Winter Wildlife Watching

Winter 2020/2021 has been, for many, one of the toughest in years. I’m going to start this off now by saying that I spent two months at my parents’ home over winter, for the goodness of my health and wellbeing. So the wildlife in this entry, is not from my usual patch – but it is all local to my parents’ home, in the midlands, in England. 

While lockdown was tough, there was still so much joy to be gained by nature. We made efforts every day, no matter how glum we were feeling, to do something nature related. It’s not a magic fix – the World is tough right now and its normal to feel sad or down about it. But nature provides a way to take your mind off it, to focus on positives, and to be mindful that life is continuing – and that can all help to alleviate some of the heightened emotions that we’re pretty much all feeling! 

A winter surprise

When I’m at my parents’ home I do a lot of garden birdwatching. I don’t have a garden where I live – so I make the most of theirs! Just after Christmas, it got very cold and we had several days of snow. I always look out more in this weather, because often you can see more birds than usual, and more species. This is because the cold weather makes it harder for birds to find food – so they often try new places and travel a bit further. 

I have to say though, I’d given up and was happily reading when my sister called me into the room which looks out onto the garden. “There’s a bird in the tree and I don’t know it what it is” she said. Now my sister is still a beginner when it comes to ID but in terms of spotting birds she’s incredibly skilled – I always see something I’d have otherwise missed when she’s around! At a glance I could see a medium sized brown bird, a bit like a thrush but not quite. “It couldn’t be a…surely not a…we never see them…” I ran to get my binoculars so that I could be sure. There it was, clear as day – a redwing! A single, beautiful, redwing just randomly sitting in our tree in the garden.

Redwings are members of the thrush family, and they can be distinguished by the white stripe above the eye and patch of red under the wing. They are winter visitors to the UK which migrate from their breeding areas in Iceland and Scandinavia. I normally make special birding trips in the countryside to try and see them  – to see one without even leaving the house, was just amazing. 

Eating out of the palm of my hand

One of our frequent places to walk was the local park, known as the Washlands because it’s next to the river. Part of the path is surrounded by trees and overgrown shrubs; this is where we see the robins! 

One particular robin, whom I have named Robbie, is really quite tame. People bring him food, so he’s very used to people and knows that its often worth his while to hang around. I should say – I don’t actually know that Robbie is a boy; male and female robins look very similar! 

So one day, me and my Mum decided to take some seeds for Robbie. We whistled next to his usual tree (sounds a bit silly but it works!) and Robbie appeared. I held out my hand with my palm open, full of seeds, and waited. Robbie kept glancing and edging slightly nearer. My arm started to ache; I was beginning to wonder if this was going to work. Then all of a sudden, Robbie flew into my hand! It was the quickest of moments, he just picked up a seed and flew back to the safety of his branch; but the feeling of his little feet on my palm, his small weight, and the elation of the moment is one I will never forget. 

Robbie the Robin © Catherine Leatherland

A very grey day

As is normal for winter, quite a few of the days were cold and/or grey. One particular walk by the river was very grey and drizzly  – almost foggy. It was the kind of rain the slowly makes you soaking wet without you realising it, until you’re too wet to do anything about it! 

I glanced over to the other side of the river, and there on the bank was a grey heron. It was huddled up on the bank, shielding itself from the rain, resting. In terms of heron watching I’ve had more exciting views – they’re great fun to watch while they’re hunting and flying. However, there was something very peaceful about just watching it be; putting up with the grey day and waiting for better, just as we were. 

Grey heron on the riverbank © Catherine Leatherland

Grebes – little and great!

There are certain species that I commonly see on this stretch of river: Mute Swans; Canada Geese; Black Headed Gulls; and Mallards. I am however always open minded to the fact that something else might pop up! And its a good thing too, because on two separate occasions I spotted Great Crested Grebes, and Little Grebes! 

As it was winter, both were in their winter plumage (the feathers in winter). They were still wonderful to watch, and it was exciting simply because I don’t normally see them there. As I was taking a video of the Little Grebes, a woman walked past and loudly said to her partner “I don’t know what exactly she’s trying to take a photo of” as if I was being silly, because all she could see was the river. It’s such a shame, because had she just asked me, I would very happily have shown her!

My first top tip for wildlife watching: keep both your eyes, and mind, open!

Great Crested Grebe – winter plumage ©Catherine Leatherland


Birthday Birding 2019!

Recently, it was my birthday, and over the past few years one activity has become a bit of a tradition either on or around the day: birthday birding! This year, myself and two members of my family went to Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, which is one of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s reserves.

When I go birding with my family, or friends who don’t necessarily do a lot of wildlife watching, I go to a big reserve that has a visitor centre and a cafe. This is so that everyone can take the day at their own pace, we have the facilities we need, and we can all warm up and grab some tasty treats! I had never been to Brandon Marsh before but after spending the day there I will definitely be going again! It is packed with wildlife, and there are a number of different trails to try. We also had a lovely lunch in the cafe (called Badger’s Tearoom) and we finished the day by having a good look around the gift shop (I bought a hedgehog keyring…because why wouldn’t you?!).

