It’s been a spectacular wildlife winter so far, bringing huge influxes of wild geese and waxwings and record numbers of exotic rarities from all corners of the globe. With just a few weeks left of winter, it’s the perfect time to look back over a very exciting few months...
From Russia with loveWild geese are a feature of every winter, but it has been a particularly good one for one of our most attractive species – the white-fronted goose. These slimline geese are smaller and leaner than the familiar feral greylag geese most of us can see all year. Adult "Russian" white-fronts have beautiful black barring on their bellies and a ring of white around the base of their pink beaks. Their calls are lovely, like a pack of small dogs yapping away. During the long spell of easterly winds last October, many flocks made landfall along the east coast, pushed across the North Sea by the tail wind. Further arrivals took place as winter progressed, leading to flocks, hundreds-strong, appearing in unusual places in addition to those at traditional wintering sites. A flock of 19 are currently with the greylag geese at my local gravel pits. They often linger until March, so there’s time to catch up with some if you haven't done so yet.
White-fronted geese have been around in big numbers this winter (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Flock rewardsEveryone loves a rare bird, from the national press to those of us who love to catch up with them! This winter has proven that it is well worth keeping a beady eye on the blackbirds, song thrushes, redwings and fieldfares in your garden, or on your patch. Several rare thrushes have been uncovered lurking among them: a dusky thrush in the village of Beeley in the Peak District, several black-throated thrushes (including one in London) and a colourful male blue rock thrush hopping around the rooftops in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds (a good substitute for the rocky crags where it likes to hang out) have all happily survived the winter.
Nature's Home reader, Ben Rumsby (aged 10) took this superb shot of the male blue rock thrush in Stow-on-the-Wold
Bunting huntingFlocks of yellowhammers, reed buntings and corn buntings gather where farmers have left stubble and spilled seed and following a record autumn arrival, rare pine buntings were found hiding among such flocks, as were smart little buntings.
Divers are magnificent birds and they can be seen around the UK coast in some numbers. They also turn up inland in winter bringing the chance to study them close-up. I’ve enjoyed seeing three great northern divers taking up temporary residence on Grafham Water, my local reservoir, but a splendid white-billed diver arrived on the River Witham in Lincolnshire. It’s massive pale bill earns it the nickname “Bananabill”. Check out the blog of top naturalist and Nature's Home feature writer, James Lowen to see why!
Black redstarts overwinter successfully here in the UK, but we have also had two absolutely stunning “eastern black redstarts”. Nature’s Home reader Janice Sutton sent me this photograph of the one at Skinningrove, Cleveland. I was lucky enough to see this bird myself during Christmas with the in-laws in Yorkshire. What a stunner!
Who says UK birds are all brown?! The eastern black redstart at Skinningrove on the Cleveland Coast by Nature's Home reader Janice SuttonPunks, brutes and ghostly gulls It's not all about the super rare birds though. many often scare birds have been more widely available this winter. Hopefully you have had the chance to see waxwings near you in what has been a classic “waxwing winter”. Several thousand of these plump, punk-crested beauties have been devouring our berries this winter. It’s been great to get several photographs and reports from Nature's Home readers– and to finally see some on the industrial estate close to RSPB HQ in Sandy, Beds.One of several thousand waxwings that have been in the UK this winter, by Ben Rumsby
Short-eared owls have been around in good numbers, quartering our fields and marshes and a big arrival of big, brutish, ghostly, glaucous gulls from the Arctic occurred after a bitter spell of northerly winds in January. I watched the rather grizzly sight of one of the brutes feasting on a dead herring gull at RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Another white bird, the cattle egret, has also arrived in large numbers, although one group in Oxfordshire preferred the company of pigs to cattle!
Keep an eye on your local cows - cattle egrets have arrived in big numbers this winter (Nick Upton rspb-images.com)A spell of cold weather in the week or so before Big Garden Birdwatch is always good news for those of us hoping to get a good count for the big event. That’s exactly what happened this year, so look out for the results and hopefully it will be the biggest and best Birdwatch ever.
Tell us about your winter sightingsSo, that was my whistle-stop tour, taking in just some of the delights on offer this winter, but how was it for you? Please let us know about your highlights of this special winter, anything I might have missed and if you have any memories from great winters past.
It's over to Nature's Home Managing Editor Anna Scrivenger, to get you in the mood for the extravaganza that is the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. As you have hopefully seen in your latest magazine, it starts tomorrow and runs through until Monday. Here's Anna with her wishlist of what she and her family are hoping to see in that all important hour's birdwatch...
This weekend, my family will be enjoying our fourth Big Garden Birdwatch.
Working on Nature’s Home and the three RSPB children’s magazines, the Big Garden Birdwatch has been on my radar for quite a while, and I’ve picked up a few tips along the way.
