Nature Notes – December 2014

So far this winter I have seen very few of the visiting Redwings, and as yet no Fieldfares at all. These are the birds which for me say that winter is here! Perhaps the long spell of southerly winds has held them up elsewhere in their journey from Scandinavia.

By now there may be more to see and listen out for. There were a few Redwings in the hedges by the middle of October and interestingly a couple feeding on Spindle berries in our neighbours’ drive. Spindle is a native shrub which, with its fiery autumn leaves and strangely coloured fruits, will be known to gardeners and flower arrangers alike. It does occur wild in the hedges around here. The bright pink part of the fruit is formed from the flower petals and has no food value. The clashing bright orange part is the seed, covered with an edible layer called the aril. This has a very high food value, and it is this which the birds take, although the seed itself is poisonous. Robins were also feeding on them.

Spindle is just one of the plants that produce the sequence of berries on which birds feed through the autumn and winter. I always think that blackberries, which are rich in sugars, seem to be much underused with many of them shrivelling away as winter comes. However, this autumn near the coast I saw small flocks of Starlings gorging on them, presumably these were the migrating birds which had just arrived. The dried fruits are also used for their seeds, especially by Bullfinches, although these birds can be shy and not easy to spot.

The phenomenon of massive winter Starling roosts, especially with spectacular displays as the birds come in for the night, have become much better known with exposure on television. This really is one of the great spectacles of bird life, and well worth seeing. In our area, these big roosts are usually located in reedbeds along the coast, at Snape, Thorpeness or Minsmere. At the time of writing there is a roost each evening at the western end of the Minsmere marshes. Get there by late afternoon in time for dusk and you can witness this incredible sight. [The video below was taken on 26th November 2013 at Snape Maltings]

Apparently 2014 has been a good year for breeding Barn Owls, and they have had considerable success around the county. After several years of being used by other species (Little Owl, Kestrel, Stock Dove, Jackdaw) the owl nesting box nearest to us, erected as part of the Community Barn Owl scheme by the Wildlife Trust, has finally welcomed a pair of breeding Barn Owls. In fact they nested very late and in the evenings we could hear the young in the nest – they make a loud hissing noise – right through October.

Usually Barn Owls nest earlier in the summer, in May and June, so that the young can take advantage of the peak in numbers of rodents in July and August. It takes some 14 weeks from laying to independence. Late breeding is not uncommon, but it is almost certainly the result of a failed first attempt, and not a second brood. Unfortunately, no-one licensed was able to check the nest to see how many young there were, or to ring them, but they were certainly successful. Look out for them on your walks.

By Geoffrey Abbott