Whatever the season, whatever the weather, walking in the countryside is a great way of relaxing whilst enjoying gentle - or maybe not so gentle! - exercise. And for many, that enjoyment is greatly enhanced by at least a little appreciation of the wildlife encountered along the way. Guest blogger and Sigma author Andrew Walmsley has the lowdown on the birds to look out for on winter walks:
In the winter months, wildlife is thin on the ground, but birds can usually be relied upon to put in an appearance despite it being a tough time of year for them. Food is likely to be hard to find, hunting for diurnal species is cruelly limited by restricted daylight hours and, of course, long, cold nights do no favours for already weakened creatures.
Migration often provides respite. Our swallows winter in South Africa, whilst many other insect-eaters, such as swifts, the majority of our warblers and flycatchers, also travel mind-boggling distances south. Journeys for some, though, are not always long distance, with curlews, some upland breeders and quite a few kingfishers simply heading to the coast or moving south within the UK.
But perhaps surprisingly, not all travel is outbound, with huge numbers of other species flooding into Britain to escape even harsher climates in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Siberia and elsewhere. Visiting ducks, geese, swans and waders - such as grey plovers, dunlins and turnstones – can often be found on coasts and estuaries. Meanwhile, redwings and fieldfares – autumn and winter-visiting thrushes – roam the countryside, initially feeding upon haws and holly berries, and latterly searching for earthworms and other invertebrates. Bramblings, small chaffinch-like finches, are also regular visitors, whilst great-grey shrikes winter on our heaths and moors, albeit in very small numbers. Even common species with a year-round UK presence – robins and starlings, for example – see their numbers boosted in autumn and winter by the arrival of continental cousins.
Visitor numbers, to some extent, vary depending upon the availability of foodstuffs on, or closer to, the breeding grounds and the success of the preceding breeding season (a successful season results in larger numbers of birds seeking an ever dwindling food supply and in times of hardship, being forced to move elsewhere). Some species, though, are positively irruptive, travelling huge distances in response to the widespread failure of cone or berry crops - crossbills, stocky finches with bills incongruously crossed over at the tip, and extravagantly plumaged waxwings are good examples.
Local weather, too, has a significant influence upon the travel arrangements of many birds. Lapwings and golden plovers, for example, in at least reasonable numbers, remain in flocks on or close to their UK breeding grounds until forced by snow, ice and freezing temperatures to move elsewhere in search of more favourable conditions.
But no matter whether the birds seen during a winter walk are year-round local residents, seasonal visitors from afar, or are just passing through, all are gorgeous creatures doing their best to survive in what for them is a harsh winter world.
Andrew is the author of New Forest Walks - A Time Traveller's Guide and New Forest Walks - A Seasonal Wildlife Guide. He also runs the popular New Forest Explorers Guide website.