Nature Notes – March 2018

Among the Goldfinches on the bird feeder this February have been the hoped-for numbers of Redpolls. I get a lot of pleasure from these tiny brown finches with their bright crimson red forehead patch, and males with increasingly pink breasts as they come into spring plumage. Unfortunately, one of them flew against a window and appeared stunned for a while. My advice if this happens, if the bird seems to be uninjured, is to put it carefully into a small box and keep it warm and dark for about half an hour (in the dark it will keep completely still). Almost invariably it will completely recover, and fly off when released, as this Redpoll did. Holding it for a moment gave me a chance to see how very bright and glossy the forehead really was, somehow surprising in a British bird.

Our Redpolls (strictly speaking they are called Lesser Redpolls) breed in Britain, including East Anglia, in heathland and areas of Birch. Many from the North move south in the winter, which is when we see more of them here. There is however another Redpoll (confusingly called the  Common Redpoll, but known more helpfully in older bird books as the ‘Mealy Redpoll’)  which breeds in Northern Scandinavia, and migrates here in winter in very small numbers. A few have been seen in Sweffling gardens, on feeders with the Lesser Redpolls. They are slightly larger and noticeably paler, somewhat ‘frosty’ looking, with greyer rather than rusty-brown backs. Only a few single Siskins on the feeders this winter.

As well as the early spring song of birds, the ‘drumming’ of a woodpecker has been conspicuous, very clear and travelling for quite a distance. It is made by vibrating the beak on a particularly resonant branch. The short, very sharp burst denotes the Great Spotted Woodpecker, which many people have seen in their gardens. The other black-and-white woodpecker, the tiny Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker makes a higher pitched and considerably longer sound. This bird has become alarmingly scarce – I have not seen one in the garden here for over ten years. At risk of repetition, the drumming has the same function as song in other birds, Advertising the territory of the male bird. The Green Woodpecker, more likely to be seen on the ground than on a tree trunk, does not normally drum, but instead makes the loud ‘yaffling’ call for which it is known.

After an overnight snowfall, I like to get out and see what the tracks say about what has been around. A single file of small prints may denote a Fox, walking by putting its rear feet in the prints of the forefeet. (Cats also do this, so look for the actual shape of the paw, with their four toes together at the front and no claws showing. Muntjac too, can be distinguished by the tiny cloven hoof print). Rabbit prints are everywhere, with the two long hind feet placed in front of the small forepaws, so that the track appears to be going in the wrong direction. Hare print are similar but larger, with longer hind feet, and often with much greater distances between each print.

Geoffrey Abbott