongst us.

Our wildlife deals with winter in different ways. Hedgehogs and bats, animals that feed largely on insects and other invertebrates, which are obviously scarce in winter, hibernate. But recent evidence suggests that a series of mild winters may upset this pattern, especially if animals choose a place to hibernate that is prone to temperature fluctuation. Another mammal that was once thought to hibernate, is the badger. Early 20th century naturalists such as the great Mortimer Batten were convinced that with the exception of a few restless individuals, the majority of badgers did hibernate, but the badger expert of the latter part of that century, Ernest Neal, contested this view. However he did concede that some badgers might develop a more torpid metabolism that enabled them to sleep for prolonged periods, but never really attained the state of full hibernation. If anyone has more up to date information on this debate please enlighten me by using the email facility on the Country Eye website.

Many of our breeding birds, of course, migrate before the onset of winter, but the recent run of mild winters seems to have encouraged some species to stay put. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are two good examples of this. The expansion of desert areas in North Africa and the increased frequency of adverse conditions, particularly during the return migration in spring, increase the odds in favour of "toughing out" an English winter. More of these birds can be found in the milder areas of the UK, such as Devon and Cornwall, but having said that, Blackcaps have wintered in the Lincolnshire village where I live. Apart from the risks of prolonged cold weather and the resultant lack of prey, these warblers will also have to compete with resident and wintering species with similar food requirements. However there may be benefits to joining in mixed feeding flocks, both in finding areas rich in prey and in confusing potential predators. Look out for Blackcaps in mixed feeding flocks of tits in our woodlands and hedgerows, or if you are lucky enough to visit a southern reed-bed, such as Marazion Marsh in Cornwall, as I have, you may see Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests, with perhaps the odd Bearded Tit thrown in for good measure!

Waxwings Feeding

Many hardy northern breeders find our climate in winter more than sufficiently mild for them and currently we are enjoying one of the best influxes of birds that I can remember. Good numbers of Scandinavian thrushes including Fieldfares and Redwings can be seen everywhere and the abundant autumn harvest of apples, has given them a much appreciated surplus of windfalls. Look for them also on berry bearing hedgerows and shrubs which is also another "hotspot" for over- wintering Blackcaps. Also look out for the exotic looking Waxwing. Fairly good numbers of these birds arrived on the east coast last autumn and I was fortunate enough to see a flock in north Norfolk, but now many have moved inland. In general most birds prefer the berries found on our native shrubs but Waxwings are the exception. They seem to prefer the large and gaudy berries found on ornamental shrubs, particularly those planted in supermarket car parks! Normally the Saturday morning shopping expedition is something I try to avoid, but it could have it's compensations.

Whooper Swans

Other winter visitors are more easily located. Wintering Whooper and Bewick's Swans are pretty obvious wherever they land.

Bewick's Swan
A party of six Bewick's Swans turned up on a local fen with about seventy of the more common and resident Mute Swans in early January, but if you don't fancy bracing the cold of a Lincolnshire fen then why not visit the WWT reserve at Welney in the Ouse washes, where all three swans can be observed from the luxury of a heated viewing room? It is also worth noting that they have excellent facilities for disabled visitors.

Inland waters such as Rutland, Eyebrook, Graffham, Abberton and Hanningfield can all afford excellent chances of catching up with rarer grebes, divers and sea duck, usually consorting with more common and often similar looking species. I found a rare Red-necked Grebe on a little watched part of Rutland Water in late December and then saw another, well watched individual at Graffham Water on January 2nd. Both afforded comparison with the similar but far more common Great Crested Grebes enabling observers to clearly see the diagnostic differences. A male Scaup (a sea- duck) swimming amongst similarly coloured Tufted Ducks was easily told apart once located, but I must have scanned across a hundred Tufted Ducks before I located it!

Grumpy Old Grey Seal

I would like to finish with an account of my visit to the Grey Seal colony at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire in December.

Grey Seal Pup

This must be the easiest place in the country to observe Grey Seals with their pups at close quarters in the country. November is the peak month for seals, but I usually leave it later as it gets enormous numbers of visitors.

Glaucous Gull Defending its Dinner

Of course this is a wild colony of seals, not a zoo and inevitably, not all the pups survive. However, in nature death gives life to others and one of the pictures shows a rare arctic breeding gull; a juvenile Glaucous Gull out-competing a Carrion crow and two Magpies to feed on the carcass of one of the less fortunate seal pups. As you can see this gull is huge and well placed to win the battle for first place at dinner!

If it is crowded at the seal colony, a walk north along the coast soon gets you away from it all and can yield some excellent birds. On my visit with a friend we saw two Hen Harriers, two Merlins an over-wintering Greenshank and a large flock of Twite; the northern moor and mountain equivalent of the more familiar Linnet. The star bird for me though, was a Lapland Bunting feeding with a flock of Skylarks on the edge of the dunes, a reminder to me that Christmas was approaching and I still had not bought any presents!

Ian Misselbrook
January 2009.


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