Winter – a time for reminiscing – of writing up notes – winter walks – log fires – rereading favourite books – And Ducks …. Winter for me is all about Ducks …..
“I follow the sound of water rushing over boulders to where kingfishers lance the reedy river under one of the wooden bridges. Here otters live, diving into hiding with a heavy, extended sploosh as I cross. A buzzard mews from high above the sheep field. Through a screen of reeds I can observe the wildfowl on the lake without being seen: they are so shy these wild birds, the least disturbance will spook them and they will fly off to the Fen over the other side of the hill leaving the place empty: it feels forlorn without them when this happens, they have become my unknowing companions. Three egrets have flown in, standing bright white on the emerald grass of the island, heron-like. A pair of female shovelers are shoveling for food below the surface, not far from their male counterparts in handsome livery of rust-red flank, dark head, striped black and white body with wingtips crisscrossing over a sharp tail and white bottom. A pair of gadwall sail past, the male so smart in his Savile Row tweed front, charcoal belly and dark tail, and flush of rust on the wings. Low afternoon light illuminates little teal standing on the bank, the chestnut heads with green teardrop, short beaks and grey underbelly with straw patch almost luminous under the tail. And the smoke-blue bill of the black and white tufted duck. Low sunshine glints on the water, breaking into silver rags of light as a breeze ruffles the surface.”
Rosamond Richardson writing about ‘waiting for birds’ – see her full article here:
This could have been written about my own local Nature Reserve – the Spinnies, today – or about the little lake I used to visit as a teenager …. I was a member of the local Duck Counting Team under the tutelage of Bernard King. This was in the days before WeBS. Every month during Winter saw us out counting ducks at Chew Valley Lake, Somerset.
However I never really got the hang of estimating large numbers of ducks – sometimes up into the hundreds and thousands for the more common species – I was much more at home with a small lake and ducks you could actually count.
I used to cover a small lake – well pond really, on a private estate, that in winter held a few mallard and tufted duck with a couple of pair of teal, and the odd coot and moorhen. Surrounded by Rhododendron, Birch and Larch, with Holly and Hazel understorey; and Bracken. These reliably turned up Siskin, Redpoll and Goldcrest, which I kept trying to turn into Firecrest – a bird which still eludes me to this day. Well one year it turned up a first for me – not a duck but Crossbill – during one of the years of their irruptions from the Continent – 1963 it must have been. And then there was the time I literally stumbled over a Woodcock- I don’t know who was more surprised!
But counting duck here sometimes seemed a chore and unrewarding, especially on cold damp winter mornings. However one day I was excited by a few Pochard. My interest was held particularly by a fairly nondescript brownish Duck that was with them – while very similar it clearly wasn’t a female Pochard and it didn’t seem right for a Tufted Duck. What it did have, though not that visible was white under the tail and a chestnut body with slightly darker back. My mind raced – Lesser Scaup – but on an wooded inland pond in Wiltshire – not much chance. So what then – later pouring over my bird books – we didn’t have the quality guides then that are about now just Roger Tory Peterson and the hefty tomes of British Birds by Kirkman et al and T A Coward – I thought naively Ferruginous Duck – it had to be didn’t it!
Well you can probably guess the rest of the story – I went back later with a friend – no sign of the Pochard or the Brown Duck. So no corroborating evidence. Yet it stays in my field notes as poss Ferruginous.
Now many years later we know a lot more about hybridisation in Aythya species – so more likely then that it was a Pochard x Tuftie. But I can’t help thinking about those white undertail coverts and wondering …..
But what sort of ducks should we look out for: Wigeon, Goldeneye, Pintail, and possibly even Smew on lakes, reservoirs and near the coast. And increased numbers of breeding birds – Teal, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Pochard, with new winter arrivals. Or perhaps a drake scaup, perhaps from Iceland, floating among the pack of tufted.
