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Bird watching diary
Bird watching in January<
Bird watching in February
Bird field guide > Bird watching diary > Bird watching in January
Bird watching in January
The first day of the year has come, looming large upon the horizon of all lovers of the outdoor life. As we sally forth, with the year some eight or nine hours old, breathing a fresh atmosphere born of hope and expectancy, yesterday seems far away. For the turn of the tide has come at last and matters in the great world of nature are now upon the upgrade.
Lengthening days may bring strengthening cold, for winter has yet to show his hand, but the hazel-catkins, soon to dangle loosely, shaking out dusty pollen, give promise that, though he press matters with a rough hand, he shall finally be routed all along the line. The few short months when it is indeed good to be alive are all before us.
Hardly is that January to be esteemed which brings too many foretastes, gives too evident hints of the glad time, for experience tells that the balance is apt to be adjusted later with untimely cold ; far better for it to produce those frosts, not too severe, which act favourably upon the condition of the land as upon the public health. The month is never altogether without its signs and portents in the shape of pushful green shoots and swelling buds, but, when a low barometer and the moist breath of south-westerly airs prevail, the old earth, not content with turning in her sleep, gives further signs of a premature awakening.
In such soft and kindly Januarys, bird-songs voice the general opinion that winter has this year dropped out of the calendar, and that, for those with a hopeful turn of mind, spring has fairly begun. So easy are the times that berries and hedge-row fruits hang long untouched, and few applicants make their appearance at the bird-table for the customary largesse of crumbs and kitchen-scraps. Day by day the thrushes pipe their matins and evensong, and some clear evening at sunset one catches a few mellow notes of accompaniment from the blackbird in the elm-top, though it is not till February that he takes his full part in the choir and in a chilly season may be voiceless until that month has half run its course.
Much the same may be said of the chaffinch ; a chance hour when the January sun, breaking through the clouds, sheds unwonted warmth, may set him singing, just as it may draw a burst of song from the first soaring skylark of the year. But these are early days ; if colder weather ensues such impulses are no longer felt, and in any case the time of fuller and more constant song is yet to come.
Day by day the spring notes of the various tits are increasingly in evidence. Unless discouraged by snow or by more than a degree or two of frost, the Robin's quiet contribution of song and the Hedge-Sparrow's modest refrain will not fail us, while it takes a sharp snap of cold to still the Wren's loud but momentary outburst of minstrelsy, so often heard when the orange sunset sky tells of a coming night frost. In an open season Ring-Doves-not the migratory flocks upon the fields but those familiar stay-at-home birds which spend the whole year about the shrubberies, lawn or paddock; begin to coo.
In mild districts, as in the south of Ireland, Herons resort to their nests and may even be building by the end of the month.
Other signs of the approach of the breeding season are not wanting. Some sunny morning towards the close of January there is unwonted stir amongst the Partridges, excited crowing, scuffling of rival suitors, racing and chasing over the fallows. The packs or coveys have broken up ; henceforth we see pairs only. Meanwhile the Rooks resort to their nests, and in the meadows we may watch the bowings and shufflings characteristic of rook courtship, and may see the cock-bird, glossy in burnished blues and purples, step up to present a choice grub to the object of his affections, who receives it with gaping bill and quivering wings. Such are some of the characteristics of the month when the vane veers steadily between south and west, and no treacherous anti-cyclone invites the Continental cold to invade our islands.
But few Januarys fail to interrupt these early romances by sudden recurrence to weather of a more seasonable type. The wind shifts to the north, and the evening sky is thick with coming snow. But the fall ceases by day-break and a bright sun lights up the untrodden whiteness, while all the bareness of winter is hidden by glorious frost-work. As we wander abroad, we are at once aware that birds in unusual numbers are everywhere upon the move. The first feeling inspired by the new conditions in the breasts of ground-feeding birds-larks, starlings, thrushes---is evidently one of consternation. They hurry to-and-fro, unable at first to make any plans, intent only on finding some spot where the white mantle is thinner than elsewhere, or where the first indications of an early thaw are already apparent. Thus the Song Thrushes seek a southern slope where the kindly face of mother-earth is already visible in places. Others are searching the hedge-bottoms, from which in weather such as this, they turn out great numbers of banded-snails ; hammering the shells into fragments upon favourite stones which serve as "altars." Meanwhile the Mistle Thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings' make a sudden descent upon the berries, of which, this being the first snowfall of the winter, the main reserve is as yet untouched. In these hungry times haws, holly or yew-berries none come amiss ; all comers are tugging eagerly, for beggars cannot be choosers.
