Not-very-dry January

Welcome to 2023! Let’s hope it’s a good one for us all and for the natural world. I suspect a lot of people will be heading out into the countryside to walk off the Christmas excesses (I know I will) so can we start the year with a plea? Please – respect nature. You’re just trying to get fitter because you ate too much (I know I did, and enjoyed it, too). But that’s not a problem wildlife faces; rather it’s the opposite, a constant challenge to find enough food to stay alive. So, when you’re out there, enjoy the countryside but respect it – try not to scare or move on birds or seals – give wildlife a wide berth and let it continue to feed or rest. Maybe we need the extra exercise, but these wild creatures definitely don’t!

Curlew in flight

In terms of getting fitter, many people will also be doing ‘Dry January’. But the weather certainly isn’t, with quite a bit of rain already. Most days have been pretty mixed – often, we’ll start dry and clear and frosty, with a spectacular sunrise. With being on the east coast, the sun rises over the sea and lays a line of liquid gold right across the horizon. Even the waves come ashore barred with molten gold.

Broadhaven dawn
Sunlit waves

But, by afternoon, it’s often clouded up and we’ve seen quite significant rainfall even in the first few days of the year. This has created a lot of wet ‘flashes’ in the fields, and consequently we often see the numbers of wildfowl on the estuary drop after heavy rain – because they are all away feeding in the wet fields. We’ve even seen Oystercatchers in the fields – a sure sign of spring on its way!

Oystercatcher in a ploughed field

The ducks also love the wet flashes. They have moulted into their finery now and already the males’ thoughts are turning to breeding. By January, you will start to see the males posturing and displaying – look at me, I’d make the best mate. And they do look gorgeous.

Eider displaying

I’m always hard pushed to decide what may favourite duck is, but I think it’s actually more the spectacle of wildfowl I love. The colours, the sounds, the sunset light and the smell of the wet ground all add up to a specific and special experience. There is definitely a place in my heart for ducks!

Teal, Wigeon and Mallard

Another bird that has captured our hearts this winter is the Fieldfare. We’ve never known a winter like it for these thrushes. They arrive in autumn from the Continent but often disappear for most of the winter, maybe only appearing during hard weather. And, right enough, they did appear in gardens during the pre-Christmas snow, and throughout that series of mid-December days when we had eight or nine degrees of frost overnight. At times like these, with the ground frozen as hard as iron and invertebrates like worms unavailable to them, Fieldfares are grateful for any fruit on offer.

Fieldfare in the snow
Grateful for a feed of rosehips

Here at author’s HQ nextdoor to the Reserve, we had a bumper crop of apples in our garden this year. In early December, we vowed that once we’d finished work for the year and had a bit more spare time, we’d harvest the apples and wrap them up in newspaper so they’d keep for the rest of the winter. No more buying apples for us for a few weeks! However, the cold weather and thus the Fieldfares had other ideas. Within about three days, our best apple tree, which had about 100 bonny red eaters hanging from its branches, had been stripped bare. Nothing but apple skin and pulp remained. The Fieldfares had descended and destroyed the entire crop – back to supermarket apples for us then!

Oi, that’s mine!

Not that we begrudged this one little bit. Firstly, for the birds this was a matter of life and death. They needed this fruit to keep them alive during the freeze, whereas we can always just pop to the shop and buy more apples. Their need is unequivocally greater than ours!

Secondly, the entertainment they provided was worth all the fruit we could grow and more. Fieldfares are usually wild and wary, painfully shy and unapproachable. It’s difficult to get within 120 yards of a Fieldfare without it taking flight. Feeding flocks even post sentries to look out for approaching danger, alerting the rest of the flock with their rattling calls and a flash of white underwings at the first sign of trouble. These are not creatures that are easy to observe at the best of times. Yet here they were, just a few feet from the window, so close you could almost extend a hand and ruffle their plumage. What a special treat at this lowest ebb of the year.

Fieldfare at HQ
So much for the apple crop

Their antics also cause some degree of amusement. While they may be shy around people, they’re certainly not backward in coming forward when it comes to their own kind – and even their other relatives in the thrush clan. When they weren’t actively decimating the apple crop, they spent most of their time squabbling with one another, or instead decking the local Blackbirds (who were most put out by the whole thing). Typical Viking invaders – no manners!

Blackbird – way down the pecking order!
Fieldfare – top of the tree!

These close encounters with special wildlife prove that January, and the midwinter period in general, needn’t be dry in terms of interest – there’s plenty going on out there. Yet already the days are starting to lengthen, reminding us that the seasons are constantly changing – and with them the cast of wildlife. There’s much to look forward to: roll on the rest of 2023!