The Nature Diary

Currently catching up after holiday & the Nature Diary will be up to date shortly! 

February 2nd (Sat)

This morning we started our day by heading up on to the East Devon Heaths and Collaton Raleigh Common to explore the very snow covered hills. It made for a very picturesque walk with heather and gorse covered by an inch thick dusting of snow but produced few encounters with wildlife. Birds of note included some lovely Greenfinch (4) sat in a group on top of a Silver Birch and many Redwing and Fieldfare flying over our heads. No Dartford Warbler on this occasion.

Heading back to the bus we decided to walk alongside a woodland plantation to see if we’d have any better luck; we managed to spot Coal Tit (1) and Blue Tit (2), and both Great Spotted Woodpecker and Raven were heard but not seen. However, we did manage to strike lucky with two Siskin busily feeding on Birch catkins adjacent to the path.

It’s their acrobatic feeding style that draws the eye first; hanging like stuntman on pendulous catkins precariously connected to the ends of the thinnest of branches. You felt they might fall at any moment! Once seen properly, the canary yellow colouration contrasted with heavy black wing markings, black cap and black bib (male only) is a dead give away for a Siskin. Confusion species are limited to potentially Greenfinch (which lacks a yellow body) or the very rare Serin (which it is very similar in appearance but has a short stubby bill compared to the pointed bill of a Siskin). The fact they were seen near a plantation is typical of this bird as they heavily favour coniferous habitats so this was an ideal place to come across one.

Although found year round, they have a more limited range during the summer, choosing to restrict their movement to areas of coniferous habitat where they breed. In winter this range expands and they can be found all over the country as they search for food. Numbers increase too with birds flying over from colder Northern Europe. Once here they often form large flocks and can be attracted to garden feeders, especially towards the end of winter when wild seeds get low, so keep an eye out on your sunflower hearts (my recommendation as the best bird seed to put out for them).

 

February 1st (Fri)

First day of my brand new South Devon Tour in Winter and we spent the afternoon exploring the River Otter Estuary at Budleigh Salterton. At just an average of 200m wide it’s an incredibly small estuary compared to the neighbouring River Exe (~2km wide) but offers lots of prime habitat for birds with intertidal saltmarsh, reedbed and freshwater wetland pools. The brilliance of this site is that it’s all viewable from a raised footpath that runs parallel to both the river on one side and freshwater marsh on the other meaning you can scan both sides simultaneously.

Birds on the river side included all the usual suspects including Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull and Mallard and handful of Little Grebe. One nice bird we came across was a two female Goosander which were perched on a dead stump in the middle of the river. Freshwater pool side there were more gulls, including a Great Black backed chasing juvenile Herring Gull, and plenty of duck including Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler and a couple of Shelduck.

The highlight though was when a group of Curlew (10) flew into the marshier areas making their bubbling onomatopoeic call as they arrived: cuuur-lew, cuuur-lew. Being such a large wader (our largest in fact) they are easy to pick out from any other wading bird you might come across. Another clear feature is its super long and evenly down curved bill which I hadn’t realised but can vary in length with females having the longest of the lot. Otherwise they are a very brown streaky wader with heavy barring adding to the streaky appearance.

 If you feel comfortable not confusing this with either of the Barwits (which have straighter bills), you only have one bird you need to worry about confusing this with and that’s the Whimbrel. Fortunately this isn’t a problem at this time of year as Whimbrel are wintering down in Africa so no need to worry about them at the moment and you can be confident that any super long and down curved billed waders are in fact a Cuuur-lew!

 

January 31st (Thu)

As I was in the area I spent a chilly hour at Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham. The water level remains incredibly high and lots of the open water was frozen despite the morning thaw. Many of the waders I’d expect to see here were absent, or at least inactive, most likely due to the ground being frozen solid preventing them from feeding. Instead many of the Lapwing (12) and Black-tailed Godwit (60) stood huddled together facing the icy wind – you really did feel sorry for them.

Other birds present included a Ruff (1) walking amongst the damp grassland to the right of the hide and plenty of ducks; Mallard, Teal (~80), Wigeon (~300) and Pintail (2). A small group of Tufted Duck (9) and a lone Pochard (1F) exploited one of the few gaps in the ice sheet diving underneath for food and a large group of Gadwall (~30) hung together at the very back of the reserve by the reeds. However, it was the Shoveler (~50) which caught my eye today and one bird in particular whose plumage stood out from the rest.

One of the male Shoveler was in eclipse plumage – this is when the male’s brighter coloured feathers are replaced with duller brown ones, often resembling the female. Pretty much all ducks do this and initially it will cause you confusion when you come to identify it as some of the main ID features (if you rely on plumage) are lost and you’re left with an odd-ball coloured duck that doesn’t match your book. The best way to ID an eclipse male is to focus more on features that don’t change like head-shape and the beak; a male Shoveler’s beak is just as diagnostic now as always! Looking at Shoveler more specifically, they seem to develop a white band at the base of the bill and, if you can see it, still have a bright yellow eye compared to a female’s dull brown eye.

What so unusual about this encounter is eclipse plumage is usually only worn for a few weeks (or months depending on the species) starting in late summer. After that the male moults a second time and grows back his full colours ready for winter. Given it’s now late January, it’s super bizarre to see a male in eclipse but here we are with one in just that – nature never has or ever will read guidebooks!

 

January 28th (Mon)

Finally back in Devon after several weeks away and I spent the morning out on the East Devon Heaths, in particular, exploring Collaton Raliegh and Woodbury Commons. It was a glorious day with clear blue skies and a crisp cold air that had left a lasting frost on the Gorse and Heather which dominate this landscape, however, I will be the first to admit that the birding was ever so slow.