The snow is crossed in every direction by tracks, many of them made by mice. Larger spoor of the same type shows how unsuspectedly numerous rats are in the banks. Here a squirrel has paid his daily visit to a store of beech-nuts in the side of a heap of leaf-mould in the shrubbery. His prints show slender toes and long nails.
Yet another series of tracks puzzles us until we disturb various rabbits which are " lying out " amongst the brambles, showing that a stoat has driven them from their burrows. How is it, we wonder, that in the mildest winter some stoats change colour, becoming piebald or even veritable ermines, while the coats of others even in the most severe frost show no trace of such a modification of tint. Age, sex or individual constitution may perhaps furnish the clue.
A moving shadow passing swiftly up the slope calls attention to a kestrel which is quartering over the hill-side. Presently he passes in hot chase of a skylark. Kestrels undoubtedly kill many small birds in snow-time when other supplies are cut off. We have surprised them redhanded upon fresh-killed thrush and starling. Scattering the snow from the thistle-heads, a party of goldfinches take flight with musical twitter. The robins have discovered that in the garden a manureheap is being moved-no small stroke of fortune in times such as these ; nearly a dozen of them have congregated at the spot. The gardener finds that foraging parties of skylarks are attacking his young spring cabbages, and that wood-pigeons in the early morning have damaged the broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
One may make a long round while the snow lasts, finding at every turn something of interest, in noting the shifts to which birds are driven to make a living and their aptitude for making the best of trying circumstances. Lapwings are everywhere upon the move and a plaintive whistle tells that there are Golden Plover with them. The Snipe, driven from the bogs, have sought the warm drains and sides of running ditches. Woodcock, too, are snowed-out of their usual haunts, and one stumbles across them in all sorts of unexpected places- one near the lodge gate, another close to the stable-yard. But nowhere is there such a gathering of the clans as in the stack-yards, which rise like kindly islands from the sea of white, offering both food and shelter. Finches and buntings in their varied tribes are here in force.
Nowhere else can one so well compare their varied traits and mannerisms, and never does a bright sun bring out their details of plumage better than with the snow as background. Some merely hop and peck; others fly up to the sides of the ricks to pull out straws in the hope of obtaining the ears of corn. In addition to chaffinches and greenfinches, there are today Bramblings in every stackyard. Reed-buntings fraternise with the yellow-hammers, and one picks out by their red crowns and white cheeks a little party of Tree Sparrows amongst the vulgar crowd. Nor must we omit, if within reach of the coast, to visit the piles of seaweed carted by the farmers to the top of the foreshore after the autumn gales and left there until sufficiently decayed to furnish a top-dressing for their fields. These seaweed-heaps, full of small flies and their larvae, attract all the insectivorous birds of the neighbourhood. jackdaws and starlings have trodden them free of snow and broken up the surface, laying them open to the inspection of Meadow and Rock Pipits which trip nimbly about, picking up grubs and pupae.
Here, too, will be found the few Pied Wagtails which have remained to winter with us, now probably wishing that they had gone with the rest, for in cold weather they seem to lose all their sprightly, light-hearted activity. Near them a cock 5tonechat, with his black head now very rusty, flips his tail with all the spirit that he can muster.
By early afternoon full thaw prevails. Starlings race along a sunny bank from which the snow has gone, quarrelling noisily. Next day the last long streak of snow fades under the persuasive influence of drizzling rain. Birds betake themselves again to their usual haunts and resume their ordinary avocations. But the case is different when the snow, reinforced by fresh falls or hardened by night frosts, lasts for more than three days.