Also look out for Pink Footed Geese, Greylag and Whitefront, if not on the ground then look / listen for the large skeins that fly overhead. Whooper Swans are also arriving from their breeding grounds in Iceland – the most likely destination is Martinmere near Ormskirk, Lancashire, where more than 1,000 whooper swans create the biggest over-wintering colony in Britain. But one or more may join the small flock of about 40 that choose the Glaslyn marches near Porthmadog. Look out for their long wedge shaped bill, largely yellow with a black tip. If you’re lucky you could spot a Barnacle Goose or even a Bewick’s Swan (smaller yellow area on bill – hard to distinguish from a Whooper if it is a lone bird)
As Winter draws on some wildfowl begin their spring. Unexpected and graceful is the queer courtship of the ducks. Watch lakes and reservoirs, where the migrants court and pair before the long flight north. Goosanders and red breasted mergansers may go no farther than Scotland, but the smaller, handsome smew, is bound for its nest hole in some forest tree of Lapland or northern Russia.
Not far from home is Llanfairfechan, one of the very best places to see a range of birds like Red Throated Diver, Red Breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe and Common Scoter. Also present are smaller numbers of Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Eider, Razorbill, Goldeneye and Black Guillemot, and also a regularly wintering American Black Scoter. And huge flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Pintail.
Just along from Llanfairfechan is Morfa Madryn reserve which is reached from Glan y Môr Elias and has been created as a disturbance-free area for birds to feed, rest and breed. The reserve is an important nesting and wintering site for Lapwing and attracts a good variety of birds all year round, particularly wildfowl and waders, as does the adjoining Traeth Lafan mudflats, which is an area of European importance. In addition,Traeth Lafan, Glan y Môr Elias and Morfa Madryn, together, form a Local Nature Reserve. Near the entrance is a small picnic area and recently planted woodland. There are three bird hides on the reserve, one with excellent views of the high tide oystercatcher roost on the shingle spit at Glan y Môr Elias and the other two with close-up views of the birds on the reserve’s pools.
This year – early December – we have already had the first snows of Winter – who better to describe it than Richard Jefferies, whose observations of Nature never fail to delight. This is his description of the first snowfall of Winter ….
“The smallest boughs and the tiniest twigs are coated on the upper part with a white rib of snow; for the flakes, scarcely slanting in their fall before the light air, rest on the first thing they touch; so that even the laurel leaves, which droop with the frost, are covered, and the crinkled holly-leaves hold the snow as if their spines grasped it like a claw. In the hedge the very peggles on the hawthorn bush are tipped—red fruit beneath, white snow above—and appear enlarged to twice their real size. The fields are levelled—the furrows filled and the clods hidden: a smooth white surface everywhere. Over the broad brook the branches of the trees hang low, heavily weighted, and dip their slender points in the water, black by contrast. Dark and silent, the stream flows without a ripple or a murmur against its frozen shores. But in the afternoon, when the sun shines in a cloudless sky, there floats above the current a golden vapour lit up by the rays. The sun sinks lower, and the disc becomes ruddy as it enters the mist above the horizon. Night falls, and the frost sharpens and the snow hardens on the boughs. Then in the morning as the sun rises the eastern side of the wood becomes glorified exceedingly. Each slender snow-laden branch—all the interlaced pattern of the trees—glows with an exquisite rosy light. Another day, a third, and still the beautiful snow lies everywhere.
Yet in the middle of winter we can be reminded of Spring ….
The Yellowhammer is a common resident species here (West Cornwall). We usually think him an uninteresting bird on account of his phlegmatic disposition and monotonous song, but in this district, in winter, I found him curiously attractive, and among the modestly-coloured birds that were his neighbours he was certainly the most splendid. That may appear a word better suited to the golden oriole, but I am thinking of one of his aspects, as I frequently saw him, and of a miracle of the sun. Here, in winter, he congregates in small companies or flocks at the farms, and at one small farm where there was a rather better shelter than at most of the others, owing to the way the houses and outhouses and ricks were grouped together, the company of wintering yellowhammers numbered about eighty or ninety. Every evening, when there was any sun, these birds would gather on some spot—a rick or barn roof or on the dark green bushes—sheltered from the sea wind, where they could catch the last rays. Sitting motionless grouped together in such numbers they made a strangely pretty picture.
