Update – Winter 2018/19

Stephen Noakes – Plot 17

With the exception of one or two early nesters, winter for the birds is about survival, which means food and water.  This causes some birds to migrate over long distances.  Others disperse only a relatively short distance from their summer home.  At first glance it looks like there is a set pattern, with a regular influx of the same birds, like the Pink-footed Geese, but in reality every winter is different.  The timing of arrivals and departures, the numbers which come and the type of birds which turn up all depend on the weather and food availability on the continent as well as here.  In some winters we receive huge numbers of thrushes, finches and other small birds, making it easier to find some of the less common winter migrants such as Brambling, Waxwing, Redpoll and Siskin.  Sometimes the winter brings in some really rare species like the Snowy Owl which spent some time between Deepdale and Thornham last March.  There is no set time for winter migrants to arrive – they can be forced out of Europe or down from the North at any time the conditions turn against them.  Winter is definitely a time to keep a constant look-out.

At the allotments winter brings some obvious changes.  All the warblers, Swallows, House Martins, Swifts, Cuckoo and other summer migrants have left.  But keep watch for the occasional Blackcap or Chiffchaff which decides to over-winter (I have never seen one at the allotments, but they may be about).  The most obvious incomers are the Pink-footed Geese which fill the skies and fields in great numbers from the autumn on.  They have escaped the frozen winter wastes of Greenland, Iceland and Spitsbergen to feed on winter cereal, beet and grain.  You may notice that the fields get a bit quieter as the winter goes on and these foods are exhausted – they seem to have a tendency to end up down on the fresh marshes where there is at least grass to eat.  Most winter geese flying over the allotments are Pink-feet, but there are occasional groups of Greylag Geese.  These are much bigger, heavier birds with large orange bills which generally fly closer to the ground than Pink-feet. 

Other changes are less obvious and only become clearer if we take a closer look.  One such change concerns the gulls which we see around the fields all the year round.  In the summer the great majority are Black-headed Gulls (with an increasing number of Mediterranean Gulls, which were very rare here until the invention of pig farms and global warming), but most do not stay for the winter (although the aforementioned pig farms may be tempting more to remain).  In the winter months by far the most common gull is, funnily enough, the Common Gull which is the one with the grey wings with white ‘spots’ in their black tips.  They have returned from their coastal breeding grounds up north – ploughed fields within reach of the shore are their version of winter in Marbella.

This is also a good time to see waders which winter in Norfolk.  Curlew and Lapwing, which are mobile looking for the best fields to feed on, are the most likely sight from the allotments.  But there are also occasional overflights of other species such as Black-tailed Godwit (long straight bills, with striking black and white wings and, helpfully, a black tail) and Golden Plover (a smallish wader, flashing their white underparts as they fly rapidly in tight formation). 

There are also changes in the hedgerows.  In most cases this is just a matter of quantity.  The influx of birds from the continent can increase the numbers of common thrushes and finches, making it seem like there are whole flocks of Blackbirds, Greenfinch and Chaffinch.  (Flocking together in winter is a sensible strategy adopted by many small birds.  At the plots you can sometimes see mixed flocks of tits – with the occasional Goldcrest – moving through the hedges and trees, or small flocks of Sky Lark milling around on the fields).  

Seasonal challenges

Good spot

Two members of the thrush family which only come here in the winter are the Fieldfare and the Redwing.  They usually arrive from Scandinavia and eastern Europe in late autumn and can come in great waves – last year I saw several thousand fly over Thornham Marsh in less than an hour.  On arrival they feast on the berries in our hedgerows.  I have seen them at the allotments, but the challenge is to find them in the early part of the year.  Once they have begun to exhaust the local crop of berries, they tend to disperse to look for more food leaving much smaller numbers.

The Fieldfare is a large thrush.  It is a little smaller than a Blackbird, but it looks bigger thanks to its long tail and its striking plumage: its grey head contrasts with a russet chest and the light grey patch at the bottom of its back stands out against its black tail.  As it flies overhead you should be able to see white ‘armpits’ under its wings.  It has a distinctive loud rattling call.  By the second half of the winter they are likely to be seen feeding in open fields rather than hedges.

The Redwing is a bit like a Song Thrush, but has a noticeable white stripe over the eye and rusty red smudge on its flanks.  When it flies you might be able to pick up the red underwing ‘armpits’ which give it its name.  A shy bird, this will stay hidden in hedges before bursting out to fly off.  Its call is a long thin whistle.

Something new?

Until recently Rooks were hard to see in this area.  But there are now more of them – they are among the birds who find pig farms irresistible.  I have not yet seen any around the allotments, but it may only be a matter of time before they turn up.  Keep an eye out for a bird the size of a Carrion Crow with a conical silvery-grey bill.

Sound of the Season

If like me you are always head down, digging (as if!), the first sign of approaching geese will be their calls.  Before looking up, try to work out from the sound whether they are Greylag (a raucous honk) or Pink-feet (a lighter, almost conversational medley of different hink-hinks).  But beware of getting misled by the farmyard geese on the other side of the hedge!


(or how to avoid digging)

Stephen Noakes – Plot 17

I am not a particularly good birder.  Good birders keep diaries, notebooks and lists and I have not kept a list of birds seen at the allotment over the past few years.  Very bad. (Mind you, I did once keep a list of birds seen from latrines in the African bush, but that’s a different tale).  So these notes on the birds we might find at the allotments may well not tell the complete story.  They are written in the hope that they will help you enjoy a welcome distraction from a hard day’s digging, weeding or chatting at the plot.

