On the morning of The Great Thaw I stepped out into the garden to the sound of bird song. The resident robin, for weeks far too preoccupied with survival to sing, was whistling away lustily and a great tit’s seesaw call rang out from near the gate. Many birds will have perished in the recent icy conditions, but these were survivors and they are resilient!
While mourning for the sufferings of our small birds, we birdwatchers did have the arctic weather to thank for the chance to see some unusual species as desperate visitors arrived at our feeding stations. I was delighted to see crowds of tiny yellow, olive green and black siskins around the nyger seed, the first of the winter, and, through the coldest week, they were joined by redpolls. These are small finches, streaky brown with a bright carmine spot on the brow, the males also have a warm pink flush to the breast feathers. Both sexes have a creamy white line above the eye that gives them a rather stern expression.
My visitors pale into insignificance beside some of the snow surprises I’ve been hearing about. In a garden just a few hundred yards from mine, a woodcock was seen in broad daylight probing around the patches of thawing snow. Easily identifiable by its long bill and those amazing eyes placed almost on top of the head, it’s essentially a bird of the woodland, feeding by night and lying camouflaged among the leaf litter by day. Most people only see one in flight – either jinking off between the trees when disturbed or, at dusk in summer, flying above the treetops patrolling its territory and giving that distinctive grunt and whistle call. Meanwhile, for those who managed to get out as far as the Otley Wetlands Reserve there was a real treat – a visiting bittern. Usually a lurker in reedbeds, it was driven into the open by the ice, and so clearly visible. Now it knows where we are, perhaps it will return in more clement weather.
Not all surprises are unalloyed pleasure. A friend who lives in the wilds beyond Oakworth was snowed up for weeks. Every morning she donned wellingtons and went out to fill up the bird feeders and examine the tracks left by birds and animals. A badger came nightly and foraged under the bird feeders – walking past her front doorstep as he left – exciting news.. Then the thaw came. She decided to dig up one of the twenty fine swedes in her vegetable garden, for so long buried under a foot of snow. Twelve of them had been eaten away leaving empty shells. I have one on my desk now: inside the husk, only a thin layer of flesh remains and this is pocked and dimpled – the work, we guess, of little rodent teeth. In their burrows under the snow, voles and woodmice had a grand time, snug and safe from predators – and dining off the fat of the garden. Now a tawny owl is much in evidence. No surprise there!