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Winter Diary 2009/2010

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Snow Fields at Rippingale
After the long and open autumn, rumours of a barbeque winter abounded. However they proved to be short lived as by mid December our islands were hit by icy blasts with prolonged and heavy snow falls and temperatures well below zero.

Country Roads

To be honest the weather severely limited my activities as car travel became very difficult with most minor roads impassable for anything but a four wheel drive. However, as is so often the case in these conditions much of the wildlife came to me.

It did not take very long for a flock of 15 Blackbirds and 3 Fieldfares to polish off the remaining fallen apples in the garden, but that was about the only "natural" food the birds could find, when at least 6 inches of snow covered the ground. Fortunately I had good stocks of various types of bird feed and kitchen scraps which brought in up to 20 different species in a day.

A flock of more than a dozen House Sparrows was joined by a Tree Sparrow but the real surprise, was not only a new garden record, but a bird I have not seen within a mile of where I live. This was a Corn Bunting, which looked immense when feeding on one of the bird tables alongside Chaffinches and Sparrows. Unfortunately its' visit was cut short by an aggressive Blackbird that took exception to it and pursued it over the hedge….

Whooper Swan

Leaving the car behind, I took several walks down our local fens. Only a few weeks ago there had been good sized flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover, but these birds cannot feed in snow covered fields and had disappeared. However the hedges, happily still laden with berries hosted a good variety of birds. Blackbird numbers swollen by continental immigrants called noisily and Fieldfares, Redwings and Song Thrushes were also much in evidence. Chaffinches and Greenfinches were also finding food in the hedgerows but hordes of Woodpigeons unable to find the fields of oilseed rape flew restlessly backwards and forwards. A family party of 5 Whooper Swans on January 2 were excellent birds on my local patch at the beginning of the year.

The wintry conditions brought mixed fortunes for our raptors. The regular pair of Buzzards looked healthy enough. Being mainly scavengers, the bad weather probably provided a ready supply of fresh corpses or struggling prey. The Sparrowhawks that harries the flocks of finches and larks also appeared healthy enough, but the Kestrels whose prey of small mammals and insects now living under the snow looked especially miserable as they sat hunched up on top of telegraph poles and trees. A local Kestrel has taken to visiting the garden where it pursues the birds in a Sparrowhawk like fashion but, I suspect, with considerably less success.

Some flooded gravel pits provide one of the best man made habitats in the area, but for a while I thought my late December visit was going to be a complete waste of time, as every pit I visited was completely frozen over and bird-less. However, the very last and deepest pit told a different story. Although mostly frozen over a large patch of open water remained in to which wildfowl was crammed. Several hundred Wigeon were swimming in the open water joined by dozens of Coot and Tufted Duck. Careful observation revealed the presence, in much smaller numbers of other species; Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Goldeneye, a few Mute Swans and a superb flock of nine Red Crested Pochard . Black-headed Gulls stood close by on the ice where more duck stood, some sleeping, apparently oblivious to the cold. On these private pits no one would come and feed them unlike their cousins at Welney Wildfowl refuge which I had visited earlier in the winter, where wheelbarrows full of grain are fed twice every day. Here the commoner wildfowl are joined by truly wild Whooper and Bewick's Swans from Siberia and the Arctic Circle which are in my opinion, thoroughly deserving of a free meal.

Dunnock in Snow Storm

It seems in the very depths of the harshest of winter weather birds thoughts turn to spring. Dunnocks commenced singing on Boxing Day, joined a day later by the "teacher teacher" call of the Great Tit, its closest approximation to a song. It is thought that once the Solstice has past, the increasing day-length acts as a stimulant for bird song, although in my experience a bit of winter sunshine has the same effect. Even so, I was surprised to hear a great Spotted Woodpecker drumming at noon on the fourth of January when the ground was covered in snow and the temperature was below freezing. However the sun was shining which maybe was enough for him to announce his territory and begin courting!

A short respite from the worst of the wintry conditions saw me driving the 20 miles across the Lincolnshire fens at first light, on the last day of 2009 to spend a morning at one of the year's conservation success stories. I refer to the RSPB's Frampton Marsh reserve on the edge of the Wash, near Boston. Featured in an earlier edition of Country Eye, this reserve only opened to the public in April 2009. The newly opened section which abuts the SSSI grazing and salt-marsh also managed by the RSPB, was until very recently arable farmland. The RSPB are in the process of creating a patchwork of different habitats including scrapes, extensive reed-beds and wet grassland. The reed-beds were only planted in summer 2009, so have yet to develop but the whole area, with its' extensive flashes of water immediately started to attract good birds and other wildlife./p>

The morning started well, with a Barn Owl, several Kestrels and Stock Doves; all typical fenland birds, appearing within a short drive of my home.

The approach to Frampton reserve is bordered by an old and exceptionally thick hedgerow, still laden with berries - but not for much longer, I suspect. The reason for this assumption was the presence of at least 400, noisy Fieldfares, busy stripping the hedges of their nutritious fruit.

Fieldfares were not the only passerine migrants from the north as I found out whist taking some welcome shelter from the bitter northerly wind in one of the reserves spacious hides. From here amongst the more common Starlings, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits I watched a Rock Pipit; a bird that breeds on cliffs and rocky coasts, and to my delight a mixed flock of buntings which included at least 19 Snow Buntings and 10 or 12 Lapland Buntings. The birds were very flighty, not helped by the presence of a Peregrine which was harassing the massed Starlings and assorted waders on the wet grassland but they nonetheless, afforded good if somewhat distant views.

Marsh Tit

I know many birdwatchers ignore our woodlands in the winter citing that without the summer migrants they are comparatively bird-less. A visit to one of my local woods in early January, proved to be very productive. Only during the winter do they hold all six species of English Tit as the Willow Tit which is still a regular winter visitor, no longer nests in this corner of Lincolnshire. Marsh Tits, however seem to have increased and fourteen on this visit was a good count by any standard. It is also so much easier to see our resident species with no leaves to get in the way! I feasted my eyes on Nuthatches, Bullfinches, Goldfinches and all the expected wintering thrushes as well as getting good views of Fallow Deer, hares and squirrels. In my opinion a well spent couple of hours.

The snow makes it easier to find evidence of wild mammals. Tracks of deer, hares and foxes are commonplace and indeed Brown Hares in fields of snow are hard to miss. The Brown Hare seems to be doing very well in our part of the country but I realise its distribution is patchy and in other areas it is still quite rare.

Ian Misselbrook
January 2010.


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