January in Pembrokeshire is generally cold, wet and windy, providing little incentive to venture outside away from the warmth and comfort of the home and its well-stocked larders. Those who work on the land have little choice but to don their winter gear and get on with it, but, when they do, they will be rewarded by the special features of the natural world at this time of year that the ‘stay-at-homes’ will miss. Wildlife is on the move, often in large numbers, providing spectacles that only occur in the winter months as birds from the continent and beyond swell the ranks of our local residents to benefit from our warmer climate (I know – hard to believe sometimes!). Migratory thrushes such as redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia and elsewhere join the local song thrushes and mistle thrushes scrumping berries from the trees and bushes and if you are very lucky a passage waxwing or hawfinch might be amongst them. Ducks, geese and waders seek out our sheltered shorelines and estuaries whilst their homelands are in the grip of ice and snow. Starlings appear in large flocks numbering tens or hundreds of thousands as they leave and return to their night roosts. Their constantly wheeling and changing clouds (known as murmurations) are one of nature’s most wonderful and awe-inspiring sights for those lucky enough to see them. Whilst watching these large groups of ‘foreign’ birds it is hard to remember that our own native starlings are declining in numbers for reasons that are not clear.
It is also strange to think that many of the common birds that we see in our gardens at this time of year are often not the ones that we see in the spring or summer. Many of the blackbirds, robins, finches and other birds that we assume are with us all the year round are in fact migrants from colder climes and will be returning there when the weather in their native lands improves. I was temporarily cat and sheep sitting for friends a few days ago and decided to see what wildlife was visiting their bird feeders. I thought that a comparison with my own feeders’ visitors would be interesting, located as they are in a different type of environment. It was a very cold, crisp morning with over an inch of ice to break on the sheep’s water bucket and the pond had a shimmering layer of ice covering its surface. Everything shone and crackled and sang with beauty reminding me of winters when I was young. I set up a ‘pop-up’ hide near to the feeders the night before and then crept into it at first light with my camera to await developments.
I did not have long to wait. Robins were the first to arrive, closely followed by blue tits, great tits and chaffinches. Hedge sparrows (dunnocks) were very active and the occasional coal tit also put in an appearance. A wren hunted insects around the ivy growing on the bole of a tree and a male blackbird, splendid in his jet black coat with bright yellow beak and ring round the eye, landed briefly on the ground to peck fallen seed, closely followed by his more drab lady friend. It got me wondering, not for the first time, why some bird species show sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance between the sexes) and some do not. Male and female blackbirds and chaffinches look very different from each other, but I for one am unable to tell the sex of a robin, blue tit or song thrush from its appearance. Why should this be the case? What survival advantage does one have over the other, if any, and why should it have developed in some and not others? The natural world is full of such tantalizing questions. I also noticed that whilst some birds such as robin, blue tit and female chaffinch were quite happy (in fact seemed to prefer) to fly onto the branches near to the hide before venturing onto the bird feeders, others such as great tit, male chaffinch and coal tit preferred to fly directly to the feeders from more distant bushes. Other birds such as thrushes, pigeons and jackdaws would not approach the feeders at all although they were in the surrounding trees. What is the reason for these differing behaviours and is it true elsewhere?
A flurry of bird flight heralded the arrival of a spectacular male greater spotted woodpecker identified by the red patch on the back of his head (lacking in the female and the young have a complete red cap on the top of the head) but he didn’t like the look of the hide and immediately took flight. The woodpecker’s taste for young birds taken from the nest does not endear him to other birds. Two jays were equally put off by the hide and remained shrieking abuse in a nearby tree without venturing close enough to photograph. A highlight of the session was the tentative and short lived visit by a grey squirrel who peered at me through some nearby branches before scurrying back round the tree trunk and away. It later reappeared less than two feet away to the side of the hide and I could just make it out through the hide wall material as it noisily munched on ivy berries before departing with a soft scrabbling sound. I know that many don’t like greys but I do, their sense of mischievousness and adventure together with their acrobatic abilities and their ‘cuteness’ always being a source of pleasure for me. I guess that, as with my feelings towards a number of my fellow men and women, it is a case of ‘I like who you are, but not necessarily what you do’!
So what did I get from my 90 minutes in the hide apart from cold hands and feet and a profound respect for those wildlife cameramen who sit for hours in the Arctic and Antarctic maintaining concentration and the skilled use of their equipment against the odds to capture the shots that enthrall and educate us all? Well, I got some passable photographs of my companions some of which I use to illustrate this article and to remind me of the happy time I spent in their company. More importantly, I got a real sense of engagement and connection with the players on the stage before me as they got on with their efforts to meet the very real challenges of their day to day lives and who delighted me with their individual characters and activities. There were species that I rarely or never get in my more exposed location at home such as jays and woodpeckers (and a magnificent cock pheasant that strutted along 10 minutes after I had left the hide!), but there were none of some birds that I commonly get at home such as goldfinches, starlings, house sparrows and collared doves. It is a reminder that in the natural world, as in other areas of experience, it is dangerous to make assumptions based on limited information.
And that leads me quite naturally on to the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Bird Watch’, which is open to everyone to engage in and is to be held over the last weekend of January. Starting in 1979, the BGBW is now the world’s largest wildlife survey and is providing incredibly valuable information on our garden wildlife. All it requires is an hour of your time over that weekend to sit and count the birds that visit your garden, the results of which you can record and submit on-line. Simple!! The aim is to count not a running total of birds of different species over the hour, but to record the greatest number of each species that you see at any one time. This information will enable the RSPB to gain a snapshot of the relative abundance of each species and compare it with previous years’ results to look at trends and identify those species that are doing ok and those that are in trouble. Go to the RSPB website for more information and prepare for an enjoyable and very valuable adventure without leaving the comfort of your home!
It is my aim to write a column at least monthly for posting on ‘Pembrokeshire Online’ and it is my hope that it will develop into an interactive experience with readers sending in their comments, observations and suggestions to add to the mix so that a broad view of Pembrokeshire’s natural world will emerge. Sometimes content might be controversial, sometimes unexpected, sometimes just beautiful, but hopefully always interesting and informative and at the cutting edge of what is going on in the County. I would be interested to receive any thoughts you might have for discussion in the next post. In the meantime I leave you with a photograph of a curlew that I photographed on Goodwick beach earlier this month within feet of my car as a reminder that it is always worth getting out at this time of the year and braving the elements for an encounter with wildlife and you don’t have to travel far! Wherever you are in Pembrokeshire it’s on your doorstep so enjoy it while you can!
David Gardner, Environmentalist and Photographer
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