Very few birds were seen the entire day and for the most part the heathland was a ghost town. I spent most of my time wandering through the middle in the hope of finding a Great Grey Shrike on one of the many lone Scot’s Pine/dead trees stood in the mat of Heather – no joy today. Flyover corvids and gulls kept me company (mostly Carrion Crow and the odd Herring Gull) with the only other bird of note being a Skylark (1) which went for a short song flight high above my head – very early for a singing Skylark and certainly the first I’ve heard this year.

It wasn’t until I reached the periphery, where the heathland met scrub and woodland, that activity increased and more birds were spotted; Blue and Great Tits, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Great Spotted Woodpecker (1), Jay (2), Song Thrush (1), Stonechat (1) and a surprise Woodcock (1) which I didn’t see until it flushed three meters in front of me from a narrow bit of immature woodland. However, the stand out bird of the day was a group of Dartford Warbler (3) busily chasing one another through tall gorse, I assume due to a territorial dispute (it’s getting to that time of year).

A series of harsh, buzzy (or nasal) churr calls mixed in with the odd scratchy warble drew my attention; just by the sound and habitat I knew these were Dartfords. As a non-migratory bird which is almost exclusively insectivorous, it’s reliant on finding spiders and other overwintering insects hiding in the thick vegetation and therefore can’t compromise on the habitat it lives in if it wants to survive. You will only find this bird on heathland of particular quality and location; typically the lowland heaths of southern counties (Suffolk and Norfolk the exception) which have mature, dense Gorse and Heather.

Normally they are really elusive birds and I just got lucky because these were fighting but the best days to look for them are on still sunny days when they’re most active and likely to sit on top of gorse (think Stonechat). There plumage is distinctive; steely blue top and red-brown underneath with a bright red eye/eye-ring. They are only really confusable with something like a Stonechat because of the sentinel-like behaviour but Dartfords look a lot more like a Wren with a super elongated tail (about the same length as its body) giving it a V-shape when perched.

 

January 27th (Sun)

Today I went for a long walk along the canal path running from Avoncliff to Bath City Centre. It was a lovely sunny day which, despite the frosty conditions, felt like the first shackles of winter had maybe loosened enough for the first signs of Spring to be seen. Although birds were fairly limited, the ones that were present were singing with Goldcrest, Robin and Treecreeper the main songsters. Other birds around included the usual tit suspects (Blue, Great and Long-tailed) but also a more irregular one; several Marsh Tit which were doing their sneeze-like call of Pitchu zee-zee (or ‘Aachu! Bless you’ in my mind).

There were also several plants starting to break through including what looked like Ground Ivy and a couple of patches of Angelica (a big umbellifer-type plant when fully grown). But the most obvious plant was the odd patch of Snowdrops, a plant I’ve begun to notice in several places now, which was growing and flowering right next to the canal path in the short grass.

It is about now that Snowdrops burst into life with each plant sending up two to three linear leaves through the ground from its bulbous root underneath. I was amazed to read these leaves have specially hardened tips which help them break through frozen soil and have anti-freeze in their sap – cool hey! With leaves established, the bulb sends up erect flowering stems from which the classic white, bell-shaped, nodding flower hang from. Have you ever turned over one of these flowers? No. Do it! You’ll see that each flower is made up of two sets of three ‘petals’ (actually called tepals…) with the inner set marked with bright green patches that are veined yellow – they really are quite beautiful.

There isn’t much to mix them up with but, despite our adoration of it, I’m sorry to report that snowdrop is probably not native to the UK and simply another widely planted ornamental that has naturalised across the country. It is native to mainland Europe, existing in areas of damp woodland, but it was sometime in the late 1500s that the first bulbs were introduced into British gardens and subsequently spread although a lack of UK records pre-18th century indicate it didn’t become ‘wild’ and widespread for some time. Now it pops up pretty much everywhere; from deciduous woodland to parks, gardens to meadows, road verges to river banks. It doesn’t do much for our wildlife as it flowers a bit early for pollinators (although apparently some early flies take advantage) but with warmer winters maybe more insects will come to rely on this early nectar source to survive.

 

January 25th (Fri)

I returned to Chew Valley Lake today, this time with my group for my winter bird ID training. We had just as good a day if not better than I’d had here yesterday. The Kingfisher (1) was seen hovering right in front of us, the Black-necked Grebe (5) were much closer in, all the ducks were on show, and a few extra’s species appeared including Goosander (1F) and a group of Snipe (4) sat tightly next to some reeds. Walking between hides we saw fields full of Redwing and Fieldfare (~80+ of each), both Great Spotted Woodpecker (1) and Jay (2) flew over our heads, and a male Stonechat (1) perched on a fence.

It was a fantastic day but I think the one lingering memory was an extraordinary encounter with two Great Blacked Gulls (GBBG). Arriving at one of the hides, a small group of Coot, Tufted Duck and Pochard were floating close in with a plethora of other birds (mostly gulls and duck) in deeper water. It was a peaceful scene with only the occasional gull flying overhead causing the odd disturbance. I’d barely noticed the two Great Black-backed Gulls who’d landed out of sight and then casually drifted in towards the ducks. Then, with seemingly no effort at all, one drifted right next to a Tufted Duck and grabbed it by the neck. There was almost no reaction from all the other ducks which just slowly moved away leaving just the one Tufted Duck with the two enormous gulls.

The next ten minutes was both engrossing and harrowing at the same time; the Tufted repeatedly struggled to pull itself away but with no joy. It was only when the two gulls quarreled that the duck was able to swim away and in our minds was now safe, how wrong we were… Quarrel over, the gull took to the air over the duck which dived underwater to escape. Unperturbed, the gull patiently waited, only to repeat the same move when the duck resurfaced. This happened 5-6 times with each dive lasting less and less time until eventually – bam! The GBBG had the bird once again. Exhausted, the duck went floppy and the gull began to pluck the side feathers. Without being too graphic, the death wasn’t slow and even I struggled when the gull began eating the duck when it was still alive. Fortunately, peace and grace came and the duck passed.

