Winters Arrival

Finally after months of soggy and windy weather, winter it seems had finally made an appearance. The remains of the snow fall from the two evenings ago was still frozen solid, leaving patches of white that almost glowed blue in the predawn light. Our breath steamed in front of us and the grasses and soil crunched beneath our feet. Dawn breaks with a splash of pink and yellow tinging the streaks of whispy clouds that crossed the ever lighter blue sky. It reveals the farmland we have traversed. Stubble fields adjacent to ploughed fields with tall trees, deep brown bark topped with dark green heads, standing in a row between. At this far end of the stubble field, more traditional hedgerows and tall thorny bushes are absolutely brimming with birds. Flocks of lesser redpolls pile in and out of the cover as we approach and set nets traversing through the spikey trees. Reed buntings and yellowhammers sit atop of the hedgerow.

A cold sunrise

Nets set up and with the bright sun breaking over the trees and spilling across the stubble we retreat a distance to let the birds settle and return to the seed we have provided.

As the morning progresses wave after wave of lesser redpolls come into the cover, and into the nets. The team works well, taking birds from the net and processing them quickly. It is a good feeling to be ringing large numbers of redpolls rather than the hundreds of blue and great tits that have dominated recent sessions. They are tricky, often only very subtle differences give clues to their age. The variation in colour is wide, some are dark, soft brown, while others are much paler with more white amongst the streaky brown. All have a splodge of red of the head, but it ranges from deep red to almost orange. Flecks of red on the breast alludes to a young bird being male. The adult males have extensive red on the breast and rump. All except the oldest of females have no red on the breast, and even then it is only a few small red feathers.

Beautiful adult male lesser redpoll

Mixed in are good numbers of reed bunting, always providing a challenge when it comes to ageing, a handful of yellowhammers – stunningly yellow – and best of all some tree sparrows. What a delightful bird, with its chocolatey brown cap which looks like a delicious chocolate truffle! And the little black beauty spot in its white cheek.

The fabulous tree sparrow

Out over the stubble other birds are busy feeding, such as skylarks who soar vertically upwards with rapidly fluttering wings, into the bright blue, before dropping back to the ground. Their distinctive call catches the ear throughout the morning. Then halfway through one call takes on a completely different tone. An alarm. Heads turn, and just a short distance away a skylark skips up and over the tall trees nearby. It twists one way and then another, sharp turn’s mid-air, and it is being followed just as acrobatically. By a merlin! For what seems like an age, but in reality was a few seconds, the tiny bird dashes one way and then another, desperately trying to shake the merlin off. Finally it dives for cover in the bushes. The merlin flicks up and over the trees one last time before heading high and away. This time the skylarks luck is in… it is not just seed on which birds feed in this landscape and it is all part of the heartbeat of the wild.

Lunchtime and a cold breeze picks up, billowing the nets and along with the bright sunlight making them more obvious. It is time to pack up and go home to warm up.

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