The Redwings, smallest and most delicate of the thrushes, are the first to lose heart. They may be seen hopping about, tame and disconsolate, on the frozen grass-fields, or turning over the dead leaves in the woods. Soon there is downright want, and the weakest begin to go to the wall. An outcry from under the hedge-side calls attention to two magpies who are bullying a distressed starling which has fallen into their evil clutches. Another note of feebler protest comes from a thrush in reduced circumstances which is being attacked by one of its stronger brethren. How little reck the merry hares of the weather, as they play about the frosty grass by a cover-side.
Now is the time for those charitably disposed towards the feathered folk to come to their assistance, to open a soup-kitchen, or its equivalent, for the starving and unemployed. Restrict not the dole to crumbs-all too Spartan fare-but with kitchen scraps of every kind, shreds of meat, potatoes, suet-even if a few raisins and kernels of nuts chopped fine be considered too lavish an addition-we may prepare a banquet worthy of the attention of an avian Lucullus. There is no need to spread the invitation; a crowd will be waiting every day at the wonted hour. Nor must we forget a pan of tepid water, for in time of frost birds often suffer as 'much from thirst as from hunger. And right well are we repaid for our trouble by the amusement which. the bird-table affords, and by the traits and eccentricities of the various guests.
The robin at these gatherings appears in no amiable light, but as a pugnacious stickler for first place. The sparrows, though greedy, are caution itself, anxious to make the best of the good things, though wholly mistrusting the motives of the purveyor. Now and then there is a scattering and rush of wings as a jackdaw drops down from the roof, grabs the largest available morsel and hastily carries it off. If Nuthatches can be induced to come they are always an addition, their odd, jerky movements giving them a character which is all their own. Nuts will often prove an attraction ; they will toss away those which are without a kernel, not troubling to open them.
For tits there is the suspended coco-nut sawn in half, or the denuded framework of goose or turkey, forming a sort of magic cave in which they will sit and peck their fill. Watch the fussy indignation of a little blue-tit, as, a regular spitfire, he relieves his mind when a great-tit has driven him from his favourite lump of suet. These two species are regular comers ; the coal-tit is so to a much less extent, while the marshtit appears more rarely still. If walnut shells, filled with fat or chopped nut-kernels, are threaded on a stretched string, the tits will perform on the tight-rope for our benefit.
When there is a pond in the neighbourhood, a Moorhen will sometimes join the pensioners at feeding-time, jerking his tail and showing his white under tailcoverts as he leaves the shelter of the sedges. At the abbey, now the seat of a titled family, where at all hours of the day moorhens may be seen stalking about the well-kept lawns, we are told that as many as sixty come to be fed in the winter. They are pungacious birds for as we watch them we note that every now and then one rushes at another to offer battle. The second party, however, always declines the combat, so that only a violent chase results. In this respect they resemble their neighbours the Coots, upon the lake, which spend much of their time in quarrelling, splashing through the water, half flying, half swimming. Such are some of the small comedies of these January days, with tragedies enough not far in the background, for winter has not seldom a sterner side of which it remains to tell.
At wholly uncertain intervals come these unwonted frosts, bringing what we cheerfully call a "good oldfashioned winter," but causing to the birds wide spread disaster, so that, had they their annals, the years when such occur would rank with those of the Black Death and of the retreat from Moscow. For memories of ice-bound ponds which "bore" for ten weeks at a stretch and of mornings when the screened thermometer showed thirty-one degrees of frost, we must go back to the late seventies or early eighties, but the frost of the early part of they year, though it did not tighten its grip until a later period of the winter, was almost equally long and severe. With real cold of this sort, with the temperature in the neighbourhood of zero, a white hazy stillness pervades the air; there is not a breath stirring to shake the powdered frostwork from twig and bough. For once, in place of our usual winter of mild Atlantic type, we have a specimen of the ordinary January weather of north-eastern Europe.