An explosion of birdsI recall our first one when, as newbies, we hung a seed feeder up a day or two before and hoped for the best. The turnout wasn’t too bad, as it happened - but we’ve since got a lot more canny at luring different birds to our garden, and have been rewarded with an explosion in species diversity.
Blackcap is new to Anna's garden, but will a male show up for the all important hour?
This month alone, we’ve welcomed our first bullfinches, blackcap, dunnock and wren to the garden. The local starlings have discovered our feeders and I’m hoping that the woodpecker we can hear nearby will follow their lead. In 2015 I planted teasels from seed, which are now eight feet high and supplementing the nyjer-seed diet of the small flocks of goldfinches which finally discovered us this winter.
These new faces had better turn up during our one-hour watch. We’ll be pulling out all the stops to tempt them.
Are your feeders filled for the Birdwatch? (Rahul Thanki rspb-images.com)
We’ll also expect all the usual cast of characters this year: our robin, four species of tit, chaffinches, blackbirds, collared doves and woodpigeons and assorted corvids. The latter, along with the local squirrels, have discovered our bounty and are wise to the feast we lay out every day. All are welcome, though - it’s lovely to see the garden full of riotous life, and we have a cunning strategy to dissuade the gluttons away from the feeders.A cunning plan...We buy big sacks of mixed grain with seed as well as peanuts, which the kids and I scatter liberally across the lawn – usually their first port of call. The idea is, they’ll fill up on those and won’t need to bother with the real good stuff: mealworms, sunflower hearts, suet pellets, fatballs and an organic sunflower head. It’s not foolproof, but it definitely helps. We’re getting through a LOT of bird food, I can tell you.
What am I most hoping to see? Well, apart from that audible but elusive woodpecker, I’d have to say a humble house sparrow. Having suffered a huge decline in recent years, I’ve yet to see this once-common bird at our current home. Our kitchen affords a good view of the garden, and little brown birds get me pretty excited. Every time we detect a flicker of something we can’t immediately identify, we reach for the binoculars hanging by the cooker. Often, the visitor vanishes in the split second between removing the lens cap and raising it to our eyes – but if we do get a good look, we refer straight to our book of birds to get a positive ID. We logged that dunnock, blackcap and the wren… but still no sparrows.
Suet blocks, cakes and fat balls are the perfect way to tempt a great spotted woodpecker to visit (Nigel Blake rspb-images.com)
I can’t wait to see what that golden hour brings this weekend. My husband and I and our children sneak out in the morning to lay out a fresh smorgasbord, then gather at the window armed with mugs of hot chocolate, binoculars, a notepad for keeping tally, and our trusty bird book. It’s a time to turn off the outside world and immerse ourselves in the amazing spectacle right outside our windows.
Hope you’ll join us (and half a million other households), in this national bird count. The birds are counting on us. And we’ll be back soon to let you know how we got on.
It’s over to a familiar face from Nature’s Home magazine to let you know how your wildlife photos could be taking pride of place in the RSPB’s fantastic 2018 calendar. Ace photographer Ben Andrew shares some of his tips, and photographs, to hopefully inspire you to enter.
The RSPB’s 2018 calendar competition is once again open for entries. This year the competition is sponsored by Swarovski Optik and boasts some excellent prizes! We are looking for 12 stunning images of nature and wildlife. This means anything from birds and butterflies, to fungi and forests - as long the photographs were taken in the UK.
The 12 images will be hanging on walls of houses, or above desks, up and down the country so it is important to consider what makes a great image for a calendar, my name is Ben Andrew and I am the RSPB’s Picture Researcher, as well as being a photographer in my free time.
I decided to photograph red deer outside the normal autumn rutting season because I thought they would look interesting using rim-lighting against their velvety antlers.
Ben’s top tipsWhen thinking about images, I always consider a few things:
• How can I photograph this species in a different or exciting way?• Can I show the habitat the species is residing in to be the subject in some context?• Can I make use of stunning lighting conditions?
It’s not necessarily easy to tick all of these boxes with every image you take so I tend to weigh up each of them as I am out photographing. If I can’t get really close to my subject I'll try think of another way of framing it, maybe smaller in the frame but showing habitat. If I can get close can I use the light creatively, maybe trying backlighting? If the subject is very confiding, can I switch to a wide angle lens and create something more unique?
I used a wide angle lens to capture a different perspective on these charismatic eider ducks in Seahouses Harbour where they are accustomed to people taking photographs.
Consider that each month will require an image so does your photograph have something that says “spring” or “winter”? We will be looking for colour combinations and behaviours that are synonymous with the changing seasons and ebb and flow of the British countryside.
But overall, have fun, enjoy entering the competition, enjoy going back over your photographic year and being pleased with what you have taken. We love seeing your shots and we can’t wait to see how the final calendar looks!
With this shot, I wanted to obtain a picture of a cygnet within the protection of the adult’s feathers with the cygnet peering through a small gap.
Enter the competition and send us your shotsFor more details about entering the competition including terms and conditions please visit our website.