With plenty more rain (and snow!) in the first half of the month, the fields remained very wet, with widespread standing water, encouraging up to 53 mallard, 76 herring gulls, 45 black-headed gulls and four common gulls to dabble or roost there, particularly in Tonford field. Snipe numbers recovered a little, with 14 on the 22nd, but they have been considerably less common than in previous winters.
The snow on the 8th was undoubtedly the main feature of the month. It accumulated to a depth of about 10cm, but for the first few hours it was thawing almost as fast as it fell, so if it had been just a degree or two colder we might have woken to a rather more dramatic scene – maybe not up to our bedroom windows, but perhaps twice the depth we actually had to cope with. Further blizzards on the 10th nicely topped up the losses due to daily minor thaws, and made everywhere look clean and fresh once more.
The impact on wildlife, particularly on bird movements, wasn’t as marked as expected, with just the odd lapwings (left) turning up on the surrounding fields (but none apparently on Hambrook itself). Another species that usually gets pushed out of its wintering area when snow covers its feeding grounds is the skylark, but four were seen flying over during the snow week. Hundreds of redwings and much smaller numbers of fieldfares descended on local orchards but not to any extent on Hambrook. So, all in all, the snow didn’t seem to have much impact on Hambrook observations, hopefully a good sign, as it could mean that most birds were still managing to find enough food without having to undertake long, tiring journeys.
Wren numbers were unchanged after the big freeze, which was also encouraging, as their small size means they lose heat faster than a bulkier bird, and their strictly insectivorous diet makes for a harder life when everything is coated in snow.
Of particular interest was hearing a Cetti’s warbler on the 8th (the first day of the snow) and again on the 17th when all the snow had thawed. The Cetti’s warbler is a relative newcomer to this country, the first UK sighting being as recent as 1961. Formerly a bird of Mediterranean countries, it spread steadily northwards in the 20th century, and was first reported nesting in the UK (in Kent) in 1973, after which numbers built up rapidly to 108 singing males in the county in 1978. However, as you might expect for a bird from the south, it is not well-adapted to harsh weather, and a couple of particularly severe winters in the mid-1980s nearly wiped them out, reducing the Kent population in the early 1990s to no more than five pairs. Like the wren, it suffers from being strictly insectivorous; so staying put when most other insect-eating birds (swallows, most other species of warbler, nightingale and so on) have migrated south is risky. In mild winters the gamble pays off, with the birds benefiting from not having to face the hazards of migration, and being able to start breeding before the migrants reach this country; but, as we have seen, a run of cold winters very nearly eliminated the population of this pioneering species. A high count of 15 blackbirds on the 11th was presumably weather-related.
Of more interest now are the first signs of spring, with our few clumps of snowdrops out on the riverbank and the occasional lesser celandine bursting into flower. Two great spotted woodpeckers were drumming on the old embankment on the 22nd. The reed bunting (left) is primarily a spring visitor to Hambrook, so one singing on the the 28th was another uplifting sign, as was the simple, two-toned call of a chiffchaff the same day.
Three sparrowhawks were seen on the 21st. This is the time of year when birds of prey indulge in aerial displays; one bird, presumably an interloper, was chased off peremptorily. Hopefully the remaining pair will breed on the edge of the Marshes, and we’ll be seeing more of these single-minded hunters in the coming weeks.