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Winter Diary 2014/15

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During the winter months we can only reminisce about the butterflies, dragonflies and flowers of the spring and summer, or at best make plans for the future. However from a bird watching point of view winter is probably the season I enjoy most. I agree that spring and autumn has even greater potential but the nature of my work means that I am at my busiest then with less time than I would like for nature study. So during the winter months I usually take some holiday and make the most of the shorter days with forays in to the field.

Viking invaders!

As winter begins to bite in Scandinavia, food for birds becomes short or difficult to access under snow and ice, birds move west and south. The arrival of thrushes in large numbers including Fieldfares and Redwings is an annual event, but other species seem to only favour the British Isles with their presence in some winters and not others. The Brambling; a colourful close relative of our familiar Chaffinch is one such species. Two winters ago they were relatively common and several individuals took up residence in my garden but this winter there are very few about. Waxwings are another irruptive species arriving here when the berries are in short supply on the continent, but again, so far this winter they are few and far between.

Rough-legged Buzzard

One visitor that has arrived in unprecedented numbers this winter, with several observed flying in off the sea on the east coast, is the magnificent Rough-legged Buzzard. Similar in size to our Common Buzzard but they are usually much paler (although this feature cannot be relied on as very pale Common Buzzards and dark Rough-legged Buzzards occur) with a diagnostic black and white banded tail. Rough legs are also much more inclined to hover than their common cousins and their diet probably includes a higher proportion of small mammals. Some Rough-legged Buzzards will remain close to the east coast especially if they find the rough grassland rich in small mammals available, which is fairly common in Norfolk and some parts of Lincolnshire. Other individuals will move inland and some birds, including the one in the photograph seem to find the Lincolnshire fens to their liking. So far this winter I have seen at least six Rough-legged Buzzards which is by far my best ever year.

Rough-legged Buzzards are not the only raptors that have favoured my local fen this winter, with no less than nine diurnal raptors and at least three species of owl, including another irruptive species from the north; the Short-eared Owl.

Perhaps the most beautiful bird of prey to grace the local fens is the Hen Harrier; now a species on the verge of extinction as a nesting bird in England and sadly declining throughout its' range. The sight, albeit fairly distant of the grey and black male powering across the fenland landscape was one I shall treasure.

Two Marsh Harriers have also been present at Dunsby Fen one of which had green wing tags bearing the letters LD. It transpires that this bird was tagged at RSPB Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk last spring.

For drama though I could not top the aerial battle between three raptors; a juvenile Peregrine, a tiny Merlin and a Marsh Harrier. As if this was not exciting enough the Peregrine went on to pursue a Stock Dove choosing to chase the bird more like a Merlin or Sparrowhawk would, rather than rise above its intended prey and swoop on it at up to 200 miles per hour, which is its' preferred tactic. To my surprise the Peregrine did manage to chase down the Stock Dove, later defending its catch to a pair of marauding Carrion Crows.

Glaucous Gull

Another large and impressive visitor to our shore is the arctic breeding Glaucous Gull. It is about the size of a Greater Black-backed Gull but essentially pale with no black wing tips. South of Scotland this is now a very rare visitor. The bird in the photograph is a 1st year bird more pink and grey than white. I photographed it at Snettisham on the Norfolk side of The Wash coast where it was waiting to feed on the body of a dead seal.

Further round the Norfolk coast when viewing another Rough-legged Buzzard I saw an interesting deer on the edge of a reedbed. It was a diminutive Chinese Water Deer. These have become well established in the Norfolk broads but seem to be spreading out to other areas. This was my second sighting on the north Norfolk coast, the other being at Titchwell Marsh a few years ago.

Fallow Deer are so common in my area of Lincolnshire that they are ruining most of the local woods, browsing the undergrowth and opening up the woodland to the detriment of understorey loving birds such as Nightingales, which are virtually extinct in my area now and Garden Warblers. I counted two herds amounting to over 200 animals grazing in fields adjacent to woodland near my home, just the other day.

The Wash coast has become a major attraction for wildfowl and waders, especially so since the RSPB and other conservation bodies have improved the habitats by creating areas of wet grassland and scrapes on land previously in cereal production.

Brent Geese
As mentioned in previous editions of Country Eye, Frampton Marsh is a fine example of this with vast areas of wet grassland, wader scrapes and newly planted reedbeds.

Golden Plover
This reserve has been a magnet for wildfowl and waders with thousands of Brent Geese and ducks; especially Wigeon. It has also held around late December about 15000 Golden Plover and in early January over 200 Ruff.


Pink-footed Geese

Over 100,000 Pink-footed Geese winter around The Wash, mostly on the Norfolk side but increasing numbers in Lincolnshire too. Unlike the harsh calls of the closely related Greylag Geese I find the massed voices of "Pinkies" quite musical. But then, not many people share my taste in music!


Ian Misselbrook
January 2015


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