One evening, at another farm-house, I was standing out of doors talking with the farmer, when the sun came out beneath a bank of dark cloud and shone level on the slate roof of a cow-house near us. It was an old roof on which the oxidised slate had taken a soft blue-grey or dove colour—the one beautiful colour ever seen in weathered slate; and no sooner had the light fallen on it than a number of yellow-hammers flew from some other point where they had been sitting and dropped down upon this roof. They were scattered over the slates, and, sitting motionless with heads drawn in and plumage bunched out, they were like golden images of birds, as if the sun had poured a golden-coloured light into their loose feathers to make them shine.
The grey wagtail and the goldfinch, in small numbers, both beautiful birds, were wintering here, but they could not compare with those transfigured yellowhammers I had seen.
From The Land’s End: A Naturalist’s Impressions In West Cornwall, 1908 by W H Hudson.
While for me most winters were about ducks for others like Richard Jefferies it was about the woods; the symmetry, shapes and colours of the trees that make up the winter woodland.
Here are some more seasonal excerpts from his essay on ‘January in the Sussex Woods’.
…. The lost leaves measure our years; they are gone as the days are gone, and the bare branches silently speak of a new year, slowly advancing to its buds, its foliage, and fruit. Deciduous trees associate with human life as this yew never can. Clothed in its yellowish-green needles, its tarnished green, it knows no hope or sorrow; it is indifferent to winter, and does not look forward to summer. With their annual loss of leaves, and renewal, oak and elm and ash and beech seem to stand by us and to share our thoughts. There is no wind at the edge of the wood, and the few flakes of snow that fall from the overcast sky flutter as they drop, now one side higher and then the other, as the leaves did in the still hours of autumn. The delicacy of the outer boughs of the great trees visible against the dark background of cloud is as beautiful in its own way as the massed foliage of summer. Each slender bough is drawn out to a line; line follows line as shade grows under the pencil, but each of these lines is separate. Great boles of beech, heavy timber at the foot, thus end at their summits in the lightest and most elegant pencilling. Where the birches are tall, sometimes the number and closeness of these bare sprays causes a thickening almost as if there were leaves there. The leaves, in fact, when they come, conceal the finish of the trees; they give colour, but they hide the beautiful structure under them. Each tree at a distance is recognisable by its particular lines; the ash, for instance, grows with its own marked curve …..
….. Some flakes of snow have remained on this bough of spruce, pure white on dull green. Sparingly dispersed, the snow can be seen falling far ahead between the trunks; indeed, the white dots appear to increase the distance the eye can penetrate; it sees farther because there is something to catch the glance. Nothing seems left for food in the woods for bird or animal. Some ivy berries and black privet berries remain, a few haws may be found; for the rest, it is gone; the squirrels have had the nuts, the acorns were taken by the Jay, Rook, and Pheasant. Bushels of acorns, too, were collected by hand as food for the fallow deer in the park. A great Fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; Fieldfare often haunt the verge of woods, while the Redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. ……
…… Some little green stays on the mounds where the rabbits creep and nibble the grasses. Cinquefoil remains green though faded, and wild parsley the freshest looking of all; plantain leaves are found under shelter of brambles, and the dumb nettles, though the old stalks are dead, have living leaves at the ground. Grey-veined ivy trails along, here and there is a frond of hart’s-tongue fern, though withered at the tip, and greenish grey lichen grows on the exposed stumps of trees. These together give a green tint to the mound, which is not so utterly devoid of colour as the season of the year might indicate. Where they fail, brown brake fern fills the spaces between the brambles; and in a moist spot the bunches of rushes are composed half of dry stalks, and half of green. Stems of willow-herb, four feet high, still stand, and tiny long-tailed tits perch sideways on them. Above, on the bank, another species of willow-herb has died down to a short stalk, from which springs a living branch, and at its end is one pink flower. A dandelion is opening on the same sheltered bank; farther on the gorse is sprinkled with golden spots of bloom. A flock of Greenfinch starts from the bushes, and their colour shows against the ruddy wands of the osier-bed over which they fly. The path winds round the edge of the wood, where a waggon track goes up the hill; it is deeply grooved at the foot of the hill. These tracks wear deeply into the chalk just where the ascent begins. The chalk adheres to the shoes like mortar, and for some time after one has left it each footstep leaves a white mark on the turf. On the ridge the low trees and bushes have an outline like the flame of a candle in a draught—the wind has blown them till they have grown fixed in that shape. In an oak across the ploughed field a flock of Woodpigeon have settled; on the furrows there are Chaffinche, and Lark rise and float a few yards farther away. The snow has ceased, and though there is no wind on the surface, the clouds high above have opened somewhat, not sufficient for the sun to shine, but to prolong the already closing afternoon a few minutes. If the sun shines to-morrow morning the Lark will soar and sing, though it is January, and the quick note of the Chaffinch will be heard as he perches on the little branches projecting from the trunks of trees below the great boughs. Thrush sing every mild day in December and January, entirely irrespective of the season, also before rain …..