Where to look?

Even an area as small as Brancaster allotments provides a number of different habitats in which birds can live, eat and breed. 

Allotments.  Most (sorry, all) of our plots are too tidy and too busy to provide a full-time home for birds.  But they are a good place to pop into for food or for a bath.  Judging from the evidence of birds I have had to release from our fruit cage the plots are popular restaurants for Blackbirds, Dunnock and House Sparrow.  Wood Pigeon, Pheasants and Red-legged Partridge love feasting on unguarded crops and of course we have all had visits from Blackbirds and Robins looking to grab worms and grubs from under our forks when we are digging.  Less obvious perhaps are the Goldfinch which enjoy feeding on seed heads (my excuse for not rooting out every thistle), the House Sparrows which make up for the lack of water on the plot by taking dust baths on the central path and the Kestrel which last autumn took up station on various shed roofs waiting to pounce on the apparently numerous small rodents commuting between compost heaps.

Farm Fields.  These are less tidy versions of the allotment plots and attract many of the same birds, but depending on the time of year and what crops are being grown they can attract other species.  Year-round they can be good for gulls and some waders and in the winter they are liked by Pink-footed Geese (usually on the more distant fields).  There are also a few Pied Wagtail, Sky Larks and Meadow Pipits. 

Trees.  The trees dotted along the northern edge of the allotments are often a good place to spot finches (Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch), tits (Great and Blue with the occasional roving party of Long-tailed) and woodpeckers (both of the more common species – the Great Spotted and Green – are regulars) as well as thrushes and larger birds such as Wood Pigeon and Collared Dove.  The copse of trees up the hill from the allotments appears to be home to a number of larger birds including Buzzard and members of the crow family (Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Magpie and Jay). 

Electricity wires and pylons.  Basically man-made trees, they do not offer birds any food, but they do provide good open perches from which to hunt or which they can use fairly safely to rest or socialise.  For us, birds on the wires are easier to see than those in the tree-tops.  You can regularly see Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove and Kestrel, but they are at their best in the summer when they are much used by Swallows (including as a kindergarten for youngsters learning to fly-catch) and Cuckoo.

Hedges.  These house the biggest variety of smaller birds, but are also the hardest place to get a good view.  This is where the thrushes, finches and tits spend most of their time – but you can see them better in other places around the allotments.  In the spring and summer, however, they are the best and perhaps only place to spot the warblers which come to our patch to breed: Blackcap, Chiffchaff (but these can also be seen in the trees), Whitethroat (which also like to launch their song flights from the electricity wires) and the shy Lesser Whitethroat.

The Sky.  The best, most obvious and most overlooked (under-looked?) place to see birds. We are fortunate in that our allotments come with big wide-open skies which give us the chance to get good views of birds which do not live on our patch but which fly over either on their daily trips to and from their feeding or roosting areas (often on Brancaster Marsh) or which are passing through on migration.  Regular sightings include the ‘Big 3’ birds of prey (Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Red Kite), geese and waders but there have also been unexpected one-off sightings of birds like Cormorant and even Common Crane. 

When to look?

Birds come and go with the seasons.  There are some familiar patterns: Cuckoo, swallows and warblers in the spring and summer, geese and Curlews in the winter. 

There some species which seem resident.  They can be seen at the allotments all year round.  But this can be deceptive.  Many of ‘our’ Blackbirds and Robins which nest locally head for milder climates for the winter to be replaced by their cousins which come in from the continent to spend the winter here.  Finches and other species also come in from Europe.  It can be hard to tell, but a lot of the continental Blackbirds are bigger and heavier than ‘our’ birds.  

There are also a few birds which can be seen in the Brancaster area throughout the year, but which can often only be seen from the allotments in certain seasons, for example, when they come off the marshes to breed on the farmland.  These include the Oystercatcher and Shelduck.  

The birds that you are most likely to see at any time of the year are:

Large raptors: Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Red Kite

Small raptors: Kestrel, Sparrowhawk

Gamebirds: Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge 

Rails: Moorhen (rather oddly there is often one milling around the edge of the 

parking area)

Gulls: Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull (but see the Winter 

Update link)

Pigeons: Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove

Woodpeckers: Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker

Crows: Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Jay

Farmland birds: Sky Lark, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, House Sparrow, Starling

Thrushes: Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush

Hedgerow birds: Wren, Dunnock, Robin

Tits: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit (not really a tit, but who cares?)

Finches: Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch

Year-round Challenge

These are the 36 species of birds I would be confident of seeing in every month of the year at the allotment (provided I’m not too lazy to turn up for work or not too busy digging to make up for lazy days).  Annoyingly there are a couple of birds that I assume are around all the time, but which I have never seen at the plot myself.  A bit of a challenge for 2019:

Barn Owl The rough fields and, especially, the neglected areas along the hedge lines 

ought to attract them.  They do hunt in daylight even in winter, so should be visible. 

Tawny Owl Much easier to hear than see, this is browner than the Barn and normally 

only hunts after dusk.

Linnet A small finch.  In summer the males are a bright mix of reddish pink chests, 

brown backs and grey heads, but in winter – when they are more numerous (continental reinforcements) – they can be rather dull and easily overlooked.  A farmland bird that thrives on set-aside and on seeds left over from harvest (their scientific name comes from the same Latin word as cannabis) they ought to be easily found over our neighbouring fields and hedges.  A good birder should be able to find them!