Welcome to the Birdwords newsletter. In this communication you will find:
- A Guide to birding in late December
- Some dates for your diary
- Recent reports (2 parts)
- Birdwords: the year 2011
Most importantly, though, may I wish all of your a very Happy Christmas imbued with its true meaning, and a prosperous, bird-filled and peaceful New Year.
A Guide to Birding in December
In many ways December is a winding-down season for birdwatchers. For the first time in months, most birds have settled where they are and there isn’t a great deal of migratory movement. The days are also short and dark, restricting time in the field. Much birding is done in the garden, where, if it is cold, bird numbers visiting feeders will at last begin to increase. Many people receive visits from their first Coal Tits, Siskins or flocks of Chaffinches, with perhaps the odd Brambling thrown in, and feeders can well be active all day long.
However, December is also a very significant month, because it hosts the true tipping point between winter and spring. By around 21st December the days have reached their shortest span, and light detectors in the birds’ brains measure the gradual increase in daylight thereafter. The result is a slow but sure internal preparation for breeding that usually sees its first effects by stimulating male birds to sing. By now you might already have noticed that Great Tits and Song Thrushes have begun singing during mild spells. This effect will increase until, even in the early days of January, there is a significant bird chorus. Last winter I can remember hearing a Great Tit singing when there was six inches of snow on the ground.
In many ways the birding message of December is “don’t despair”. Spring is closer than you think. And furthermore, January is often a terrific birding month, especially on estuaries and reservoirs, where there can be masses of birds. Your feeders will become more and more important to your visitors as wild bird food stocks run out, and it is advisable to keep feeding at least until March.
This particular winter has been notable for several things. While Waxwings have been a no-show and Bramblings are scarce, it has been an incredible time for Short-eared Owls, which are simply everywhere: check almost any extensive patch of rough pasture. Snow Buntings are also around here in the south in slighly higher numbers than elsewhere. This is also your time to enjoy seeing Redwings and Fieldfares, and if you take the trouble to visit the right places you might well catch up with Bitterns, which are having another decent winter.
Another message of December is that, although it isn’t the best month of the year, there’s still plenty to see. At a time when many people are feeling gloomy about economic and other prospects, there is seldom any reason to be gloomy about birdwatching. Birds are always gloriously visible, mobile and unpredictable.
A couple of dates for your diary
Bookings for The Burgh field trip on 27th January have been so healthy that I have put a second date in: Tuesday 24th January. There are three places left for this trip. £25 per person (maximum 10 people).
I will be giving a couple of talks at the Outdoors Show at Excel arena on January 12th and 13th. No details are available yet.
Recent trip reports part 1 – Scotland
From 3rd-7th November this year I took my first ever clients’ trip to Scotland, staying at the famous Wildlife Hotel at Grantown-on-Spey, not far south of Inverness. I have to confess that I don’t actually enjoy trip reports that are endlessly and wearyingly positive, but what else is there to say about this one? Refreshingly, I can report that we failed to see a Capercaillie, despite hours of trying, and we also missed out on seeing any decent Crossbills, “Scottish” or otherwise. We also made a farmer angry and I spilled Lucozade all over my bedroom floor (oops!) but apart from that…
Several participants had expressed fears about the Scottish weather in November, and it was certainly a risk. However, warm(ish) sunshine, clear skies and hardly any wind were the order of every day – amazing – and they greatly helped everybody’s mood. On the first morning most people managed to see Crested Tit at Anagach Woods and there were lots of Red Squirrels about, making a respectable start. But we then decided to take advantage of the benign conditions by visiting the Moray Firth at Burghead. The water was sublimely calm, so that we could easily see a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins half way across the Firth, competing with the gulls and Kittiwakes over the fish shoals. From our lunch spot we could see a raft of over 100 Long-tailed Ducks in the bay, as well as numerous Common Scoters, Eiders, Guillemots, Shags, a few Gannets and a flock of Knots on the rocks. The local grapevine had mentioned a King Eider among a flock of Eiders, so we relocated slightly to the west to Roseisle Forest and spent a pretty mad couple of hours rushing back and forth along the beach trying to find it. It did eventually show among a large flock of some 200 Eiders; the latter kept on diving in synch, which made quite a spectacle in itself. Also present off here were 4 Velvet Scoters, 10 Slavonian Grebes, plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Red-thoated and Great Northern Divers. A skein of 100 Pink-footed Geese flew over as the sun set.
The following day dawned identically sunny and still, and identically hopeless for pre-breakfast Capercaillies. It was an easy decision to head for the Findhorn Valley half an hour away, where Golden Eagles had recently been seen. A quick stop half way along was intended for Dippers, but something completely different stole the show. The waters of the Findhorn River were low and rushing, and we suddenly noticed several large fish apparently jumping out of the water. On closer inspection these turned out to be spawning Salmon, and we spent a spellbinding half-hour watching these iconic fish doing their stuff – a new sighting for most of us. The Dippers also performed well, with some territorial posturing between two pairs.
The “last” car park along the Findhorn Valley is probably the place where more people have seen their first British Golden Eagles than any other. On such a calm and promising day we were never going to fail, and a juvenile bird appeared straight away, the first of several sightings. Juvenile Golden Eagles are easy to recognise from the large white patches on the underwings, so although distant, nobody had any trouble recognising them. There were other birds of prey here, too, including 2 Sparrowhawks, some Buzzards and a couple of Red Kites. We enjoyed the sight of a Red Deer stag defending his herd of females from a young interloper, and the usual Wild Goats were dotted about the crags. An organised flush gave everybody a fine sight of a Mountain Hare with quite a bit of white on its fur.