Although we often think of gulls as scavenger, GBBG are capable apex predators! They are enormous birds (bigger than Buzzard) and actually the largest gull in the world. Unlike a conventional bird of prey, they don’t have sharp talons or cutting beaks and therefore rely on a technique of endurance and aggression to complete a kill. It’s grim, uncomfortable viewing but also real life and in many ways was a privilege given it was something I’d never seen before and unlikely to see again. I don’t think I’ll quite watch a Great Black-backed Gull the same way again but they’ve certainly got my attention now.

 

January 24th (Thu)

Today I was at Chew Valley Lake scouting out some locations for my final course of the winter. The birding set up here is a bit different with some (and the better) hides accessible by ‘permit only’. Luckily I had permission so spent a lovely few hours in the afternoon wandering around. The birding was brilliant with loads to spot and see. Thousands, maybe several thousands, of Gulls sat in the middle section of this enormous lake; Herring, Common and Black-headed the most common with additional Lesser black-backed and Great Black-backed too. Large rafts of Coot mixed with all the various species of duck including Wigeon, Tufted, Pintail, Shoveler, Goldeneye and Pochard all on show. I even spotted Black-necked Grebe (5) floating distantly in a small gang.

One special encounter was with a Kingfisher which was busily whizzing up and down the shore on the hunt for fish. You could hear it coming every time with its ever persistent keys keys keys call – a brilliant way to ensure you don’t miss one when it flies through is to learn this call. It then either perched up in a tree/on a post or seemingly hovered above the water from several meters up, just like a Kestrel does over grass, before plummeting like a stone into the water below. It failed to catch a fish despite three attempts but the beauty was definitely in the attempt!

Later on I came across a scarcer duck known as a Scaup – a declining winter visitor (~5000 a year) more associated with coastal locations than inland. There had been reports of a handful of females on the lake but given its size and the difficulty of finding such few birds amongst so many I wasn’t hopeful. Despite the odds, in fading light at the last hide I noticed one female sat in amongst a group of Tufted Duck. As you can see Scaup look very similar to Tufted Duck making this bird a challenge to pick out. This is true for both the males and females although I think females are much harder as the plumage details are quite subtle.

When it comes to females, both have similar brownish plumage patterns but Scaup tends to be more greyish-backed and paler overall (more like Pochard than Tufted). The key ID feature is the absence of a tuft which gives a Scaup a very rounded head. You’ll also notice the large white patch at the base of the bill, however, you must be careful as you can get ‘scaup-faced’ Tufted ducks which have this feature although less prominent – helpful I know… The trick to picking them out is the tuft; Tufted duck will also show at least some hint of tuft even if it’s really short. With practice you’ll soon feel comfortable splitting the two but remember most of the time you will see Tufted not Scaup.

 

January 23rd (Wed)

I had the morning for myself so decided to explore a new reserve in the local area. I headed south down towards RSPB Lodmoor – a small section of the bigger Lorton Valley Nature Park consisting of large reedbed, open water and marshland. This reserve blew me away! I love any marshy wetland habitat but this reserve stood out because of its accessibility; it’s literally a stone’s throw from the ever busy Weymouth beach, a ten minute walk from town and so flat its suitable even for wheelchair/pushchair users. Accessible nature for all – a big fat yes!

The birds were ace too; hundreds and hundreds of many different species of bird within 30 meters of the main footpath really does give outstanding views even without binoculars. Scanning the various pools the main birds seen were lots of Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and a mixture of gulls; Great Black-backed (1), Herring, Black-headed and even the odd Mediterranean gull (4). Snipe (80+) were incredibly abundant, like nothing I’d seen before, and walked in full view all over the place. Both Grey Heron and Little Egret were fishing the pools whilst a couple of Marsh Harrier (2) patrolled the reedbed behind.

As far as more uncommon birds, I spotted a single Ruff following a small group of Godwits around. This one was white headed and chested so stood out like a shiny beacon compared to the dull greys of the Godwits. Usually a Ruff might win star bird, however, today that belongs to a super rare wader called a Lesser Yellowlegs. I adore waders anyway but this was a special encounter for me as it was a UK first for me. I’ve seen them once before in Canada (their normal home) but then it was just a small dot on a large lake and not 15 meters away like today.

It’s quite a small wader (a bit smaller than a Redshank) so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t spot it but with bright yellow legs and a white flecked grey back it really stood out as something different. It spent most of it’s time on its own walking through the marshy vegetation and in quite deep water so you couldn’t always see the legs but it frequently did show them which gives you confidence with the ID.

If you’re not familiar with the size of the other ‘shanks’ then this bird is confusable with both our commonly seen ones, however, Redshank has both red legs and red at the base of the bill where as the Yellowlegs has bright yellow legs and a straight, all black bill. Greenshank is almost twice as big, much paler, has more greenish legs and the bill is upturned. Hopefully you’ve got enough features there to stop you mixing them up but remember this is a super rare wader so not something you’d expect to come across randomly, if ever.

 

January 22nd (Tue)

Second day at Arne and this time we went first thing to catch the estuary at high tide. We also went to a different area, using the Shipstal hide to look out on Arne Bay – a marshy intertidal area with multiple inlets/channels and dense ground vegetation. It was well stocked with birds including plenty of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and a decent number of Pintail (50+). A large flock of dark-bellied Brent Geese (~150), great numbers of Curlew (200+), Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit were also present as were a Little Grebe (1) and a Great Crested Grebe (1).

