November brings a lot of activity around the Norfolk coast. Grey Seals are giving birth at Blakeney Point and their silky, white pups will be on the shingle banks. Migratory birds have settled for the winter and Knots, small waders, put on a fantastic display at the Wash. They take to the air in their thousands, creating a moving sculpture each time the tide moves in, and then settle above the tide line. As the sea retreats they follow the water out to feed on the exposed mud-banks before the next wave sends them skyward again. It’s an exhilarating sight.
Another winter visitor often seen on the coast is the Merlin. This is Britain’s smallest bird of prey; it lives in the uplands during the summer but moves down to lowlands for the winter. Birds from Iceland and northern Europe also arrive in our warmer country. The male has a slaty-blue back and rusty coloured front, whereas the female is browny-buff ; both sexes have a heavily streaked breast. They are also often seen inland where they fly low and fast, over fields, in pursuit of small birds which form their main diet.
The numbers of a larger bird of prey, the Buzzard, have increased country-wide and we now have many in our county. This beautiful raptor circles high in the sky, riding the thermals, often being mobbed by crows; its wild, mewing call is unmistakable. Although it is a protected species there have been proposals by DEFRA to control the numbers. This is because they will take young pheasants and therefore are not popular around shooting estates, of which there are many in Norfolk. Buzzards eat a lot of carrion if it is available and I read about a gamekeeper in Scotland who cut his game bird losses dramatically by setting up a feeding station. He kept it well supplied with rats, rabbits and road kill, showing that with a bit of thought we can all live together.
If you provide food for your garden birds, feeders should be out by now. Peanuts are rich in fat, a good source of protein and are relished by all the finches and tits. Goldfinches love black Niger seeds and dried meal-worms can be bought in tubs to scatter for insect eaters, such as Robins and Blackbirds, although these birds will also feed on peanuts. Squirrel-proof feeders? …Mmm. Has the perfect one been invented yet? Let me know. My sister coated her plastic feeders with Vaseline to try to deter the little robbers but, although it gave her hours of amusement, we decided that it wasn’t really a good idea as the Vaseline could be deposited on the birds’ feathers. Anyway, the squirrel got his nuts in the end! Speaking of unwanted visitors, it is better to enclose food in wire or plastic feeders rather that scatter it on open trays, otherwise you will find that you are also feeding ‘the other people’ – you know, the clever ones with the long tails that nobody loves.
This month Chinese Water Deer are often seen in pairs. They are usually solitary animals but now is the rutting season and the buck will follow the doe around, sometimes making a high pitched squeaking noise, until she is willing to mate. They will form a close bond and usually stay together until April, when the doe will find a hidden place to give birth in May, June or six months from when she mated. One to three spotted fawns are born, although up to six have been recorded, but there is a large mortality rate with sometimes 40% of young dying within the first month of life.
The Chinese Water Deer is a small animal, 50 – 55 centimetres (approximately 19 – 22 inches) at the shoulder and is the only one of our deer that does not have antlers. It has a black, shiny nose and a sleek, russet-brown coat in the summer which becomes thick, grey-brown in winter when its large, fluffy ears often give it a slightly donkey-like appearance. The buck has elongated canine teeth that form easily visible tusks when he is mature. At this time of year he will be using these to fight with other males and clumps of hair will be pulled out which you may see around the countryside. These ‘fangs’ move in their sockets which helps to avoid tooth damage when fighting and makes eating easier. They are fairly selective feeders and tend to take the more tender parts of plants as they do not digest high fibre very efficiently. They will only feed on coarse grasses if food is in short supply and will sometimes nibble on root crops. In areas where there is overcrowding they may form groups as they congregate at a food source, usually in winter.
Originating in China and Korea, where their numbers are now in decline, they were imported to Britain in the late nineteenth century and some escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in the 1930s. They spread into East Anglia, where our marshy land proved to be an ideal habitat, and the region is their main stronghold in this country. They swim well and like all deer are speedy runners, often kicking out their long hind legs like hares.
They can be seen at any time of day, particularly where there is little disturbance, but are mainly active at dawn and dusk. These are the times to be careful when driving; many deer are killed on Norfolk’s roads every year.
If you think those long tusks give this animal a rather prehistoric look, you are right. Like the Muntjac, which also has tusks, it is a primitive deer and this type is thought to have been around for millions of years.
Activities this month include:
• Children’s Wildlife Walks (Trees) in Foxley Wood and Bird Walks at Cley http://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or call 01603-625540.
• Guided walks to see Pink Footed Geese – Holkham Nature Reserve. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Seal trips from Morston Quay (warm clothes!) – ring 01263-740505/740038.
© Sheila Sims 2013