Parish Nature Notes for December - John Wright

Have you noticed the lack of berries on many holly trees this winter? This native evergreen has separate male and female plants so, some trees will never bear the red berries we associate with Christmas. However, our wet summer appears to have hindered the flowers from setting much seed and as a result the abundant crops of berries of recent years are unavailable to both resident and winter thrushes this year.

Holly

Holly

Photograph: John Wright

Despite this, I did hear one or two redwing calling as I passed the numerous holly trees to the east of Sherford bridge on my regular walk at the begining of the month. Then later, some distance west of Sherford bridge I heard the unmistakeable call of a water rail in the wet meadow next to the Sherford River. Although rarely seen because of its skulking behaviour, the shrill pig-like squeals of the water rail give it away. The reed beds within Morden Bog and around Lytchett Bay at Holton Lee are also good areas to listen for this elusive bird.

Water Rail

Water Rail

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

After a poor breeding season for many resident birds it is not surprising to find that birds are rather scarce in the wider countryside and that, despite the relatively mild weather this month, many tits and finches are exploiting the high energy foods more readily available to them in suburban gardens.

Another very familiar garden bird is the collared dove. Yet, behind that familiarity is a remarkable story, because one hundred years ago the collared dove was confined to the Balkan area of south-east Europe. Then, for reasons still not fully understood, it began the most rapid colonisation of continental Europe ever recorded in a bird and by 1956 had crossed the North Sea and started to breed in Britain. Now very common, it can have several broods through the year and in late November last year I remember seeing a fully grown youngster sitting on a rather inadequate nest of twigs in a leafless  tree in our garden.

Collared Dove

Collared Dove

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

In walking on a familiar route around Wareham Forest and Morden Bog each week, it is interesting to see how some birds exploit a discrete area whilst food supplies last out. In mid-November a large flock of lesser redpoll were first seen flying over a reed bed in Morden Bog and numbers remained high through much of December, with birds sometimes seen feeding on seeds on a nearby track before flying off as a tight flock.

In contrast, many small woodland birds form mixed flocks to give prior warning of the approach of predators such as sparrowhawks. In mid-December one large flock of long-tailed tits had accompanying coal tits, goldcrests, a nuthatch and tree creeper as they worked their way through some oak trees. At one point two of the long-tailed tits broke off from feeding, landed on a metal gate just five feet away from me for a few seconds and then proceeded to chase one another through the trees. Perhaps this was an early indication of pair formation as long-tailed tits start nest-building in March.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The next day I had a walk round Holton Lee when conditions were mild, but interspersed with occasional showers. The reeds near Lytchett Bay yielded plenty of teal with their high-pitched piping calls plus greenshank, snipe and several water rails calling. At one point I heard a magpie and was amused to see that it was sitting on the back of an impressive 8-point sika stag hiding amongst the reeds. Eventually the stag tipped its head back and the magpie moved on to one of the additional stags nearby.  Clearly the rut was now over and the males were content to be in bachelor groups whereas in early December I had heard the squeeky door-like sound of a sika stag at the end of the breeding season. I often think that if magpies were very rare, bird watchers would come from far and wide to see this spectacular bird.

Magpie

Magpie

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

One of the fields of permanent pasture had a mixed flock of starlings and redwing earnestly probing the soft turf for food. Each year huge numbers of both starlings and winter thrushes (both redwing and fieldfare) arrive from Europe to escape the harsh winter conditions on the continent. Redwing are roughly the same size as the song thrush but have obvious white stripes above the eye and below the cheek, together with rusty red flanks. So far this winter numbers seen low, but if severe weather hits northern and central Britain, then we can expect an influx of birds to southern England.

Redwing

Redwing

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

The great grey shrike remained in Morden Bog through much of December and seemed to favour a dead tree which gave good distant views from various vantage points. On 21st December a grey heron was present at Morden Park Lake and later in the month I saw a bird flying low over Sandford. Residents with fish in their garden ponds know only too well that grey herons will take advantage of easy pickings if the opportunity arises.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

After breakfast, on the 27th, I was in the kitchen and I noticed a male blackcap looking for food amongst the ivy growing on the fence. Overwintering blackcaps are now a relatively familiar sight in suburban gardens but these are not necessarily 'our' summer visitors which have simply decided to stay put, rather than migrate south to the Mediterranean areas of Europe and North Africa for the winter. It has now been demonstrated that most of these birds have migrated in a westerly direction from Germany and Austria and, having spent the winter in our milder climate and remained in good condition, return to Germany and Austria and take up the best territories before other blackcaps arrive from the Mediterranean!

Male Blackcap

Male Blackcap

Photogreaph: Ken Dolbear

Although we still had plenty of rainy days towards the end of the month, the 27th was a notable exception and as I went round Wareham Forest and Morden Bog, I heard mistle thrush singing on two separate occasions. Earlier in the month I had seen small parties of mistle thrushes, but this was a good sign that birds are now setting up territories. Despite the sunshine there was still quite a breeze and a pair of great black-backed gulls flew over the Old Decoy Pond in Morden Bog. With a wingspan of over 5ft and a very substantial bill, these are impressive gulls with a fearsome reputation during the breeding season.

Great Black-backed Gulls

Great Black-backed Gulls

Photograph: Ken Dolbear