Nature Notes - Arctic blast appears gone for good

Water rail by Stuart Finley
Water rail by Stuart Finley

So that’s it then, another winter definitely over and done with, the equinox has gone. That awful arctic type blast was horrible but short lived.

I appreciated Turnstones’ nostalgic column on the “Big Freeze” of 1963.

I will never forget trudging through the glaciers that built up on our stress as I walked to my factory employment.

Three miles each way seemed like twice that distance. Enough of this, must move on.

Our garden is aglow, all those spring bulbs planted in the autumn are brightening our days.

The winter pansies that so fixated a rogue blackbird are still bright and breezy while I have summer varieties awaiting their final flowering positions.

Our forsythia is about to cast a yellow glow on a chilly wall.

And we await early insects seeking pollen and nectar, bees have already been active. Brimstone butterflies (first brood) will soon be on the wing, or perhaps I am being optimistic.

At the time of jotting these rough notes there is a further forecast of a chill from the east.

Aconites and snowdrops are already fading but that lovely buttercup-like hedgerow lover, lesser celandine is ready to fill the vacuum.

Following on from those hawfinches which delighted so many birders we were blessed with that snowy owl which drew the “twitchers” to our county. Having seen these wonderful creatures in Canada we resisted the rush to see this wanderer.

Following Facebook and Twitter reports I am so pleased to know that so many folk saw the owl. Seeing these creatures in the flesh beats anything on TV.

I cannot quite remember when but I do recall trekking to a frozen field in Lincolnshire along with hundreds of birders to see a Snowy.

These brutal but infrequent periods of weather which we puny humans curse are of course meat n’ drink to snowy owls.

What extraordinary biological apparatus they must possess. On their breeding grounds of the Arctic these owls feed mostly on lemmings so presumably the local rodent population will have had an extra predator to cope with.

Staying with the snowy theme for a while, a chance meeting with Dr Tim Stowe at Titchwell recently allowed us to view his images from a recent Antarctic cruise.

All the usual suspects, whales, penguins, seals and petrels. Alas I fear that such a venture is probably beyond our resources.

Dr Stowe is a retired RSPB scientist (“Director International Operations”), swapping tales with fellow enthusiasts is always a treat.

And so what is at Titchwell right now?

A few grey plovers are also still here, alas in winter plumage, likewise golden plovers. Marsh harriers are easily seen, some evening roosts into double figures. Brent geese, sometimes simply called “brants” occur in two distinct forms or races.

Those we see are mostly “dark bellied” and breed in Siberia. The “pale-bellied” race breeds mostly in Greenland. Just pause for a moment, close your eyes and imagine what these birds experience on their migrations. Like the snowy owl, they must be hardy souls.

Brants have a rather odd even I would say comforting contact call, yes comforting to human observers. It is an odd sort croak or growl, it says “no worry we are all still here.” I know that is hopelessly anthropomorphic.

“Brants” are mostly vegetarians feeding on eelgrass or similar. The scientific name for this species is Branta bernicula.

Water rails were out and about. Whenever I see these birds or more likely hear them I am struck by just how lovely is their plumage. Their squealing call can at first sound rather spooky.

Of particular interest is the growing colony of Mediterranean gulls. These are relative newcomers having extended their range northwards in recent years.

I mused with volunteer warden Richard as to whether the success of these gulls might pose a dilemma as they compete with our “native” species.

At first sight they resemble our “native” black-headed gulls (those actually have dark brown heads) but the two can be separated by the all white wings of the new colonists.