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Winter Diary 2020 / 21

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During these troubled times it is all too easy to brood over the onset of winter, yet winter can be the most exciting and dramatic of seasons. I always remember my old friend, the wildlife artist and organiser of the North Blackwater Wildfowl and Wader Counts (as the Wetland Bird Survey was called then) Richard Hull, telling me during the height of a beautiful summer, that he could not wait for winter!

Richard was also the official ornithologist for the MOD land in north Essex. He and I wrote a paper on the Birds of the Roman River Valley, much of it MOD land, and I was privileged to be taken by Richard to the MOD ranges at Langenhoe Marsh on several occasions. Not when the red flags were flying, I hasten to add! This marsh benefited from its lack of disturbance and hosted a winter raptor roost, the likes of which I have yet to find matched anywhere in this country. I have fond memories of sitting on the sea bank with Richard supporting his old brass and leather telescope watching the arrival of Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Merlins and Peregrines. When I moved to Lincolnshire in 1986 Richard painted the roost for me as a leaving present which has pride of place on our wall to this day.

Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls also quartered the marshes, which thirty-four years later brings me up to date. On a visit to the RSPB reserve at Freiston Shore near Boston in Lincolnshire back in September I saw four Short-eared Owls that had just come ashore from the North Sea.

Short-eared Owl

However, it was not until late October that some of these birds turned up at their regular winter quarters. I am very lucky in that within walking distance of our home there are two sites which regularly attract Short-eared Owls in most winters. This winter being no exception and at one site, in the fens I watched two of these magnificent birds hunting for small mammals in an area of rough grassland set aside for game birds.

Short-eared Owl

The scarcity of suitable habitat in this largely arable landscape means that the birds are thrown together to hunt in relatively small areas, but in no way are the birds tolerant of each other. When two owls get too close to each other they hiss noisily and spar, usually resulting in the birds flying away from each other in opposite directions. The resident Kestrels will also mob the owls and on several occasions, I have watched Kestrels zooming in, almost at ground level, to steal a vole from the claws of an owl.


No less dramatic is the arrival of wildfowl and waders in their thousands from their breeding grounds in northern Europe; some from as far north as the arctic circle. The biggest numbers can be found on the coast; RSPB Frampton Marsh currently hosts over seven thousand each of Wigeon and Golden Plover! Quite a sight when they all rise in flight to avoid the attention of a Peregrine or a Harrier.

Tundra Bean Geese Framptonn

It is always worth scanning through flocks of common wildfowl and waders to find something a little rarer, such as the 11 Tundra Bean Geese that turned up at Frampton Marsh on the 2nd of November. Separating Bean Geese from the more common Pink-footed Geese is a challenge in itself, but recently the Bean Goose was split into two separate species; Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese. There is a well known flock of Taiga Bean Geese that winter in the Norfolk Broads region which I have been to see on several occasions, but when small groups of Bean Geese turn up in Lincolnshire they are almost invariably Tundra Bean Geese. Separating the two species challenges the ID skills of all but the most knowledgeable ornithologists.

Barnacle Goose

You don't have to go to the coast to find something interesting. I live more than 20 miles from the coast and my local patch includes a small farm reservoir that hosts a resident flock of feral Greylag and Canada Geese as well as the usual assortment of common ducks, moorhens and coot. The nice thing about "patch working" is that you might find species that won't get the pulses racing of hardened twitchers, but could be very unusual finds for your "patch".

Whooper Swan
My friends and I who watch this area have, over the years, found White-fronted Geese, Pink-footed Geese and more recently an Egyptian Goose and 2 Barnacle Geese amongst the feral residents. Both indigenous Mute Swans and splendid Whooper Swans also sometimes drop in for a wash and brush up during the winter months.

Woodlands are also well worth visiting during the winter months. In contrast to the spring, when they can be full of bird song, they can seem very quiet and birdless with only the sultry winter tune from a Robin or alarm call of a Wren for company. But then suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a feeding flock with an assortment of tits, Goldcrests, Treecreepers and Nuthatches all around, so that you don't know what to look at first.

Lomg-eared Owl

If you are really lucky, or you receive a hot tip you might come across a roosting Tawny Owl or even a Long-eared Owl. Unlike the similar Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owls do not hunt during daylight hours.

Fallow Deer, Buck and Does

The winter months often afford the best views of mammals too. Fallow Deer bucks that have rutted in the autumn will stay with their does until early December before leaving to join other bucks; maybe for a stag party! Muntjac are also more easily spotted as the understory of bracken and brambles die back. Our native Roe deer are also found locally, but they tend to avoid the woodlands that are dominated by the larger Fallow Deer.

Fallow Deer

Fallow Deer vary enormously in their colouration at this time of year from the almost black melanistic form, through various shades of brown, to some pure white individuals. Some Fallow Deer retain elements of their summer dappled coats throughout the winter months.

If we get snow cover or a very sharp frost nocturnal predators such as foxes and even badgers maybe active during daylight hours.

Farmland is not devoid of wildlife either. Our resident thrushes will be augmented by flocks of noisy chattering Fieldfares from Scandinavia and their more delicate cousins; Redwings as well as wandering parties of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks.

Female Stonechat

My favourite wintering passerine however is the beautiful Stonechat. These relatives of the Robin vacate their preferred heath edge nesting habitat with prominent gorse bushes on which to perch in favour of hedgerows and fence lines on farmland.

They are not particularly shy birds and will tolerate a reasonably close approach. Their call has been likened to rubbing two stones together; hence their given name.

Ian Misselbrook
December 2020


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