“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” That was Shelley’s optimistic view of the hardships this joyless season can throw at us. Yesterday (11th January) I heard a great spotted woodpecker drumming for the first time this year, prompting thoughts of better times ahead. But, as I write, we are being bombarded with dire warnings of snow about to blanket the country and throw our transport system into disarray, so perhaps we just have to hunker down for the next two or three months until the reassurance of longer, milder days convinces us that spring really isn’t far behind.
If bird numbers were itemised on the sheets of an accounts ledger, with income on the left-hand page and outgoings on the right, the reserve’s bird population would now be shifting from surplus to deficit. The boost to numbers produced by last summer’s breeding season is being steadily whittled away as birds die from disease, predation or hunger in these lean months. A further lurch towards deficit is caused by all the warblers and nightingales having wisely migrated south, but a third reason helping to explain why the wood can seem so quiet at this time of year is placed squarely at your feet! The bird feeders that you top up religiously attract tits, chaffinches and other species out of the woods where they bred and into an environment where food is abundant; the great majority of the freeloaders benefiting from your largesse will return to the woods in spring, without a backward glance of gratitude. For all these reasons, Blean Woods can feel abandoned and desolate in winter, so it was delightful to watch meadow pipits coming in to roost at the heath on 8th January. I have written about this behaviour before, when a flock of perhaps 20-40 birds would, after many nervous false starts, spiral down into the relative sanctuary of dense, tall heather for the night, but this time I counted 115 birds. This could only be an estimate, as the flock kept breaking up and moving off in different directions, making it impossible to know if birds joining a group were newly-arrived pipits or simply a breakaway group changing its mind. There weren’t enough birds to offer the drama of a starling murmuration and, as the pipits have a bounding, erratic flight, in contrast to the parade-ground discipline of the starlings, they were never going to produce the kaleidoscope of curves and smoky swirls that make murmurations such a memorable experience. Curious to know more about this large flock, I returned in late afternoon three days later, hoping to see if they would use the same roost site, and perhaps to gain a more accurate estimate of numbers. I was certainly successful in my last objective, my definitive count being…….six! Not six hundred, just six, leaving me baffled as to why such a large flock should have moved elsewhere, almost overnight.
The crop of beech seed, often referred to as “mast”, was moderately abundant last autumn, beech being a species that crops rather erratically. The seeds, inside a triangular, slightly winged shell, are great favourites with great tits and chaffinches, and small flocks of the latter have been flushed from the ground in recent weeks, their numbers no doubt swollen by the regular winter influx of continental birds. Chaffinches are familiar to us, not least because they regularly haunt our gardens, but another bird that has been joining them on the woodland floor beneath beeches is much less readily recognised, and that is the brambling. Sharing the chaffinches’ delight in beech mast, it is perhaps not so surprising that the brambling is in fact a close relative, though strictly a winter visitor (excepting the odd one or two that occasionally nest in Scotland). Males have a striking orange band on their breasts and blackish hood, whereas females are rather nondescript, but both sexes are readily recognised by their hard nasal call, and a flash of white rump as they flee from the beech mast feast.