Continuous and pitiless cold, ringing the earth's surface with a crust of iron, would try the birds severely, but they are in still worse case when all familiar landmarks are wiped out by deep and lasting snow. There is then a general move in search of more favourable conditions, and this not seldom becomes a wild sauve qui peut, in which millions of birds take part. As the snow, sometimes on the wings of a roaring blizzard, comes from the north-east, the movement is naturally towards the south-west, though, be it noted, birds object to fly directly before the wind, which in that case upsets their equilibrium and chills them by blowing between their feathers. They prefer the wind sideways or abeam. Perhaps instinct may also guide them towards the sole part of the kingdom where they may hope to find less arctic conditions.
Great numbers appear at times to cross from the Welsh headlands to the south of Ireland. But too often disappointment awaits them even in the most favoured districts of the west country, and in the spring we find the dried remains of thrushes and redwings in the crevices into which they crept for shelter when the frost was cruel and the thaw delayed. One of these great movements down the coast, following a sudden onset of wintry weather, is a sight to be remembered. We sally out, to find everything deep in snow and more falling.
The sea, having that peculiar dirty, angry look which it only wears when in contrast with its white setting, is dimly seen through the whirling flurries. A glance shows that the rush of migrants is at its height. Larks and starlings are passing almost without intermission, the two together constituting at least nine-tenths of the moving hosts, while the various thrushes would take the third place. As we plough our way through the untrodden drifts, wondering at the daintily chiselled architecture of wreath and cornice, there comes momentarily the rush of passing wings, and the murky obscurity is pierced a s with a hundred needles by the shrill call-note of the larks. A moment later they pass overhead, but, before they are out of sight, another party announces its advent. It may safely be said that never, from dawn to dark of this short winter's day, is there a moment when passing larks are not in sight. One hesitates to make a guess at the numbers of the migrating host, but it must run into hundreds of thousands. But in addition to those on the wing many have settled in the fields.
The snow is crossed and recrossed in every direction by their tracks, easily to be known by the mark left by the long hind claw. Little parties of them-quite a picture of hard times--with their feathers puffed out on account of the cold, crowd every spot where the wind has swept away the snow, or search disconsolately for traces of turnip tops here and there breaking its surface.
A note, soft as the twitter of a goldfinch, calls attention to a Woodlark amongst them-no mistaking its short, stumpy figure and conspicuous eye-streak. Fieldfares are snatching greedily at the few remaining haws. Every stackyard has its hungry host of finches and yellow-hammers. Only the Snow Buntings seem to be in their element, as if fancying themselves back in their far northern home. The glass shows that some, no doubt the old birds, are whiter than others, and that, on the ground, they take short, quick runs, more after the fashion of mice than birds.
With clatter of wings a great flock of Wood Pigeons takes flight, already so hungry that they will return to fill their crops with turnip-tops although repeatedly fired at. A striking figure is that of an old hare as he sits bolt upright just on the sky-line in the middle of a perfectly white snow-field. Bad times are these for game of all sorts, as the partridges experience, for the snow renders them plainly visible to their enemies.
Next day the tide of migration has slackened ; by the third day it has spent itself. Yet, doubtful as is the fate of those birds which have fled, the comparatively few which remain are still more to be pitied as day by day passes and the frost still holds. True the snow vanishes from southern slopes in slowly trickling streams which are turned to ice again each night. It is sad to see the Lapwings, miserably tame, on the frozen meadows, listening in vain for upward movement of earthworm responsive to their tread. In the woods, where evergreens have kept off much of the snow, the Redwings, weak and dejected, hop about under shelter of the thick holly clumps, feebly searching for food amongst the dead leaves. On the lake Coots and other wild fowl by constant movement manage to keep open a hole in the ice.
The gamekeeper almost tires of shooting the jays which come to the pheasants' corn. But the turnips are now the last resort of the destitute ; rooks, jackdaws and wood-pigeons peck holes in the bulbs ; fieldfares, thrushes and blackbirds follow or betake themselves to the folds where the sheep are hand-fed and where, consequently, fragments of turnip may be picked up. Upon the coast many thrushes frequent the rocks which are uncovered at low tide and feed upon shell-fish, breaking their hard shells with difficulty. Soon want does its woeful work and we begin to pick up dead birds-redwings are likely to be the first.
Birds have, however, such a habit of getting away into holes and crevices to die, that the real rate of mortality is never known.