Robin © Catherine Leatherland

As it was winter, most of the trees had shed their leaves – on the down side you miss all the colour, but the positive is that the birds are much easier to spot! We used our ears to follow the sound of the birds into the trees and ended up seeing loads of robins and blue tits as a result. As we went around the trails of the reserve we saw many other birds, both from the trail and the hides, including:

  • Carrion crows
  • Buzzard
  • Canada geese
  • Mute swans 
  • Teal
  • Pochard
  • Tufted ducks
  • Mallard
  • Shelduck
  • Shoveller

As we all know by now: I love ducks – so I was particularly happy with how many were using the pools on this reserve!

At lunch time, we were lucky enough to get a table by the window, which looked out at the feeders. We enjoyed spotting all the birds that were tucking into their very own tasty lunch. All of a sudden there was a commotion and something hopped into view – a rabbit! I thought it looked huge, but that’s probably because I haven’t ever been so close to a wild rabbit before. I put my cup of tea down, grabbed my camera, and started taking photos. You can’t miss an opportunity to capture a moment like that! There was something comical about watching a rabbit hop around amongst a load of birds, and I wanted to remember it.

Rabbit © Catherine Leatherland

The feeders were of course worthy of watching on their own merit (rabbit or no rabbit). Here are the species we saw at the feeders, with no effort at all, while we munched on lunch:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long tailed tit
  • Reed bunting
  • Woodpigeon
  • Nuthatch

We all had a lovely time at Brandon Marsh, and after all the excitement we decided it was time to head home for a cup of tea – and, of course, some birthday cake!

Find out more about The Wildlife Trusts and the reserves that you could visit, by heading to the Wildlife Trusts website.

Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend (the 26 – 28 January) saw the 40th annual Big Garden Birdwatch, run by the RSPB. This is a great citizen science project, where everyone can join in and have a go at spotting and counting the birds in their garden or local green space. I have a little garden, and community green space, where I live. So on Sunday morning, I made myself a cup of tea and spent an hour watching for birds from the kitchen window. 

Taking part is really simple –  I like to do my watch using the traditional method of pen and paper, and then I log into the website to record my sightings!

At first I thought I wouldn’t see much, because I don’t generally see many small birds around this area and we don’t have any bird feeders. But, I was happily surprised after an hour of watching at what I saw. Here are my results:

  • 2 Woodpigeons
  • 5 Herring gulls
  • 2 Blue tits
  • 2 Magpies
  • 1 Blackbird
  • 2 Carrion crows

Sometimes I get a bit disheartened doing the Big Garden Birdwatch, because I can see all these other people on social media getting looooads of birds, and some really rare ones, while I generally (honestly) only get one pigeon! But, what you have to remember, is this is all really important scientific information. So telling the RSPB that you’ve seen one pigeon, or no birds at all, is just as important as telling them if you’ve seen lots. 

The scientists want to build a picture of how our bird populations are doing, and they can only do that if we tell them good quality and reliable information.

I really enjoyed my hour of birdwatching; I saw birds gliding in the wind, hopping along the grass, cawing at eachother, perching in the trees for warmth, and coming down to find some food. I got to watch all of these behaviours as a by product of spending the time searching and counting. I also enjoyed seeing my results and how they compared with everyone else’s – it’s nice to know you have contributed to a real bit of science!

Find out more about the Big Garden Birdwatch and how you can join in next time on the RSPB website. 

Curlews in the City

The curlew is the largest wading bird found in Europe. With a size of 50-60cm in length, and a distinctive long, downwards curving beak, it is a unique and lovely sight for any birder. In the UK it has a red status, according to the Birds of Conservation Concern 4, because of (amongst other reasons) severe declines in its population and range. Usually, I see curlews at estuaries and mudflats, feeding on the shellfish. Given all of this – imagine my surprise when I saw a group of at least 100 curlews, feeding on a school playing field in the middle of Edinburgh!

Such was my surprise, that even though I was walking down a main street, on the way to a park, I stopped to get my camera out and started to take photos of the curlews. In order to do this, I had to raise the camera over a wall – so anyone driving by won’t have been able to see the birds. I will have just looked like a geek taking photos of buildings and playing fields. But, (and this is key to successful urban birding), I didn’t care!

I watched as the birds ambled around the field, probing their long beaks into the mud for worms. That is why they were here – it makes sense I guess, if they can get a tasty worm buffet on this empty field, then why not?

I continued my walk to the park (which was very nice, though a little blustery – I even saw some tufted ducks on the pond) and on the way back I had another look for the curlews. They were still there, but had moved further along the road, to the adjacent playing field – must have eaten all easily available worms in the first one. 

I took a couple more photos, and as I did so another couple of people came over to look over the wall. As I packed my camera away, they asked me about the birds and we had a lovely little chat. One of the questions they asked was: “Are these birds from Scandinavia”. I must confess I didn’t know – we get curlews living here all year round, but I wasn’t sure if more joined from the Scandinavian countries during the winter. When I got home, I looked it up – the answer is: possibly. The UK’s breeding population of curlews move to coastal areas during the winter (so they could be UK birds). Some curlews from colder places like Scandinavia, migrate to the UK for the winter – so they might very well have been Scandinavian!

The UK’s population of curlews is of international importance, and is one of the UK’s priority species for conservation. To find out more about this bird, the threats it faces, and the conservation work being done to protect it, head to the RSPB and WWT websites.