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Winter Diary 2022 / 23

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Clearly, winter is not the best season to look at plants or insects, so I tend to concentrate on mammals and birds.

Grey Seal and Pup

Unlike Common Seals, which produce their pups in the spring, the Atlantic Grey Seals come ashore to pup in late autumn and early winter. Grey Seals are widely distributed around the British Isles and I have seen them off both the Welsh and Scottish coasts. One of the biggest and most accessible colonies is at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire which my wife and I visited with friends in November. The site is managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust who receive 20% of the parking fee. If you go, forget about taking your binoculars or telephoto lenses, as the seals can be easily viewed from as little as a metre or so! The peak month for the birth of cubs is November and Donna Nook had its best season ever with over two thousand cubs produced.

Grey Seal pups have white coats when they are born, but this is shed when they are weaned and head for the sea. Grey Seal Cows (as the females are called) are good mothers, defending their cubs from other seals as well as predators and intrusive humans. But their maternal instincts don't last long, and they will often mate again before weaning is complete. The cubs are weaned from four to six weeks after birth and by the middle of December there will be very few cows or cubs left on shore.

Other mammals that are more easily observed during the inter months include hares and rabbits because the crops in the field will still be low, and deer are more easily seen, as the undergrowth in woods will be reduced.

As far as birding is concerned, I often argue that winter can be the most exciting of all the seasons. Certainly, in Lincolnshire where I live, winter affords the opportunity to see a wider selection of birds of prey than during the summer. The resident Marsh Harriers and Buzzards are joined by Hen Harriers, Merlins, Short-eared Owls and if you are really lucky, one of the White-tailed Eagles recently reintroduced to England.

Pink-footed Geese

Wildfowl numbers peak during the winter months with thousands of Pink-footed Geese present around the Wash coasts, sometimes joined by rarer species such as White-fronted and Bean Geese and maybe some genuinely wild Barnacle Geese.

Duck numbers also peak with grazing Wigeon exceeding 10,000 at the RSPB Wash reserves of Frampton Marsh, Freiston Shore and Snettisham for example. A full day at Frampton Marsh will often poduce10 or more species of duck and perhaps half a dozen different geese and swans.


Larger bodies of fresh water may well attract sawbills such as Goosander and the more scarce but beautiful Smew. These fish eating ducks have serrated bills to assist them to deal with slippery fish.

Velvet Scoter

After winter gales sea going ducks and other seabirds can be blown inland and a recent visit to a relatively small reservoir not far from the east coast afforded close views of a pair of Velvet Scoter and a Little Gull. Larger bodies of fresh water will also attract a variety of grebes and divers.

Little Gull

Barn Owl

Barn Owls enjoyed a better breeding season last summer compared with recent years and I have enjoyed watching these beautiful birds hunting during winter afternoons. Breeding success is usually governed by the availability of prey (small mammals such as mice and voles) and clement weather. The hot summer of 2022 seems to have produced ideal conditions for both small mammals and their predators.

Barn Owl

Shore Lark

Winter visitors are not confined to raptors and wildfowl. Although our summer breeding passerine birds have long since departed, wintering passerines are augmented by thrushes from Scandinavia such as Fieldfares and Redwings as well as common moorland birds such as Meadow Pipits.

Shore Lark
A visit to the coast is worthwhile to look for scarcer species such as Snow Buntings and Shore Larks. The latter species also enjoys the more appropriate name of Horned Lark. Although we know them as a winter visitor to our dunes and beaches it is actually a mountain bird, nesting in central and eastern Europe.

Ian Misselbrook
January 2023


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