January’s “Nature Notes” by Malcolm Cox

Feeding time for a marsh tit, a rare visitor to West Norfolk
Feeding time for a marsh tit, a rare visitor to West Norfolk
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I often begin these notes with a statistic or two. Thus as 2016 begins, we learn that the November just past was the dullest on record.

In early December, however, we lapped up sunshine and temperatures that recorded double figures. I am sure that like most folk I regard January to February as the bleakest period in our year.

Before long, however, snowdrops and winter aconites will be re-affirming life. No doubt I’m not the only gardener who has waited for potted snowdrops, still surprisingly expensive, to appear only to discover that these precious bulbs have disappeared in the form of a rodent snack. It seems that aconites are less appetising.

Locally, winter thrushes such as redwings and fieldfares are thin on the ground. Ungathered apples that are a vital food source for these birds lie mostly unscoffed in a nearby orchard.

I have mentioned previously in these notes that I am an inveterate forager. A new fence at this orchard now prevents me from gathering the odd hatful of windfalls. I did however have more success by way of a quince harvest with the permission of the householder.

The fruits grow against a wall along the roadside. When processed they can produce a delicious marmalade, and in spring the flowers are an early nectar producer.

In the garden, meanwhile, our house sparrows along with other usual suspects provide entertainment. Bird tables placed outside the “studio” from where Mrs Cox makes sense of my hand scripted scrawl are the scene of much activity with a robin or two and a few members of the titmice family. It was one of this family that recently became our garden bird of the year. For just a few seconds among the coal tits we were honoured by the appearance of a marsh tit. This was the first time ever for this species in our garden. I am astonished that it should show up here, maybe displaced by “Storm Desmond”. I have checked out the likely local habitats without success.

Most birders will be familiar with story of this bird. It was not until the 1930s that taxonomists finally decided that willow tits were a separate species from marsh tits. They are very difficult to separate in the field and it was only that unmistakable call of “oot-chu” that caught my attention. Like so many formerly common species these tiny titmice are under pressure. A snippet from a recent edition of the EDP: “The latest Birds of Conservation Concern assessment found that 67 of the UK’s 244 birds are now under threat, with well-known species including curlew, puffin and nightingale joining others already on the red lest such as turtle doves, cuckoos and starlings.”

To lift the gloom a little it is worth noting that we now have more peregrines and sparrowhawks than for many decades and red kites are now present in just about every county though not of course as breeding records. Likewise, buzzards are doing well.

Sadly we have no tree sparrows locally although I recall that our former postman reported a colony on Terrington Marsh. A summer trip to Europe produced the delightful sight of a flock of 50-plus Passer montanus bathing nonchalantly in a car park. The feeding station at RSPB Titchwell usually provides small numbers of tree sparrows. Legend has it that St Francis took comfort from the antics of house sparrows while recovering from illness.

An ancient Chinese proverb tells us that “‘even the humble sparrow can look to the skies and aspire to fly among eagles’. During the Cultural Revolution, however, Chairman Mao urged the citizens of Beijing to harass and destroy every sparrow as these birds competed with people for grain. His scheme failed, another example of humanity blaming the rest of creation for man-made problems. A bit of a digression I suppose but a plea not to overlook less spectacular wildlife.

What else have I noted locally? The area of fallow land scheduled for development in St Clement is now a massive seed larder for thistles and other ‘weeds’. A flock of about 30 linnets along with smaller numbers of goldfinches are regular diners. Good light reveals just how pretty these common finches are. A further reminder to check out your local patch regularly, so what are you waiting for?