Oystercatcher (~180), Shelduck (8), Cormorant (9) and Great Black-backed Gull (2) all sat on the sand bar further out and a couple of rafts of Red-breasted Merganser (~15) were on the water beyond that. A Peregrine Falcon whizzed through, appearing to chase a Redshank, but then soared high and away from view. You may think that would be my highlight but that is saved for the flock of Spoonbill (18) which sat in full view resting on the marshy vegetation.  

Before 2010, Spoonbill was a very rare bird in the UK but number of over-wintering Spoonbill have been increasing in Poole Harbour year on year for almost a decade. It’s thought that thanks to expanding breeding populations in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, surplus birds have looked to the UK as a new home. At present Spoonbill only regularly over-winter in a few select places including Poole Harbour, Norfolk and Suffolk but they can and do turn up elsewhere.

They are so distinctive with their massive spoon-shaped bill that when visible you can’t mistake them up for anything else; however, when they are tucked up in a roost like this it can be a little trickier. My best tips are to look for a swan-sized bird with a punky haircut on taller legs. They’re also a right fidget so wait a few minutes and it should move around enough for you to see its bill – bingo!

If you want to see them then your luck is in as Spoonbill behaviour in Poole Harbour is very predictable; often the whole flock will roost on a high tide at Shipstal Point (on Arne), Arne Bay (where we were) or the Brownsea Lagoon (on Brownsea Island), before then heading out to feed in shallow channels in the Wareham or Middlebere Lake (see yesterday’s post) on low tide. 

 

January 21st (Mon)

Im in south Dorset for a few days delivering my next training course focused around the heathland/estuarine habitats of RSPB Arne. As our afternoon visit to Arne coincided with low tide, we walked onto Coombe Heath to view what birds were taking advantage of the exposed mud on Middelbere Lake – a tidal inlet of the much bigger Poole Harbour estuary system. Lots of ducks were present, mostly Wigeon (600+) and Teal (300+) but also Pintail (6), Shoveler (~10) and Shelduck (30+). Waders were also present including Lapwing (206), Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Avocet (200+). Additional birds seen included Great Black-backed Gull (1), Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull and a Buzzard.

Comparatively the heathland and woodlands seemed almost devoid of life; only Coal Tit, Carrion Crow and a Green Woodpecker perched nicely in a tree broke the silence. However, we did have a special encounter with a small group of Sika Deer which were feeding just 10m from the path in a copse of silver birch; first a group of five and then a second group of three slightly further on. Despite how close we were to the deer they were completely unphased by our presence.

Each time I come to south Dorset I tend to see Sika deer and commonly in small groups like this of 3-8. A native of SE Asia (Taiwan, Japan etc.), originally they were introduced to one private estate in Ireland in 1860 but subsequently now live wild UK-wide after escapes/releases from other estates. It thrives in places with acidic soil habitats, like the conifer woodland and heathlands of south Dorset, where it feeds on young conifer shoots and heather to the great dismay of foresters! Populations are limited to small pockets of suitable habitat in England (mostly in the south) but are fairly widespread in northern Scotland where it interbreeds with native Red Deer and produces fertile offspring – really not good!

It’s about the same size as a Roe Deer (if not a little bigger) but has the stature of Red Deer (i.e. stocky). I think they have a very soft smiley face and teddy bear-like ears which makes them very appealing to look at. Their coat is highly variable between seasons but in winter it’s a greyish colour that lacks the spotting seen in summer. However, the best way to ID any deer is to look at the bum; Sika deer have a big white bum patch with thick black around the top. The only deer with comparative marking is Fallow deer but its tail is twice as long and the black much thinner and more down the sides rather than on top.

 

January 20th (Sun)

I took a stroll through some country lanes in Wellow (Bath area) today. Lots of Fieldfare flying around overhead but didn’t pick out any Redwings which I would normally expect to also see if Fieldfare are around. I also stumbled across a group of ~25 Meadow Pipit which were hanging around in a large flock, sitting on some wires over a field before I spooked them as I walked by – whoops. 

The berries on all the trees and shrubs seem to be going over now except for the odd shrunken sloes and hawthorn berries. However, I did come across this patch of white berries growing on wispy stems which is characteristic of the non-native shrub Snowberry. It’s a common garden plant I come across fairly regularly but seem to notice more at this time of year as the berries stand out on the otherwise dead-looking branches. 

There are loads of different varieties but the original comes from the US (particularly NW) and Canada where it thrives in damp forest and provides a food sources for their numerous pheasants and quails. Here it is widely planted for hedging but often spreads into woodlands, scrub or waste ground areas, naturalising itself thanks to it’s ability to spreads rapidly by means of suckers (underground roots from which new plants sprout).

I loath it. It forms  dense thickets which allow little or no light to ground level and despite frequent claims to be a ‘good plant for wildlife’ I’ve seen no evidence to back this up. The fact I always see it with all it’s berries when all others have gone seems like strong evidence for the opposite to be true! To add to its list of undesirable features, Snowberry also contains a whole apothecary of poisons which if digested by a human causes violent convulsions and vomiting. Even touching the berries can apparently cause skin rashes! There really does seem to be little joy to be had with this plant so please avoid planting it.

 

January 18th (Fri)

Second day at Farmoor Reservoir but today we explored a small neighbouring reserve called Pinkhill Nature Reserve owned and managed by Thames Water. Very different from Farmoor as this site is a small area of marshy wetland adjacent to the River Thames. Although much of it is tree covered,  their is one good section of open reedbed with a wonderfully positioned hide looking over a couple of small ponds – my favourite kind of hide. When we first arrived their wasn’t huge amounts to see on the water but with a bit of time two Wigeon and a female Gadwall came out from the reeds into view.

