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Winter Diary 2018/19

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The transition from autumn to winter in 2018 was a gentle one here in England, with mild temperatures and predominantly mild conditions.

Locally, the Fallow Deer rut continued into November and during late afternoons I observed hundreds of Fallow Deer in and alongside the woods in south west Lincolnshire. Of particular interest, was the arrival of a lone Red Deer stag; a rare beast in this part of the world. It appeared to be interested in the Fallow does until after about a week the Fallow Bucks drove it off.


As winter progressed numbers of duck increased at the RSPB's Frampton Marsh nature reserve. Over 10,000 Wigeon could be found grazing on the wet grassland and all six common dabbling duck were represented in good numbers. Teal, being small ducks tend to dabble in the shallow edges of muddy creeks, whilst the larger Mallard, Pintail and Shovelers can be found up-ending in deeper water.

Diving duck were well represented too with Tufted Duck, Northern Pochard, Goldeneye and Scaup all observed. Waders were less impressive but as well as high numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover, there were good numbers of the rapidly declining Curlew. The long staying vagrant from America, The Long-billed Dowitcher remained for at least 5 months and was available to twitchers in January, keen to get it on their 2019 list. The saltmarsh at Frampton is favoured by hunting raptors and on one visit I logged four Marsh Harriers, a beautiful male Hen Harrier, two Merlin Falcons and a Peregrine.

By January duck numbers had also increased on smaller inland waters like Fort Henry Ponds in Rutland and Holywell Lake in the extreme south-west corner of Lincolnshire, where I carry out my WeBS (wetland bird survey). Situated in the parkland of a manor house here over 80 Wigeon grazed the grass and a count of 48 Gadwall was impressive for such a small site. Up until December Holywell Lake also hosted a rare Red Crested Pochard.

Snow Bunting

I usually head for the north Norfolk coast in January to see some of the rarer passerines that winter there. Holkham Gap is a great spot for both Snow Buntings and Shore larks. The latter is a misnomer and the other name of Horned Lark is probably more appropriate as although they winter on our shores, their breeding grounds are the high mountain areas in Europe. The other passerine that I caught up with is the Twite which we found at Thornham Harbour not far from the RSPB's reserve of Titchwell. Vey similar in appearance to the Linnet with which they often consort, these small finches are best identified by their distinctive calls. They can often be found foraging amongst the seaweed on the tideline of muddy creeks. At Thornham I only saw about a dozen but earlier in the winter at Theddlethorpe in North Lincolnshire, there were over two hundred birds present in large mixed flocks with Linnets.

I usually like to venture off to sunnier climes during our winter months and recent destinations have included northern Thailand (January 2018), Costa Rica, Panama and in almost every year since 2008; The Gambia.

The Gambia is only a six hour flight from UK airports and on the same time zone. It is situated in West Africa and is often described as a finger sticking into the side of Senegal, which surrounds it on 3 sides with the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The central feature of this country is the River Gambia, which runs for the length of the country. The width is said to be the distance that a British gunboat could fire before reaching the French colony of Senegal.

The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa and has a population of around 2.5 million people.

Its agriculture is mostly very small scale and almost entirely food crops including rice, cassava (a root crop) groundnuts and sorghum. More recently oranges and cashews have been widely planted with a view to exports.

The fishing industry remains important but the building of 5 factories to turn fishmeal in to fertiliser by the Chinese represents a serious threat to the sustainability of this industry. The fishmeal is sent back to China so there is no benefit for the Gambian populace. Catches are already depleted, fish has quadrupled in price and fish-eating seabirds such as terns are in decline.

Nevertheless, in addition to farmland The Gambia consists of a wide range of important habitats including its 31 miles of coastal beaches and dunes, flooded sand mine quarries, mangrove lined creeks, gallery forest, bush and savannah grassland. No wonder it has such a rich avifauna as well as a good range of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and other insects.

If you crave the luxuries of Blackpool in the sun there are good hotels and amenities available and even here there are birds galore. But if you want to experience the "real Gambia" then we recommend that you stay in one of the eco-lodges in the more remote areas, meet the locals and let the wildlife come to you.

I hope that the selection of photographs below whets your appetite:

African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis


Beach at Tujering

Blue-cheeked and
Northern Carmine Bee-eaters

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Bluebellied Roller

Green-backed Heron

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Northern White-faced Owl

Oxen Cart Gambia

Pygmy Sunbird


Ian Misselbrook
January 2019


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