The clocks go back, autumn colours blaze and our winter visitors are arriving on schedule. Fieldfares have been seen at the Otley Wetlands Nature Reserve and a small party of redwing in the Washburn Valley. At this time of year really keen birdwatchers go outside on fine nights and listen for the ‘tseeeeip’ of their eerie contact calls as great, thousand-strong flocks of redwing pass overhead.
If you’re out walking in the countryside, keep a lookout for these newcomers: often you spot a field full of foraging birds and closer inspection reveals a mixture of starlings, mistle thrushes, fieldfares, with their distinctive light grey heads, and redwings, smaller with russet patches on the flank and cream eye-stripes. All these birds are probably incomers newly arrived from northern Europe. Often the first warning of their presence is the noise. I remember coming across a large flock of fieldfares near Middleton busily stripping a hawthorn hedge of its fruit – the chattering sound of their conversation being audible several fields away.
In November WNS members generally have an outing to Martin Mere, near Ormskirk, to enjoy the spectacle of some of our other autumn arrivals. It’s an excellent place for a family visit as there is always something interesting to see, and the hides enable us to get a really close look. The Reserve is run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and comprises pens housing a captive wildfowl collection, a salt marsh, and a succession of pools and lagoons. It is one of the best places in the country to see large numbers of geese – mainly pink-footed, but barnacle and even the odd rarity too. From the aptly named Swan Lake hide you can get a close look at the intimate behaviour of the whooper swans that spend the winter here. The swans travel as family groups and keep together all winter. You can pick out pairs of adults with their grey-brown offspring as they greet each other and interact, not always politely, with other families. The larger the family group the better; numbers secure you a place near the middle of the overnight roost – both warmer and safer! As dusk approaches food is put out and hundreds of whooper swans congregate to feed there, providing a wonderful spectacle for visitors in the hides. There are lots of other birds to see – a variety of ducks and waders, lots of small birds attracted to a well-stocked feeding station, a resident community of tree sparrows and, last year, we even had the excitement of a grey shrike, a real rarity!