The main hub of activity was around a small bird feeding station just to the left of the hide which was attracting lots of Blue and Great Tits with the occasional Reed Bunting, Robin and Dunnock also making an appearance to pick up seed from the floor. It was also at the base of this feeder that after about 15 minutes of waiting quietly, we came across what was today’s star bird and a rare treat to see so close; a Water Rail.

Water Rail are notoriously hard to see. They are small, chicken-like looking (and behaving) birds which skulk around in dense waterside vegetation, like the tall reeds we had here, and very rarely come out into view. It was only because of the presence of the feeder and it’s perfect positioning on the edge of the reedbed that we got to enjoy not one but two of these birds as they came out to pick up seed. Their general shape closely resembles that of a Moorhen which is apt as they are in the same family (Rails) but Water Rail differ by having a much longer and down-curved beak (which is red on the lower base section) and a patch of zebra-style feathering on its flank or side. 

You often hear Water Rail much more often hear than you see them; listen for a squealy-piglet sound often heard from inside reedbeds. Winter is you’re best chance of seeing one as we have over 10,000 of them in country compared to a breeding population of 1,100 pairs which are even more secretive! Not much to confuse them with as all the similar species have much shorter stubbier bills although some do share the barred flanks so be a little careful with that ID feature without a proper look at the bill.  

 

January 17th (Thu)

New day, next course and new location. Today I was at Farmoor Reservoir in the Thames Valley basin. Despite only being 5 miles south of Oxford it actually provides water to Swindon some 25 miles further south and is filled by the River Thames. Although it’s main role is water provision, it is also home to the Oxford Sailing Club and popular for its fly-fishing. It’s also a brilliant place to see birds and the reservoir has a notorious habit for picking up rarities, particularly rare Gulls which roost here every evening.

My attention today was taken by the number of Cormorants on the site; something close to 300+! A testament to the good fishing opportunities and a booming population of Rainbow Trout which you could see swimming when they ventured into the shallows around the edge. About a third of the birds were either fishing of hauled up on various floating docks but in one section of the reservoir was a line of pontoons where the remaining 2/3’s were sat. It was quite the site and I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many in a concentrated spot which wasn’t nesting sites.

There was also quite an impressive number of Great Crested Grebe; maybe 130+ with ~90 of them in a single group floating on the water. On several occasions we were treated to small groups flying past us as we walked along the central causeway which gave us a good opportunity to get to learn their wing pattern in flight. Wing patterns aren’t easy to describe but essentially the end half is black and inner half is white with a diagonal black bar (see image).

You might wonder why is this important to learn? Well, most other rare grebes occur in similar habitats (mostly on the sea) as you’d Great Crested Grebe. If you want to increase your chances of spotting something rarer, knowing the pattern of Great Crested Grebe enables you to spot a bird whose wing pattern doesn’t match!

 

January 16th (Wed)

Back at Thatcham Reedbeds and I focused on the main lake in front of the centre. The were lots of Tufted Duck (~40), Mallard, Coot (12), Pochard (4), and a handful of escaped farm duck types in amongst. Cormorants (15) were in good number too sitting in the trees on the central island as were a group of Canada Geese (20) sat underneath. But the two birds which grabbed my attention were the pair of Egyptian Geese which were incredibly tame and would swim right up to you, most likely in search of a handout of food.

Nothing looks like Egyptian Geese and so identifying them is not too difficult. The main features which stand out are their beige/brown colouration, dark brown eye patch, and the enormous white patches on the wing when in flight . The male and female are almost identical so hard to distinguish although in this pairing one seemed larger and more dominant which I took to be the male as this is what I tend to find with their closest relative, the Shelduck

Egyptian Geese are another non-native and one that can be considered naturalised i.e. there are so many they have formed a stable breeding population. There distribution isn’t UK-wide yet but strong populations exist in the east (incl. Norfolk where the population are believed to have sprung up from) and along the southern coast. They’re a native of sub-tropical Africa and so they’ve struggled for a long time to survive in our cold winters keeping their population in check. They also have the odd habit of wanting to breed in January! and despite being a tree-nesting species which might protect them from the worst of the weather this strategy hasn’t served them well here. With milder winters now more common, they seem to be doing better and spreading with birds seen as far north as the river Humber. It’s now likely they could and will pop up on any gravel pit type habitat they can find so worth keeping an eye out. 

 

January 15th (Tue)

Today I’m running another training course but this time at Thatcham Reedbeds in Newbury. The site is made up of a series of old gravel pits which have been converted into small lakes, the majority fishing lakes but some exclusively for wildlife. Their was a lot of disturbance on the main lake due to some renovation work at the centre which means a lot of the ducks were elsewhere. During the course we took a walk to search them out during which we stumbled across these two Goldcrest which were making a right racket!

They are one of our smallest birds (in fact they are THE smallest) and I think they look like a golf ball with a small tail hanging out the back. This makes them hard to spot without being given a clue to their presence. Their call is what always draws my attention first; a thin pipping see-see-see. It’s just on the tip of your high pitch hearing and for some beyond so they can’t hear it! Once heard the first place to look is ivy covered tree’s which they seem to favour, busily searching around them for hiding insects and spiders, often fluttering and hovering underneath the leaves.

What was particularly cool about these two was that they were obviously displaying to one another. Crests up, they danced and flicked around whilst facing each other – see a little video of it here. As their name suggests, they have wonderfully colourful crests but actually they are not always gold/yellow. It is only the female who has the true golden yellow and the male’s is in fact more orange which is much more obvious when the crest is up.

Despite their small size they are highly migratory and loads turns up from Scandinavia and mainland Europe each winter to join our more sedentary birds. They’re incredibly common and with a bit of practice with the call you’ll soon be picking them out. The only close relative and potential confusion bird is the Firecrest which is the same size but has strong stripy face compared to the ‘plain’ non striped face of the Goldcrest although my photos don’t show this. 

