My Winter So Far...
Well what a different winter to last year! This time last year it was mild, frosts were few and far between and the Bluebells had already started to show green shoots in the local woods; since Christmas however, it has been in turn, foggy, freezing, misty and frosty with a smattering of snow (where I am and which I got all excited about, but it disappeared as fast as it arrived) with a few days here and there where it has been a little milder.
Pondering on the difference, I've been looking and wandering around my local patch and have been seeing who's about, watching behaviours and also watching the flora to see if it has got it's seasons sorted out this year. Once the leaves finally turned and fell, the woodland floor is as I would expect to see it at this time of year, a carpet of leaves. This January, there are no Bluebells or Primroses shooting, although here and there, wild mustard and nettles are a few inches high. The majority of the leaf buds on the trees are shut tight, the only exceptions being the Woodbine and Elders which seem to defy the coldest frosts. The hogweed and grasses in the meadow are all 'melting' down, providing cover for rodents (I've seen entrances to little tunnels) ready for a fresh start when the earth warms up again.
Since before Christmas, Robins have been appearing in numbers in the local woodland and have been declaring from various little territory spots - I have been serenaded on several occasions by one of these determined little characters, who keep a close watch on me, whilst calling their spot. In my garden, we also have a pair of Robins who follow each other round, having claimed the territory from a few other interlopers.
After the Robins, Wrens have also been very vocal in the meadow, as they forage down low amongst the faded grasses and sallow saplings. I have seen them amongst the bramble clumps inside the woods doing the same and think that they had a good breeding year as there seem to be a few more about than I have seen for sometime. One morning I went for a walk in the woods and unusually, as I mostly see them foraging low down, saw one about two metres up an old broken, but still living Oak tree. It was pecking around in the bark and almost running along the treetrunk like a small brown Nuthatch.
On just about every recent walk, I have also seen at least one Goldcrest swirling around with incredible agility inside tangles of Woodbine or within some of the gnarly Hawthorn trees. Back at the end of the summer I did catch a glimpse of a few juveniles and it looks as though they may have established themselves locally - in previous years seeing one would be a rare treat; this time of year, there are always Goldcrest migrants, however I have a feeling that some of those I am seeing are residents and from maybe seeing two last winter, there are at least three or four different spots I can go to find them.
During the late autumn and certainly when it cools down, I see regularly see a very skittish flock of Chaffinches in the woods. This time of year, their colours compliment their surroundings perfectly and sometimes, it is not until I start walking towards them, that I know they are there, when they suddenly fly up from the carpet of fallen leaves and perch high up in the trees. This one, a member of a small flock, shows just how well they can blend with their surroundings!
If I sit a while in the woods, I get to hear rustlings amongst the leaf litter, sometimes this has been small rodents scurrying around under the brambles (I've had glimpses of wood mice, shrews and possibly voles before in the woods) at other times it will be a Blackbird turning over the leaves for a tasty morsel. There have been quite a few about of late, all the sloes have been eaten and so the Blackbirds are making the most of where the Squirrels have been digging for their nuts and the thick layer of leaf litter. It may be chilly, but there's plenty of life underfoot!
Speaking of Squirrels, there seems to be a lot of them about and the way they have been carrying on, I suspect that there will be even more! There has been a lot of Squirrel 'courtship' going on - the other day, every few trees along there would be a pair of Squirrels in pursuit of each other, spiralling up and down the treetrunks or chasing through the branches. Occasionally they will stop and watch me, on one occasion recently I had a few moments of peek-a-boo with one curious individual, who kept peeking out from behind a tree trunk at me, before deciding that higher up the tree to watch me would be good! (Glad I was on my own as by the time the Squirrel had finished, I was in fits of giggles!)
On my walks in the last couple of weeks I have begun to see signs of courtship behaviour amongst the Great Spotted Woodpeckers. There has been drumming, calling and one of the females appears to have two male suitors, who have been chasing her around. I have caught glimpses of the Green Woodpeckers, but no signs from them of courtship.
The same, however, cannot be said of some of our smaller birds. It may be chilly at the moment, but I have been seeing Blue Tits chasing about in tandom as well as foraging along branches and around the still sleeping buds for food.
Both in the woods and also in my garden the other weekend, there have been Dunnocks flirting and wing-flicking their way around and they have been seen foraging amongst the leaves or perched up and seeming to declare as well.
Up in the woods occasionally though, I will hear a quiet 'tap, tap, tap' as the Blue Tits' larger cousin the Great Tit pecks away at bark or lichen to find a snack. These too have also started to declare, although I've not yet seen them in wooing mode.
One of the delights of winter for me when the trees are bare, is being able to get clearer views of the little family troupes of Long Tailed Tits as they work their way along the treeline. I've watched several of these flocks recently and am amazed at how they are continually calling and communicating with each other as they proceed, so that no-one gets left behind. Our regular troupe have also started to visit the garden to supplement their food supply and appear almost like clockwork as they tour feeders around the local gardens. A couple will appear first, almost on a 'recce', then they disappear and shortly after the whole troupe appears - on one occasion we had between fourteen or sixteen either on the feeders or waiting their turn!
