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Winter Diary 2019/20

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The wettest autumn on record in many parts of England evolved into an equally wet and mild winter. As I write in early February thousands of acres of land destined for winter cereals remain undrilled and in the east midlands fields of maize are unharvested and worthless. Potatoes were rotting in the fields and are now being ploughed in.

Long-eared Owl

Whether this has had an impact on wildlife remains to be seen, but I have heard of hedgehogs that have not hibernated and owls that cannot hunt effectively in wet weather. However Tawny Owls in my neighborhood have been particularly vocal which probably reflects on a successful breeding season, with young males competing with the older birds for territory. The hoot of the male owl is often answered by the "keewick" call of the female.

Short-eared Owl
Both Short-eared Owls and Long-eared Owls wintered here in Lincolnshire and I have attached photos of them, so that you can see the difference. The "ears" are in fact feathers. Long-eared Owls are strictly nocturnal and so are best viewed at a roost such as that on an island overlooked by a hide on Deeping Lakes nature reserve. Short-eared Owls will fly at almost any time; perhaps most reliably as dusk approaches and the birds wintering here often remain until early May.

As we are experiencing such a mild winter, my wife and I had to travel to Scotland to remind us what winters can be like. The coldest day of the five spent there was when we ventured into the glens of the central highlands with a birdwatching group organized by Heatherlea. A cold wind cut through the layers, but we were rewarded with good, albeit distant views, of three Golden Eagles and one White-tailed Eagle. At one time both species of eagles were in the same binocular view.


The hardest won bird involved us hiking up a snow covered, Mount Cairngorm to find a Ptarmigan. These members of the grouse family can only be found on the high mountain tops in Scotland. In summer their plumage is grey camouflaging them well amongst the mountain boulders. In winter, as you can see from the photograph, they turn white like the mountain hares and stoats that also live in these mountains. It is believed that climate change is forcing the Ptarmigans ever higher up the mountains and if it continues, they will inevitably run out of suitable habitat.

We did manage to see all four grouse species including a lek of sixteen male black grouse, the more numerous red grouse, as well as the rare and declining Capercaillie. The latter was an all to brief view of a male bird as it flew up into the canopy of an ancient pine. There are thought to be only six hundred to a thousand of these huge birds left which are confined to Caledonian Pine forests such as Abernethy and Rothiemurchus.

Crested Tit

Crested Tit
Rather more common, but in this country, very much a Caledonian Pine Forest specialist, is the Crested Tit. The light was very poor when I took the photos of these birds, so it is rather grainy; but a stunning little bird, nevertheless.

The other much, sought after passerine in the pine forest is the Scottish Crossbill. We saw both Common and Scottish Crossbills and the latter is a chunkier species compared to its cousin. However, it is the centre of controversy with many of the opinion that it is not a full species but just a race that has adapted to feed more successfully in the old pines. Official records are not accepted without a sonogram but it looks sufficiently different to qualify as a "tick", at least until the authorities can agree on its status.

Snow Bunting

Another Scottish mountain specialist was much easier to track down as after descending from the mountain we encountered a Snow Bunting in the car park. Unlike the birds that winter on the east coast of England, the Snow buntings on cairngorm don't migrate and there are even suggestions that it might be split into a separate species.


Closer to home we encountered Snow Buntings on the north Norfolk coast in February along with six beautiful Shorelarks. Like the Snow Bunting the Shorelark also nests in mountains, but not on the UK. We associate it with sandy shores, hence the name, but it is equally at home on the mountain tops of central and eastern Europe.

Also wintering around our coasts are several species of geese. Brent Geese and Pink-footed Geese are the most numerous. In fact, more than 120,000 "Pinkies" winter around the Wash coast in Norfolk and Lincolnshire and over-flying flocks can be distinguished from the feral population of Graylag Geese by their squeaky calls.

Ian Misselbrook
January 2020


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