 

January 13th (Sun)

Second day on the Somerset Levels and we came across a semi-surprise of a bird which was hanging out on the grass banks lining the footpath through Shapwick Heath; a female Stonechat. It was making use of the few remaining dead stems of what appeared to be dock standing precariously at the very top like a sentinel. This is how you often find Stonechats, finding the highest points they can in the near environment and seemingly survey the area around them.

I’ve always thought this was because they like to monitor their territory and protect from other Stonechat intruders. This makes sense in summer when breeding but does this hold true in winter? Well apparently yes! Stonechats also hold winter territories and they’re often 2-3 times bigger than in summer. This is to compensate for the lower amount of food available and can mean they are even more territorial than normal! Usually these territories are held by pairs but no male was in sight today.

I also discovered that Stonechat are partial migrants; a strategy aimed a guaranteeing the survival of at least a proportion of the population in the event of catastrophically cold winter. This includes birds leaving the UK to winter in Spain and Portugal whilst others just move within the UK to warmer climates, often coastal but also areas you wouldn’t normally see them during the breeding season like I did here.  

Picking out Stonechats is relatively easy because of this sentinel-type behaviour where birds move from ground to top of vegetation repeatedly. This is not really done by any other bird during the winter and so you can be pretty sure its a Stonechat. Other features include a general orangey and brown colouration, thin white neck collar and often a head with a faint supercilium (stripe over the eye). The only bird to mix it up with is a Whinchat but these are currently in Africa! 

 

January 12th (Sat)

This weekend I’m leading a group on the Somerset Levels, taking them around a series of the best sites to see birds and to catch up with the Starlings at RSPB Ham Wall. If you’re new to the Levels, it a vast areas comprising a mix of man-made reedbeds and enormous areas of flat fields covered by shallow water. Together this creates the ultimate wet landscape for winter waterfowl and waders and there really is nowhere like it. During the winter it’s a must go place to see epic numbers of ducks, Lapwings and Golden Plover which gather in numbers nearing 10,000 in places. 

Although these large spectacles are awe-inspiring, what can be equally special is the close up encounters you get from some of the hides and this weekend we had several including one with Snipe at RSPB Greylake. The reserve, a mix of reedbed and flooded meadow, was dominated by Wigeon, Teal and Shoveler with the odd Gadwall and Pintail hidden in amongst. Snipe were also really abundant here, maybe 50+ on view, which had gathered on the raised peat mud in various small groups. 

Snipe themselves are very difficult to spot even if they are sat out in the open like this as their striped, golden yellow & dark brown plumage is a brilliant cryptic disguise. But once you have your eye in you’ll suddenly start to spot them, sometimes in places you’d thought you’d already looked at! My best tips are to look along muddy and tussocky edges of wetland areas pretty much anywhere in the country. In winter we have over a million birds so plenty to find and interestingly almost all the wintering birds we’ll see are from Scandinavia and mainland Europe.

In terms of ID, there is only one bird you are likely to mix this up with and that’s it’s smaller cousin the Jack Snipe. Superficially they have the same cryptic racing-stripe plumage as one another but Jack Snipe have a bill almost half the size and are much more dumpy looking. Jack Snipe are much less common with only ~110,000 wintering in the UK and they also opt for denser rough grassland habitat meaning they are also significantly harder to see! Essentially you’re only going to see this bird very rarely unless you walk through a field flushing one or get incredibly lucky at a reserve!

 

January 10th (Thu)

Whilst in Torquay I decided to check down on Haldon Pier for any waders. It’s a spot I frequently visit, especially in the winter, as a small group of Purple Sandpiper gather here every year alongside Turnstone. Today was no different and I counted a total of 9 Purple Sandpiper and 3 Turnstone. It’s the first time I’ve visited for just over a month when I only found Turnstone, so it was good to see the Purple Sandpipers had arrived although numbers are down on last year where I had up to 15 – more may still yet arrive. 

Purple Sandpiper winter in the UK in very good numbers with up to 25,000 birds in the country at any one time, however, they have a strong northerly bias with the vast majority of these birds on the coasts of most northern Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. Only small groups can be found around the southern coasts with particular spots, just like mine, having just a handful of birds. What’s really cool is depending on which coasts the birds are wintering on, tells you which breeding population they belong to:

Northern & Western coasts of Britain  = the Arctic Island of north-east Canada and coastal areas of Greenland 
Eastern Britain = northeast Europe in Scandinavia and Svalbard.

In terms of seeing and identifying Purple Sandpipers, finding a wader on a rocky coastal location in winter is a good start. They can arrive any time from Aug (although peak in November) and usually have departed by May so you have a long window to see one. Essentially they look a bit like a stocky-Dunlin (i.e. a smallish wader with a heavy looking build) but with a plain sooty coloured head, orange/yellow legs and a down-curved billed which has a hint of orange/yellow at the base.

They behave differently too, avoiding mud (unlike Dunlin) and choosing rocky places like piers and groynes where they spend their time picking at sea washed rocks in search of food. Their preference for rocky coastal habitat also hugely limits the options for getting the ID wrong as no similar looking species tends to use this same habitat or behaves in this way, well, except for Turnstone who they are often found with as I did here, but these birds look very different from each other indeed.

 

January 9th (Wed)

Walking past a car park in Torquay, I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn to the carpet of flowers on the bank just to the side of me. It was a bit unexpected to see so many flowers given today is supposedly the coldest day of the year but I soon recognised the plant because of the combination of soft pink/lilac flowers on a long stalk and the kidney shaped leaves dotted all around. This is Winter Heliotrope – a naturalised plant (which is just a fancy word for a non-native that is well established) often planted by gardners because of its ability to flower during the colder months; Janurary-March. 