During the summer months, I listened on many evenings to a Song Thrush singing the evening in, however, the singer was rarely glimpsed. In two parts of the local woods though, I have now seen four of these over recent weeks, still skittish, but not hidden! Two of these seemed to be staying nearby to each other, so a pair maybe?
I have also heard and seen flying overhead Fieldfares for the first time since we have lived here. Last year, in February, I was lucky enough one evening to discover a flock of Redwings on the local patch, which was a bit of a first; I haven't seen any this year, however I have heard the Fieldfares around the same location, so I shall be keeping a lookout!
One thing I have noticed is that all the berries seem to have been consumed early, when in other years, whilst the sloes disappear quickly the Hawthorn berries seem to last a considerable while longer. The local farmer has not exactly helped with this food source, as the field / woods margins, which were a plentiful source of sloes, brambles, hawthorn berries and a few apple trees were all flayed back the ground and the fruit bearing branches on the outside of the woods were completely destroyed.
It does seem to have been a reasonable acorn year though! There are quite a few Jays on my local patch and between them and the Squirrels, there seems to have been quite a feast had. I often see and hear the Jays as they dispute sharing one or other of the Oak trees and the pair which regularly traverse back and forth overhead my garden during the winter months, have been seen again. Jays cache nuts, whether acorns or peanuts (which I suspect the pair over my garden collect from a feeder and return to the wood with), whilst they have good memories, they are actually responsible for planting a lot of Oak trees!
Of a night time (indeed as I'm typing) we have been hearing Muntjacs barking as well as the local Tawny Owls calling. Muntjacs, I have seen occasionally within the woods, they are very timid though and once they have spotted me then they disappear off at speed. I often find their little hoof prints along the path around the field and there are deer paths worn through the grasses in the meadow.
The Tawny Owls, well whilst I have never seen them (will be trying again this year) have been calling - there is definitely a Mr and a Mrs who answers back, so hopefully they will get together......
Speaking of raptors, the local Buzzards have been making regular appearances around the local woodland and overhead the meadow. On a couple of recent occasions I have also seen them inside the edge of the woods (in a part where I believe they have nested before) and there appeared to be some kind of 'tag' going on, so I'm not sure if negotiations are underway with one of the females or a youngster is being encouraged to move along. In the past couple of months I have seen sometimes just one, other times three and on one memorable afternoon five, all aloft. and 'dancing'.
The other weekend I also saw a Kestrel over the meadow for the first time in a couple of years. It flew over, having a look and picked a perch at the top of a tree. A little while later it flew across to the edge of the woods and perched there a while, before heading off, disturbed by some nearby walkers. I am hoping that it will become a regular visitor again. The local Sparrowhawk also continues to put in brief appearances, flashing through the trees or occasionally venturing outside of the woods.
At one point on my route around the meadow, there are a few Alder trees, which are favoured by Chaffinches and a Charm of Goldfinches. I often hear the Goldfinches chattering away from right at the top of the tree. These have been feeding busily and on a couple of occasions I have also seen one at the peanut and sunflower feeder in the back garden. Further round on my walk is a location for another Charm, again as I walk past they are either in the treetops or flitting overhead.
In one corner of the woodland, if I time it right, I am almost guaranteed a sighting of a Marsh Tit. Marsh Tits are Red listed and tend to stay in their own little territory. This one frequents the same little patch of trees and certainly last spring, was there calling his territory. The other weekend I was watching him feeding amongst the branches, when I saw a movement in the backgound. Watching a while longer, a pair of them appeared almost in the open, possibly he has found a mate (they are thought to be monogamous) so hopefully they may be a breeding pair.
Over the past year, I have caught the briefest of glimpses of one of our most handsome and also most shy birds, the Bullfinch. Last spring I spotted a female, with two suitors deep in a blackthorn hedge and later in the year in the adjacent woodland I saw a pair.
Whilst walking, early one morning, the sight of one of the Buzzards through the trees got me curious so I started into the woods towards the clearing where they sometimes perch, to (yet again) try and get a closer view of them. As I turned the path, just at the back of a bank of brambles that edge the meadow, a bright colour amongst the browns and beiges stopped me in my tracks. There low down pecking at seeds and unconcerned by me, was a very smart male Bullfinch! He continued with his breakfast for a while as I watched him from a distance. From further along the bramble bank came a low 'whistle' and I saw a paler bird, the female, fly off. He answered her call, checked to ensure there were no seeds remaining and flew off after her. A close view like that absolutely made my day!
I shall be out and about on the local patch over the remainder of the season and am going to be interested to compare dates of when signs of spring start to appear against my diary for the last few years.
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