Amongst the crowd of weak, crippled, or half-starved birds which throng wherever food is provided for them, skylarks, even rooks and lapwings, find a place Many suffer from frost-bitten feet ; several starlings still come although unable to stand, and a great-tit afflicted with club-foot is a never failing pensioner. The hardy finches and buntings, which burrow into the sides of the stacks to find shelter from the bitter weather, suffer comparatively little, but insect-eating birds, such as the few pipits and wagtails which remain, are reduced to sore straits.
The plucky little Stonechats, snowed out of the cliff-slopes, flit tame and robin-like about the sands. The Grey Wagtail seeks factory-pools or spring heads, which remain unfrozen, and Wrens come indoors seeking shelter. As inland waters become completely ice-bound, the wild-fowl desert them entirely and make their way to the coast.
In great frosts they do not linger there, but go much farther south, perhaps to the marismas of Andalucia, or the wide, shallow lakes on the northern borders of the Sahara. Thus it was noticed that in the great frost of 1895 there were few brent-geese or other wild-fowl on the Essex coast.
But, on the other hand, many seabirds which ordinarily winter in the Spitzbergen seas, such as the Iceland and Ivory Gulls, the Little Auk, and the Northern or Brunnich's Guillemot, are recorded upon the East coast, showing how wide is the area affected by the exceptional cold.
Thus February brought an unprecedented visitation of Little Auks, small diving birds closely related to our razor-bill. The newspapers begin to take note of the effects of the longcontinued frost upon animal life, and record how rooks and gulls are so reduced as to seek food in the streets, and how red-grouse, driven from the moors by the weather; have appeared in many lowland localities. Of special interest to Londoners are the gulls which in large numbers frequent the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges.
The hardened powdery snow no longer shows the foot-prints of passing bird and beast as in its earlier days. So the great frost runs its course, sometimes to break up and give way before a sudden invasion of westerly airs, but often to wear out slowly, yielding almost imperceptibly before the increasing power of the sun, unaided by moisture-laden winds-a hardly-won victory, so nearly is the ground gained each day lost during the succeeding night. But at last the land lies bare once more, faded and colourless as after a long spell of east winds.
A few thrushes and other birds straggle back to their usual haunts, and we are able to take stock of our losses. A memento of the past long remains in the whitened stems of trees, from which the rabbits gnawed the bark when the snow cut off other food supplies, leaving the wood bare as high up as they could reach. The willow-branches which overhang the pool have been treated in the same way by the water-voles.
This year of disaster has left its mark upon the numbers of almost all resident birds ; all in fact have paid more or less heavy toll, excepting the grain-feeders, such as greenfinches and yellow-hammers, which have tided over the evil times by hanging round the barndoors and rick-yards. How few the thrushes and blackbirds are the coming spring will show when one scarcely finds a nest in their favourite hedges. But few stonechats remain. Goldfinches have become scarcer. Some of our well-known robins are absent from their wonted haunts.
The smallest birds-longtailed tits, tree-creepers, wrens, goldcrests-though relatively to their size they appear to stand the cold so well-are fewer than formerly. Some species are practically wiped out for the time being. After the frost nine months elapsed before we saw a single mistle-thrush. A succession of open winters was needed to bring their numbers once more to the normal. The bird-stuffer reports thirty-five kingfishers, mostly frozen, brought to him within three days. While the cold kept the small rodents from stirring abroad, the owls suffered badly.
No large bags of partridges will be made in the autumn; some are picked up all skin and bone. The farmers remark that few hares are left. Woodpeckers are decimated ; herons much thinned in numbers. Even the buzzards suffer, the frost driving them from the hill country to the lowlands, where they fall victims to the gamekeeper. So widespread are the effects of a few weeks of weather of a type for the like of which our ordinary winters leave the birds unprepared, encouraging them to linger till the unexpected occurs, bringing disaster in its train. But fortunately these spells of relentless cold are few, and it is rare for such to occur in successive winters, while so soon are the gaps refilled when times of plenty return that the numbers of our resident birds are in no case permanently affected.