An excitement this month was the presence of a goosander on the river. Goosanders are sawbills, with serrated beaks that enable them to grasp fish more firmly. They are fairly recent colonists in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Since then they have spread throughout the north, Wales and the West Country. Our birds are relatively sedentary, but come winter there is an influx from colder areas of northern Europe, which is when small numbers turn up in Kent, both along the coast and inland.
A coot was on the riverbank on January 17th, which is most unusual, but up to four were present on the nearby Tonford Lake, their usual habitat.
A pair of great crested grebes were also seen on the lake. You may be lucky enough to see their display soon, if you are up that end of the Marshes. The birds face each other, breast to breast, and rear up out of the water with stretched necks, often holding some waterweed in their beaks. One bird shakes its head, and the other bird repeats the action, like in a child’s copycat game.
It has been a poor winter for the great crested grebe’s small cousin, the little grebe. Only single birds have been seen so far, and there has been a steady decline in the number of little grebes wintering on the river over recent years.
Occasional redwings have been sheltering in the embankment scrub, and on January 22nd they were heard giving a performance of their pre-departure sub-song. In a couple of months the birds will be returning to Scandinavia to nest, but before leaving will sometimes gather in choirs that may number in their hundreds, all chattering away simultaneously in a rather starling-like fashion. This is not the true song, which we don’t normally hear in this country, but which contains elements of mistle thrush and a high-pitched blackbird on speed. Why the chorus? Gregarious in winter and on migration, these gatherings may serve to strengthen communal bonds and help them to decide when to make the return flight to their breeding grounds.
We still haven’t quite worked out what is going on with our stonechats this year. First there were three, then there was a solitary male, and then on January 30th a solo female was seen. Given that the species is normally seen in pairs all year round, this seemed distinctly odd. The female is considerably duller than the male, who in any case is not in his finery during the winter months. But an interesting transformation takes place as spring approaches: the dull tips to all the feathers gradually get abraded due to the stresses of flight and brushing through vegetation, and as the tips rub off they reveal a much brighter part of the feather immediately below. So, without having to undergo the stress of replacing feathers in a moult, it can spruce itself up in time to attract a mate come spring.
Normally only one kestrel is hunting over the Marshes, so it was encouraging to note a pair on January 22nd, especially as we are planning to erect a kestrel nestbox this year.
The normally rowdy Cetti’s warbler has been keeping an extremely low profile in recent weeks, so it was cheering to hear one belting out its ebullient, if not particularly tuneful, song at the end of the month.
Photo credits: Dave Smith for redwing, goosander and stonechat