Migration for some
Migration for some
Driving past Chelker Reservoir early in November, I took a quick sideways glance, always a good bet as you never know what might be there. Sure enough I caught a vignette that sums up early autumn. A group of four swans rested together on the dark, wind-ruffled waters, their white plumage ghostly white in the dim, rainy light. I’m pretty sure they were not mute swans, the heavy-weights with orange bills and sinuous necks that stay with us all year, but migrating whoopers on their way from their breeding grounds in the tundra to winter in the UK. They are slightly slimmer and tend to carry their necks erect. A nearer view would settle matters as the mute has an orange bill whereas the whooper’s beak is black and bright yellow. You can get really good views of whoopers in their hundreds at reserves like Martin Mere near Ormskirk, but, somehow, seeing this little group of travellers resting on our local waters was more romantic and satisfying. It reminded me of a haunting encounter some years ago as I was walking beside a remote Scottish inlet. First came the loud trumpeting calls, then the rush of great white wings and then three swans landed on the water – two adults and their well-grown cygnet still in its soft grey juvenile plumage. They paused there only about ten minutes – perhaps to let the youngster have a rest – and then took off with another rush of wing and water and headed south.
The glamour of these great travellers is all very well, but let’s not forget those less spectacular birds which stay with us all year round but which we tend to overlook. Beside our boundary fence and conveniently sited just outside the dining room window is an old hawthorn, its trunk and branches twisted by the wind. Last week I looked out and saw a tiny brown mouse-like form running round and round the trunk and out along the branches. It was a treecreeper, and it’s years since I’d seen one in our garden. On closer inspection, treecreepers are pretty birds – slim-bodied, with backs a streaky mixture of rich browns and buff, undersides silvery-white and those long tails which, pressed against the bark, give support as slender beaks probe every chink and crevice. Their contact call is high and sibilant and they are more visible now, in winter woodland, landing low down on a tree and spiralling upwards and often, defying gravity, running out along the underside of branches. Our garden visitor triggered another memory: several years ago I was scrambling down a steep gill when I came upon one at eye level on a sapling trunk. It saw me and instantly froze, tail braced and body at an angle. It looked exactly like the stump of a snapped off twig, only its bright eye revealing its presence. We stared at each other for a couple of minutes and then I continued my slithering descent leaving it to its careful hunting.
To avoid the worst of winter cold, treecreepers will often roost communally, tucked in behind a piece of loose bark – their heads tucked back into the deep feathers of their backs, their bodies pressed together to form a soft brown mound – fringed by a circle of protruding tails.