The afternoon reminded us that birding the Caledonian pine forest can be hard work in winter. Near Loch Garten we basically saw nothing except Coal Tits for a couple of hours. At last, though, some Goldeneyes appeared on the Loch, 2 Whooper Swans flew over and a Crested Tit showed well in the car park.
Our last full day began a few miles west of our hotel, where we managed to find some Bramblings within a large Chaffinch flock that we had noticed the day before. This was on the way to the Cairngorm ski lift, where we had decided to risk everything (alright, some other sightings) by going for Ptarmigans. These are by no means assured here, but since the alternative, according to an RSPB warden we had met, was an eight mile hike to a
nearby mountaintop, we decided on the tourist option. The staff at the ticket office weren’t optimistic – just to add a little drama. They told us about a Red Grouse that was next to the car park and we saw it, giving credence to their gen. But it turned out that we didn’t need to worry; no less than five Ptarmigans were visible from the viewing platform – and even from their namesake restaurant up on the mountain. One bird was almost white.
By now we were feeling smug, so we needed another visit to the Caledonian Forest to keep our feet on the ground and, right on cue, we spent another two hours failing to see Crossbills, or anything else apart from a Roe Deer. We did succeed in annoying a farmer by parking across his (almost invisible) driveway on our way to find a place (Forest Lodge) that I can only assume is fictional, but the day was too glorious for his mood to be catching. The farmer, indeed, was the only local we met who was anything other than friendly, and the next character in our play quite literally went the extra mile for us. Following a tip to look for Black Grouse on Tulloch Moor, a woman we passed on the given road narrowed down our directions to a hotspot and then, having presumably then had second thoughts, literally ran the mile we had driven along to suggest, a little breathlessly, that we tried a different location. Following her advice, within a few minutes we were watching three male Black Grouse perched a little incongruously atop some birch and pine trees in the fading sunshine. Astonishing – and a great blessing for us all.
The evening ushered the more intrepid of us back to Glenmore, where we met up with a highly enthusiastic local wildlife guide, Steve Reddick, who settled us down in front of a cafe window to wait for a Pine Marten to appear. Did it do so? Of course it did. It gave excellent views as it visited a bird table that, during the day, is used by Red Squirrels and Crested Tits. Do we love Scotland? Absolutely, and here’s to a trip another time.
Birdwords: the Year 2011
2011 has been the first year of this completely revamped website, so I am extremely grateful to all of you who have signed up to follow it. I do hope that you continue to do so in 2012 and find something of value. Do please get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions.
Heartfelt thanks also to those who have attended field trips in 2011. While the recession has been affecting the book industry, happily many of you have managed to come along and enjoy some birding. I am grateful for every single booking by every single client. Remember to check the What’s On section of the website for details of forthcoming trips.
Thanks also to those who bought any of my books or CDs. Personally, seeing Teach Yourself Bird Sounds out on CD at last was one of the year’s highlights. Why not treat yourself to a copy of this innovative series as a New Year present? The birds are already singing. Available from me, either by post (e-mail for details) or on any field trip that you attend.
Recent Reports – Part 2
Here’s a quick rundown of the other recent field trips. Way back on October 18th a smallish group went to Calshot Spit, near Southampton, where the main highlights – great views of Dartford Warblers, Stonechats and Linnets – were by the car park. There was a decent range of waders on Southampton Water. In the later afternoon we paid a visit to Beaulieu Road Station in the New Forest and were rewarded with excellent views of 4 Woodlarks – always an excellent species to see.
No doubt about the highlight at West Wittering on November 11th: a delightful flock of 5 Snow Buntings that scattered from the beach on the seaward side of East Head, almost at our feet. We managed to see them several times, although they were flighty, and eventually obtained terrific views. There were a lot of small birds about, including Skylarks and Linnets, as well as the usual wader tally. We enjoyed the high tide roost here, which included much larger numbers of Ringed Plovers (200+) than is usual here. But where were the Turnstones?
On November 15th we braved a new site, Thorney Island. Having previously been put off from visiting by the seven-mile walk and the need to give our names to the military, the day proved to be a revelation. Getting past the checkpoints didn’t require names, and the walk was flat and mainly firm. The bird variety was extraordinary, and during the day we amassed a tally of 84 species, which could easily have been higher. Highlights included a marvellously close Bearded Tit, Spotted Redshanks and Greenshanks, many Bar-tailed Godwits, Avocet, Slavonian Grebe, Sandwich Tern and, right at the end of the day, a couple of Short-eared Owls. We also witnessed quite a spectacular high-tide wader roost.
Two days later it was time for Gulls Galore at Radipole Lake, Dorset. As usual, an enthusiastic but intimidated group gathered at the Visitor Centre for a seminar on these tricky creatures, liberally broken up with coffee breaks. We managed to unravel plenty of plumages and hopefully, most people found the mist had cleared a little by the end of the teaching. As always with this particular day, other birds weren’t totally ignored, and Radipole plus Lodmoor gave us a supporting cast including Bittern, Water Rail, Marsh Harrier and Rose-coloured Starling.
The last trip of the year wasn’t until December 13th, with the annual double of Wisley Gardens and Papercourt Lock area. No words other than disappointing could be used for a bleakly birdless Wisley – memories of previous Waxwings and Bramblings remained as memories. Papercourt was much better, though, with a decent range of birds culminating in a marvellous display of no less that 4 Short-eared Owls over Papercourt Meadows – a spectacular way to end the year.