You’ll often find it like this, carpeting large areas of grassland, particularly in damp areas, where it will continue to spread until its taken over the whole area. Thanks to it rhizomes (underground stems) it’s incredibly difficult to control or remove. Interestingly all these plants are male. Apparently we don’t get the female version of this plant, probably because it doesn’t flower and is therefore not of any interest to gardeners. If you do come across a patch give the flowers a smell as they have a lovely vanilla fragrance.

The only other plant you could mix this is up with is the native Butterbur which has similar heart-shaped leaves and a stalked flower, however, the flowers are white and together they have a shape like a toilet brush! They also don’t appear until March flowering through till May so a more classic spring flower.

 

January 8th (Tue)

Second day of the course based at Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham and again we spent most of our time out looking for birds. Today we had some really good close sightings of waders including Grey Plover from the estuary lookout, a group of 6 Common Snipe feeding on the edges of the flooded marsh on BGM reserve, and a single Ruff which was feeding in amongst the Black-tailed Godwits in the fields to the right of the BGM reserve. 

I do notice that during times when the water levels are very high on Bowling Green Marsh that birds will often come into this equally wet field to feed. Today there was about 100 Wigeon and 120 Black-tailed Godwit all feeding together with the Ruff was just in amongst them. Ruff are notoriously difficult to identify because of their high variability in both plumage, shape and size. They’re mostly a passage migrant bird (i.e. during autumn or spring) and winter visitor. Breeding birds are incredibly rare, limited to only a handful of Fenland type habitat (extensively damp grassland) across the entire country. It’s a shame as these birds have crazy wonderful breeding plumages with the most exuberant feathering more suited for a catwalk than a flooded field.  

During winter though they lose all that glam and become a much more standard looking wader. The key to picking them out is to look for a Redshank-sized wader with a shorter, darker and faintly down-curved bill which on some birds (as this one) has a white base. Additionally, the feathers on its back (scapulars & coverts) have clear buffy margins meaning each feather is clearly distinct from the next; this is a key feature to look out on many waders as a way of differentiating similar looking species. Annoyingly, you can’t trust the legs which can be anything from red through to ochre/green – not helpful! Despite how horribly variable they are, the only other species it has similar features to are Pectoral Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, both of which are much rarer American vagrants.

With only 800 Ruff in the country over winter, they really are a lovely bird to be able to pick out and on this occasion get pretty close to. Best place to find them is on freshwater marshes or wet grassland as I did here.

 

January 7th (Mon)

Today I was delivering one of my Winter Bird ID courses, this one from my very own Bowling Green Marsh in Topsham. It’s a brilliant place to run a course as I use the private section of the hide as a classroom, allowing attendees to be able to look out at the marsh throughout the course and to enjoy being in the presence of lots of birds. It’s also got lots of other good sites for winter birds near by and over the course of the day we explored several of these including Goosemoor, Darts Farm and the Goat Walk which looks out onto the estuary itself.

Although we weren’t lucky enough to have a peak high tide in the day, there was still plenty about. Here’s is a rough summary of what we saw and where:

BGM: Black-tailed Godwit (100), Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe (6), Pochard (1F), Teal, Pintail (3), Shoveler, Tufted Duck (8), Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall (9), Cormorant, Ruff, Greylag, Canada Goose, Mooren, Grey Wagtail. 
Goosemoor: Curlew (2), Black-headed Gull (10), Redshank (4), Greenshank (1), Teal (12), Little Grebe (1)
Darts Farm: Wigeon (20), Mallard (3), Teal (14), Snipe (1), Meadow Pipit (3), Buzzard (3), Pied Wagtail, Yellowhammer, Crow, Rook & Jackdaw.
Exe Estuary: Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Avocet, Red-breasted Merganser, Cormorant, Common Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Teal, Redshank, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Golden Plover, Turnstone, Curlew, Shelduck, Goldeneye, Mute Swan, Dark-bellied Brent Goose (250).

 

January 5th (Sat)

I took on the final challenge of the back hedge today which was in some desperate need of some management after having only continuous top and side strimming for well over 20 years. The result was a falsely dense hedge that was mostly made up of dead side branches, hung up cuttings, and invasive Russian Vine which had recently spread from next door. I love the hedgerow because it provides a home and habitat for the many birds which subsequently visit the garden but it isn’t in a good state of health and it was time to take action.

The first thing I did was work my way through the hedge pulling out any loose and hung up branches and checking the health of each tree; essentially I was ‘cleaning it out’ so I could see what the actual state of the hedge was. Any dead wood is important to keep so I made a pile in the hedge at the end to provide something for invertebrates and other animals to use.

With permission from next door, I then took out the whole Russian Vine plant out. Russian Vine or Bukhara Fleeceflower really is an absolute nightmare. It clambers over hedges and winds its way through starving anything below of light. The flower may be beautiful for the short time it flowers but it’s simply not worth it; it’s an invasive non-native to be avoided and removed if you have it, before it’s too late.

I then opted to attempt to ‘lay the hedge‘. If you don’t know what this means, it’s essentially where you use a bill-hook tool to cut into the lower part of a tree trunk so you can then softly lay it over to one side, one over the next, like dominoes. The key is you don’t cut all the way through the trunk, but just enough to give it the flexibility to bend without snapping, which is around 80% of the way through. The advantage of doing this is the tree continues to live and grow where multiple new stems can grow up from the now horizontal stem. You do it as a way to thicken up and refresh a hedge. It’s also old countryside management method for stock-proofing a hedge (i.e. to stop cows or sheep pushing through) so you’re likely to see other hedges with this done.

