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Winter Diary 2015/16

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Winter in much of the UK could be characterised as exceptionally mild and wet. December's temperatures were mostly in double figures and here in Lincolnshire December was warmer than last May! Although we experienced high winds and a lot of rain we avoided the devastating floods that affected much of northern England, Wales and Scotland. Up to mid- January I only had to scrape ice off my car windscreen on two occasions.

Plum Tree in Blossom

So what is the effect of this unseasonal weather on our wildlife? Hedgehogs, which normally hibernate were wandering around our garden in December and a Mallard duck at a local lake was parading her brood of ducklings. Our cherry tree produced some blossom in December and our plum tree is currently blossoming in January. Some iris bulbs planted in August were flowering on Christmas day!

Unfortunately it has not been warm enough for pollinating insects to emerge, so trees and shrubs in bloom now are unlikely to bear fruit.

Twite Wintering

Most of the birds that winter in Lincolnshire and East Anglia are present as normal. One "little brown job" that warrants close scrutiny is the Twite. Closely related to the Linnet this bird nests on moorlands and mountains in Scotland and northern Europe but in winter they gather in flocks on our coast, I watched a flock of around thirty recently and although they appear to be plain brown from a distance the plumage is suffused with a variety of buff and chestnut tones and unlike the Linnet which it can be confused with, it has a yellow bill.

Water Rail

Winter is also a good season to see Water Rails as these birds nest and feed in reed-beds during the summer and are more often heard squealing like pigs than seen. In winter they often emerge from the reed-beds to find food and the one I photographed was foraging in a muddy ditch.

Red Kite

Red Kites are still increasing in Lincolnshire where they are starting to spread out from their stronghold in the south-west of the county. Of all the raptors that are to be seen in Britain, only the very rare Montague's Harrier beats the Red Kite for effortless buoyancy in flight. Kites are predominantly carrion eaters, so they are less susceptible to illegal persecution than some of their hook billed cousins.

Red Kite

Unlike most other raptors they don't seem to be perturbed by rain or even snow and can often be seen flying when most of the local buzzards and kestrels prefer to sit it out.

Although, like most birdwatchers I love to see rarities, I also delight in what in birders' jargon is called patchwork. A patch can be any area that you study regularly and my main ones are my garden, the local fen and the lake where I do my WeBS (wetland bird survey). A new garden tick, such as the Nuthatch I saw in the autumn can be just as exciting as watching a national rarity. The latest addition to my garden list was unfortunately dead. My wife who is a keen gardener found a dead Woodcock on the patio with a perfect hole in its head where it had been shot. The poor bird must have flown for some distance before dropping dead in our garden.

I participate in the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) Garden Birdwatch, where the maximum number of all species seen in the garden, are recorded and entered on to a data base. This enables population trends to be evaluated. As always there are winners and losers. Birds that have seriously declined include Starlings, House Sparrows and Greenfinches, whereas Goldfinches and Long-tailed Tits have both increased. The RSPB conduct an annual survey which is also valuable because it attracts so many participants. I did my hour stint yesterday and I was lucky to be able to include two Lesser Redpolls on my Nyger feeder.


The inland lake where I have been doing my WeBS for thirty years often produces surprises and always yields a good list of birds. It was originally noted for over-wintering Gadwall and it still attracts between twenty and forty of these subtly beautiful ducks. When the lake was deeper diving duck and Goosander were regular but over the years, despite some dredging by the owners, the lakes have become shallower and more attractive to dabbling duck and Little Grebes.

Gadwall and Mallard
Holywell Lake

Not all birds associated with wetlands are ducks and my site regularly attracts Kingfishers and wintering Grey Wagtails. Anyone who has seen a Grey Wagtail can tell you how inapt the name is. There is some grey in the plumage but they really are very colourful birds.

The local Lincolnshire fen has hosted for the second winter, a female Marsh Harrier that was wing-tagged at the RSPB's Lakenheath reserve in Suffolk. The fen is very popular with birds of prey and this winter has witnessed appearances by Hen Harriers, Common Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Kestrels, Peregrines and a Merlin too. Barn Owls and Little Owls are also regularly seen but this winter has been a poor one for Short-eared Owls which have been noted in previous winters.

Scaup with Pochard,
Tufted Duck and Wigeon

At the RSPB's Frampton Marsh Reserve regular visits over the winter have witnessed the transmutation of a very scruffy immature Scaup in to a fine adult male in smart breeding plumage. Closely related to Tufted duck and Pochard, the Scaup is really a sea duck favouring the marine environment outside the breeding season. So the occurrence of this individual first on the freshwater reservoir at Frampton and subsequently on the open water near the Reedbed Hide is unusual.

As I write at the end of January it feels like spring is just around the corner. Let's hope that we are not in for a nasty shock!


Ian Misselbrook
February 2016


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