You may like to play this while reading the next passage ….
….. The daylight has lingered on longer than expected, but now the gloom of the short January evening is settling down fast in the wood. The silent and motionless trees rise out of a mysterious shadow, which fills up the spaces between their trunks. Only above, where their delicate outer branches are shown against the dark sky, is there any separation between them. Somewhere in the deep shadow of the underwood a Blackbird calls “ching, ching” before he finally settles himself to roost. In the yew the lesser birds are already quiet, sheltered by the evergreen spray; they have also sought the ivy-grown trunks. “Twit, twit,” sounds high overhead as one or two belated little creatures, scarcely visible, pass quickly for the cover of the furze on the hill. The short January evening is of but a few minutes’ duration; just now it was only dusky, and already the interior of the wood is impenetrable to the glance. There rises a loud though distant clamour of Rook and ‘Daws, who have restlessly moved in their roost-trees. Darkness is almost on them, yet they cannot quite settle. The cawing and dawing rises to a pitch, and then declines; the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.
A Damp January Day
Today (January 15th) started rather damp: it was very quiet – there was little birdsong, other than our garden Robin. Around mid-morning the sun broke through briefly. And in that moment I heard a faint, slightly hesitant, song from the blackthorn hedge, across the lane: ‘teacher teacher teacher’ – the spring song of a Great Tit – the first for the year – a harbinger of Spring. Soon Blackbird too will sing melodiously every morning and evening from the Field Maple at the back of the garden; and the Song Thrush chant ‘Cherry B’ ‘Cherry B’ ‘Cherry B’ – loudly and lustily from the black-twigged top of a Black Poplar near the end of the drive, outlined against the salmon-pink tinged clouds of a spring dawn; white wreaths of mist still lingering over the fields. Spring is in the air.
I always thought that it was Percy Edwards, that much-loved entertainer of bird mimicry, who described that particular phrase of the Song Thrush so, but on checking I note he says the song begins ‘Sweetheart – sweetheart – sweetheart’ and finishes with ‘Take-heed, ‘take-heed, take-heed’.
A Winters Day (In February)
Morning – frosted white fields and hedges; the vivid yellow Gorse the only colour; the distant mountains covered in dense grey-white clouds that cling to their tops like woolly hats – only later to rise slowly in the sun warmed air of mid-morning, like ghostly hot air balloons – leaving a black and white landscape below, that changed kaleidoscope-like every time I looked. The mountains closer now; in relief, against a blanket of leaden grey cloud – the winter sun of afternoon hidden; later, in the luminescent half light, before the grey wash of evening, to glow, briefly, a pure brilliant white; while the twinkling of distant cottage lights appear one by one on the hillsides like yellow stars, fallen from the violet, not-quite-black sky. Looking up a single brilliant diamond white star appears – then it is Night.
To be continued …….