The final job was to plant some new trees into the hedge. The hedge is predominately made up of Elder, Privet and Blackthorn with the odd Hazel so we decided to buy some tree whips which are 2-3 year old trees that are ideal for add diversity, density and fresh growth into the hedgerow. There about £1.50 a whip so we opted for 30, about half Hawthorn and then an even mix of Hornbeam and Hazel, which was the perfect amount to fill in the wholes we had. It’s now a waiting game. The hedge looks quite bare, especially with it being winter, but you have to be brave and in a few years time we should start to see the rewards for our effort. Let’s hope the birds like it too!

 

January 4th (Fri)

It’s certainly a lot colder these last few days than it has been the whole of December. Winter is well and truly here, and I was certainly feeling it when I was doing another bird survey this morning with tingly fingers. However, it was a tree not a bird that caught my attention today and it felt like it had been tricked by the mild winter we’ve experienced so far. As if thinking spring was just around the corner, I came across a row of Hazel trees already producing it’s flowers! Long, dangling decorations hanging from the branches like a well stocked Christmas tree.

Apparently it hasn’t got it wrong and it is a common sight for Hazel trees to be producing their male flowering parts, known as a catkin, in January. This is particularly true if you’re in the Southwest where the seasons always progress first within the UK due to its slightly milder climate. Usually Hazel flowering is UK-wide towards the end of the month and into February but I’m guessing the long series of milder weeks has set these trees off a little prematurely so worth keeping an eye.

To identify hazels trees, look for a sprouting shrub-like appearance – a tree with multiple stems from a very low base with no main or dominant trunk. The stems often grow straight (good for bushcraft) but branches are often unwieldy and wild, coming off in all directions, although pleasantly geometric sometimes. The overall shape of hazel, as with all other trees, really does depend on what’s growing around and therefore competing with it. Look for small, rounded buds with green and red scales which are arranged alternately up a zig-zagging branch. The buds should still be visible on these early flowering branches too which can help.

The catkins which are now in flower first appear in late October as grey mini sausages and slowly mature into ever bigger sausages but developing a more green/yellow colour. Around this time they ‘burst’ becoming a lot more pendulous and revealing rows and rows of small flowers (~240 apparently!) covered in yellow pollen. So why produce your flowers so early in the year when all the pollinating insects are tucked away? Well, Hazel relies mostly on wind not insects for pollination and therefore can get ahead of the game producing those rather lovely nuts which take lots of energy to produce. 

Not much to mix this one up with during winter; Silver Birch also has catkins but is a very different looking tree with silver/white cracked bark compared to the smooth grey/brown of Hazel.

 

January 3rd (Thu)

Apologies in advance as what I can across today was a little gruesome. I was back out in fallowed farmer’s fields today completing a bird survey when I can across a few chest feathers from what looked like a Pheasant. I thought nothing of it as I’d seen many Pheasants already today until 10 meters on I was faced with a carcass, torn in two, with a cushions worth of feathers strewn across the grass. I’m no Poirot but even I could tell a brutal murder had taken place here.

This is actually something I come across quite a lot when out walking. Not always Pheasants, frequently its a Woodpigeon, but I’ve also come across Mallards, Teal, many Lapwings and even a Mute Swan once! It’s become a weirdly enjoyable challenge to work out both victim and culprit from what remains and with a bit of knowledge you can get quite far to solving the case.

Victim: If you’re lucky you may still see the general body shape of the bird or, if you’re really lucky, the feet or head are present. In my experience the head is always gone – yummy nutritious brain! So next I look at feathers and in this case it is easy to ID them as Pheasant. They have a wide variety of feather types and patterns, as do many birds, so it’s important to take opportunities like this to take a good look through them. The key to Pheasant feathers is most have a fiery orange edge and are colourfully patterned – just like the male! What might surprise you is that this is a female, however, the feathers still retain those helpful ID features even if a little more subdued.

Culprit: Normally this is a choice between mammal (fox) or bird of prey, and the way to tell is to look at the removed feathers. If the feather quills are incomplete or jagged, it’s likely from a mammals teeth chewing/cutting through them. If the feather quills are complete or smooth, it’s likely a bird of prey has individually plucked out each feather leaving them mostly undamaged. In this case the feathers are plucked and therefore it is most likely a Buzzard who killed this Pheasant. The habitat isn’t suitable for Goshawk and everything else including Sparrowhawk is too small to take down adult bird although a Sparrowhawk could take a young bird.

 

January 1st (Tue)

I’ve always had a funny relationship with New Years. I’ve just never really enjoyed it. Particularly with the pressure that bizarrely comes with a changing and fresh year ahead. Woop woop, I used to think…. However, that all changed a few years ago when myself and a friend decided to start doing a ‘Bird Race’ type day on the 1st. The basic concept is simple; see as many birds as you can in one day to kick start your year! Now most people who do a Bird Race go full out, driving miles and miles from site to site, ticking bird after bird without ever drawing breathe. Uh, no thanks! So instead we take a more leisurely approach, still going to great sites but not rushing round, and we always end up on the Somerset Levels for the Starlings before going to the pub to reflect on the day with some hearty warming food.

Everybody is welcome! We also make sure we invite new people every year and try to encourage each of us to invite someone along, whether they are skilled birders, beginner enthusiasts or just someone you know who might want a nice day out – everyone is always welcome. What’s the idea behind the whole thing? Well it’s quite simple really: start the year how you mean to go on! Get outside, get active, meet new people, give more time to old friends, less time to digital platforms, and connect with nature as much as you can. 

I love it! I really do. I couldn’t think of a better way to start each year, and although it’s exhausting (especially with a 6am start!), by 6pm when you’re in that pub and everyone is laughing, chatting and high spirited, you know it is worth everyone crumb of sleepy dust to have made the effort. This year we managed a total of 102 bird species between us, visiting my local areas of South Devon (Broadsands and the River Exe) and finishing on the Somerset Levels. It’s a good number, but not the most important, that number is 11 – the number of people who spent an epic day together to start their new year.