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Winter Diary 2011/2012

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Short Eared Owl

As I write in early January, here in Lincolnshire we have not had to endure the cold and snowy weather we experienced for the two previous winters. After what seems to have been a very kind spring, summer and autumn for wildlife, especially birds and insects the winter has brought little hardship. In fact there is still a huge pile of windfall apples under my Bramley tree which by this time last year had all been eaten by an assortment of hungry birds.

Despite the milder weather, the birds that winter in our islands are certainly here although in different numbers to last year. Very few waxwings have appeared which perhaps means there is sufficient food in their boreal forests. However another interesting "irruptive" species has arrived in very good numbers and that is the Short-eared Owl.

Short Eared Owl
Some birds breed in Britain mainly on mountains and moorland but the birds that are wintering here are from northern Europe and the arctic regions. Scores were observed flying in off the sea on the east coast of England during the autumn and they soon dispersed to find rough grassland habitat where they are feeding on field voles and mice. These irruptions are not weather related but seem to follow the cycle of their main prey species the lemming. It seems lemmings had a good breeding season and this enabled the Short-eared Owls to rear more young. We have all heard the stories of lemmings rushing over cliffs to their deaths when the population explodes, but the other side to this is at the low point of the breeding cycle when their numbers drop below that needed to sustain their natural predators, such as Short-eared Owls. It is likely that the owls we are seeing have dispersed from their breeding areas to find food.

I have been observing up to 8 owls in the same area during the late afternoon in a fen near my home. Although they cannot be described as day flying they often hunt from mid-afternoon onwards affording good view and the prospect of reasonable photographs.

This particular area has been sown to rough grass and game cover crops to enhance the shooting value which has benefited the voles, a good substitute for lemmings, the owls and a lot of other wildlife. During my vigils I have observed Roe Deer here, which tend to inhabit the fens rather than the local woodlands as they are over populated by Fallow Deer and Muntjac. Brown Hares are also common here as is the ubiquitous Rabbit.

Meadow Pipits, Reed Buntings, Golden Plover and Lapwing are also abundant on this fen although the latter two species are happiest picking over cultivated fields for grubs and worms. Fieldfares, the largest of the visiting winter thrushes have been stripping the hedgerows of berries and flocks of up to 500 are frequently seen.

The abundance of small birds and mammals have attracted other avian predators including the resident Barn Owls, a Peregrine and its much smaller cousin the Merlin along with numerous Kestrels and up to two Hen Harriers at a time.

Another location where Short-eared Owls used to breed is Frampton Marsh where in addition to the existing saltmarsh and fresh wet grazing marshes the RSPB have created a rich diversity of habitats including scrapes, ponds and developing reed beds. Although the owls no longer breed a few still winter here along with all of the aforementioned raptors. But the reason I mention Frampton is that it has developed a reputation as one of the best sites in Lincolnshire to find geese in winter. Until this site was enhanced my "wild goose chases" were usually conducted on the north Norfolk coast but now within half an hour's drive I can usually guarantee at least 6 species of geese, As well as the resident feral Greylags and Canada Geese four truly wild species can usually be found. Hundreds if not thousands of Brent Geese cannot be missed, but also there are usually a handful of Pink Footed Geese (and many more passing overhead) a small flock of White Fronted Geese and for the last few winters a flock of genuine wild Barnacle Geese. On my last visit we were able to pick out two rarer sub species of the Brent Goose, a single Light Bellied Brent more normally associated with Ireland and the west coast of Scotland and The Black Brant which normally migrates down to North America.

Water Rail

Winter often affords better views of skulking species such as the Water Rail pictured here foraging in a ditch which in summer is choked with reeds. Other species may even be tempted in to your garden especially if you put out food.

Cock Reed Bunting
The cock Reed Bunting has become a regular visitor to our bird table along with several Tree Sparrows, both farmland species in decline.

Some farming systems intentionally favour wildlife such as environmental stewardship and game covers whilst others do purely by accident. A great example of this was when I visited a farm in Cornwall that has adopted a New Zealand practice of "cell grazing" or "mobbing" with specially bred hardy sheep. A thousand sheep are put on a hectare of grass for just a day and they graze the grass right down before being moved in to the next paddock. This leaves a broken, open pasture, more brown than green, which to my surprise is favoured by Buzzards hunting for worms and insects. I counted no less than eleven Buzzards, most feeding on the ground like chickens, in this single paddock of only one hectare!

There was a time, not so long ago, when if you wanted to see a live badger, your best chance was to spend an evening overlooking a sett. I have spent many evenings, some very pleasant and rewarding and others,, less productive and acutely uncomfortable doing just that! Nowadays, if you live or work in the countryside your chances of coming across badgers are greatly improved. Their numbers have increased dramatically since they were afforded legal protection in the UK to the extent that in some areas, particularly where there are large numbers of beef cattle or dairy cows, they are being blamed for infecting cattle with bovine tuberculosis. In this mainly arable county of Lincolnshire their presence in large numbers is not so controversial and chance encounters with these enigmatic and ancient denizens of our land are more frequent. Last spring I came across cubs playing outside their sett in broad daylight and just this week , in the depths of winter I have seen at different locations and very different times of day badgers going about their business. One was an immense boar which crossed the road in front of me to trot down the side of a wood at six o'clock in the morning, probably returning to its' sett after a night of foraging. The other, a much smaller badger and presumably a sow, crossed the road in front of us early one evening, thankfully giving us plenty of time to brake thus avoiding ending up under the wheels of a car as so many do.

Normally I don't have anything to say about insect life in the winter issue of Country Eye but this time the mild weather has induced some species to fly for longer. Some Comma butterflies remained on the wing until November and I was still seeing individual Red Admirals flying in December. Whether a mild open winter leads to an early spring or that we find that winter has a nasty sting in its tail remains to be seen.


Ian Misselbrook
January 2012


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