Under the Snow of Winter - one of four posts: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter - the cornerstones of this blog, about the birds I see through the year. Follow me, if you will - leave your own footprints in the snow ... for others to follow.
Winter for me is … a time for reminiscing – of writing up notes – winter walks – log fires – rereading favourite books – and Ducks …. all sorts of Ducks and Waders too ...
Here is a great quotation from Rosamund Richardson which sums up the mystery and fascination of watching 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.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Water, any sort of water, attracts birds - even the humblest of field ponds will have its resident Moorhen; and rutted rain-filled tracks in field gateways and damp marshy field corners can sometimes turn up Jack Snipe, Woodcock or if you’re lucky a Sandpiper, in Winter. If you live near a lake, reservoir or sheltered coastal waters then there is a fair chance you will see the numbers of local breeding birds – Teal, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Shoveler and Pochard, swollen with new winter arrivals; and occasional Wigeon, Goldeneye, and Pintail, or possibly even Smew. Or maybe a drake Scaup, perhaps from Iceland, floating among the pack of Tufted. If you’re really lucky then you could spot a Barnacle Goose, Pink Footed Geese, Greylag or Whitefront - if not on the ground then look / listen for the large skeins that fly overhead. Perhaps even a Bewick’s or Whooper Swan arriving from their breeding grounds in Iceland – their most likely destination Martin Mere in Lancashire, where more than 1,000 Whooper Swan create the biggest over-wintering colony in Britain. - with Bewick Swan famously wintering at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
Water is the main feature of my local Nature Reserve – the Spinnies – part of the Penrhyn Estate – a small woodland with a series of ponds and a lagoon, Aberogwen Lagoon. The lagoon and ponds were created when a sharp bend in the River Ogwen was deliberately cut off to form a lake, making it the ideal home for numerous species of birds ... As I walk towards the hide - a jet stream of brilliant blue sears my eye – the resident Kingfisher! ... Now hidden from the birds I can see a rustic-looking Snipe probing the mud at the edge of the lagoon, and an exotic looking white heron – a Little Egret working the shallows, in stark contrast to the motionless Grey Heron further along - the embodiment of patience. Offshore rafts of Great Crested Grebe and Red-breasted Merganser, float in the calm sea. The piping and whistling of Oystercatcher and Redshank ring in my ears. I leave to the sound of a calling Curlew.
A Winter Woodland Pond
Carefully parting Willow, Bramble and bronzed Bracken fronds that rustled and crackled in the frost I could see my secret lake ... well large pond really - an old disused Flight Pond. I never saw anyone there, though there were a few shooting stands around the wooded edge .... a few mallard quacked and splashed noisily; a couple of Tufted Duck circled warily in the middle while on the far bank a pair of teal rested, blending well with the pondside rushes. A Snipe was busily probing a patch of mud; a Coot called from somewhere in the reeds - well hidden - shatteringly loud. I sat in one of the shooters stands breath steaming - ‘chip chip chip’ and the pattering of pine cones from Crossbill overhead. A party of Long Tailed Tit tinkled through the bushes behind me an acrobatic Group of Siskin feeding in the Alder to my side. A couple of Pochard were mooching about under some overhanging rhododendron - there was one Duck with them that was different - similar - but different enough for a closer look. It had a chestnut chocolate-brown body with slightly darker back and some white under the tail. It wasn’t a female Pochard and it didn’t seem right for a Tufted Duck. So what the hell was it. 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! I never saw it again so it stays in my field notes as female Ferruginous Duck (poss)! With hindsight and greater knowledge about hybridisation in Aythya species – it was more likely that it was a Pochard x Tuftie. But I can’t help thinking about those white undertail coverts and wondering … .
Winter Bird Notes
I’ve had little opportunity for birdwatching these winter months but my notes show that all the regulars continue to visit the feeders, throughout - Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wren, Robin, Dunnock, Great and Blue Tit, Chaffinch and House Sparrow.
On the 10 December – a Cold NE wind with occasional snow flurries, brought Song Thrush into the garden - they are only occasional visitors, preferring the woods – so nice to see. And an influx of Blackbird with 6 feeding in the fields.
As last year the first primrose were out on Christmas Day in a sheltered spot in the garden.
January was true to form being mostly wet windy and cold with some moderate snowfalls. Birds of note were:
A flock of 50 Starling feeding in the field along with one or two Redwing and half a dozen Blackbird on the 12th. And the first Woodpecker drumming almost as if it was in competition with the buzz from the chainsaw deep within the woods. January 18 was generally a wet grey day with squalls of sleety rain. The sun burst through late afternoon giving everything a golden tint. A Handful of Starling with a couple of Redwing and 4 Blackbird feeding in the field. Song Thrush and another couple of Blackbird in the garden. Both male and female in bright spring plumage. As are the Great Tit.
A pair of Raven were about and 5 Buzzard circling the fields.
February saw a few more sunny days but with cold northerly or easterly winds. By February 4 many birds seem to have paired - both male and female Great Spotted Woodpecker visiting the garden feeders regularly and a pair of Coal Tit.
Blue Tit and Great Tit in abundance. Resident Robin and Dunnock and Blackbird in mild skirmishes. Chaffinch both male and female constant. Loads of House Sparrow. Magpie a few. Primrose, Snowdrop and the first wild Dafodill in the garden while the lanes and hillsides are coloured bright yellow with Gorse.
February 16 was a bright and sunny day with a cold NE wind. 2 Song Thrush in the garden this morning – a Blackbird took exception and chased one bird all round the garden.
Mid-afternoon, on a flooded corner of a sheep-grazed field not far from home – there were a dozen Lapwing a few Redshank and a couple of Pied Wagtail - feeding around the edges.
The First Snow of Winter
This year - early December - we have already had the first snow 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.
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’.
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 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. ... 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. .… 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. ... A great Fieldfare rises, like a lesser pigeon; Fieldfare often haunt the verge of woods, while the Redwing thrushes go out into the meadows. ... 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. ...
... 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 Frosty 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.
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.
So don’t put the books away yet but leave them close to hand for reading again on those bright sunny days of Spring which tease and tempt us out, but whose bitter winds send us scurrying back to indolence indoors; but the birds know ...
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
In the words of Edward Thomas.