Winter is a great time to visit Cley Nature Reserve where many species of water birds gather to feed on the salt marshes. Some are resident throughout the year while others have come from northern Europe, the Arctic and Russia, much colder than the Norfolk coast and little food available. By now most male ducks (drakes) will have acquired their breeding plumage and will be ready to show off to the ladies in the spring. Both males and females will moult their plumage when breeding is over and the males, which no longer need to impress, will look very like the more drab females when the new feathers grow. This is why people often ask why there are no male ducks about in the summer. Most birds shed their wing feathers in stages, so that they are still able to fly while moulting, but ducks do this in one go during the summer moult. This means, of course, that they cannot fly until the new flight feathers have grown. They are very vulnerable to predation during this time and will move to safer places. Dabbling ducks, those that feed on the surface or in shallow water, will usually hide away in the vegetation, while diving ducks will head out to sea or migrate to large bodies of water before moulting. A second moult will happen in the autumn or winter when they once again acquire their breeding plumage. Aquatic birds, because of their habitat, need extra insulation from the cold; a soft undercoat of down and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat provides this for them. They also need to keep their plumage waterproof and spend a lot of time preening, gathering oil from a gland at the base of the tail to spread over their feathers.
The Mallard is probably our most common duck and the male is easily identified by his dark green head and purple-brown breast, but he can fool you. Interbreeding with domestic escapees has produced a variety of different looking birds, sometimes pure white, which can often confuse bird watchers who are new to the hobby.
After spending time in the hides at Cley, which overlook the scrapes and marshes, get some warming soup or tea at the lovely visitors’ centre which has art works, wildlife books and many other interesting things to look at or buy.
Ducks are not the only animals that have seasonal changes to their appearances. Deer change colour in the winter and most acquire a darker coat. Dark colours absorb heat, rather than reflect it as light ones do, so the deer will stay warmer in the cold months; this coat is also thicker than the smooth, paler summer one.
If you have feeders in your garden you will be visited by a great variety of birds and surely one of the most endearing is the Long-tailed tit. Not really tits but from a different family, these birds are mainly insectivorous, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and their larvae but are increasingly seen in gardens taking suet-based mixes and peanuts. They are easily recognised with their black and white markings, round, pinkish-grey bodies and long tails, giving them the nick-names flying teaspoons or lollipop birds. They flit through the trees in family groups and will often join other families, constantly making high-pitched contact calls; sometimes there may be up to thirty birds in a single flock. Being so tiny they quickly lose heat in the winter and will roost communally for warmth, forming a ball with their tails sticking out; a large number of birds can fit in a nest box or on a roosting perch for the night. A Long-tailed tit’s own nest is a little work of art, woven from moss held together with spiders silk and lined in soft, downy feathers. It will be in the form of a sock, with an entrance hole at the top and because of this ingenious structure and the materials used, the nest will stretch as the chicks grow. However, even though the birds press hundreds of flakes of lichen to the outside for camouflage, there is a high rate of predation. Those birds who fail to breed successfully, for whatever reason, will often help rear the chicks of relatives. These gregarious little birds have a lot of charm and it’s always a pleasure when they arrive in flocks to visit our gardens.
Long-tailed tits often favour thorny bushes as nesting sites and one that is frequently used is Gorse. This plant, of which there are three varieties in Britain, is a real survivor and you will always find some in flower, whatever the time of year, even this month when practically everything else is having a rest. Gorse is a legume, a member of the pea family and the seed cases do resemble little hairy pea pods. When the sun is hot it causes the pods to explode, scattering the seed over two or three metres; you can hear them popping if you are standing near a bush on a sunny summer day. Being a legume Gorse is able to change the nitrogen in the air, which is a gas and useless to the plant, into a usable form and it does this with the help of bacteria which live in the soil. These invade the root system and stimulate the plant to produce nodules which, by chemical action, enable it to use the nitrogen, essential to all life. The process is known as ‘nitrogen fixing’ and all legumes, peas, beans and clover being the most familiar, are able to do this; in return the plants supply the bacteria with essential nutrition This kind of partnership, called symbiosis, is another example of how living things are linked to each other. Because of its ability to acquire nitrogen in this way Gorse is able to thrive on poor ground, such as sandy heathland. When it dies and decomposes the nitrogen is absorbed by the soil and used by other plants. Like the poppy, the seeds can remain dormant for a long time, coming to life when the ground is disturbed; this is why we see it growing along roadsides and other places where there have been earthworks. Gorse is a valuable plant for wildlife, not only as nesting sites but also because it provides nectar for insects the year round and food for a number of caterpillar species. In the past it had a use for domestic animals as well; it used to be broken down with stones to a mossy consistency and given as fodder to cattle.
The butter-yellow flowers of Gorse brighten up a cold January day.
Things to do this month include:
- New year’s day ramble across the new Attenborough’s Walk to Salthouse – meet at Cley Marshes.
- Guided walks on Thorpe Marshes.
- Interesting illustrated talks, especially the Norfolk chalk reef.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
- Pink footed geese breakfast walk – Snettisham.
- Birding at Titchwell
firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
© Sheila Sims 2016. Email: email@example.com