I have been more than usually aware of the cold weather this week – for several reasons.
I had been looking forward to the fact that there was racing at Newbury as I had a friend’s member’s badge as he was in Rome watching the rugby – but Newbury was off because of the weather and so I felt a little bit grumpy about that. The bird feeders have been well attended through the week with goldfinches, chaffinches, house sparrows and a few greenfinches. Also two wood pigeons were perched on one sunflower feeder at the same time – no wonder it costs me a fortune. And our central heating is on the blink and so I knew before getting out of bed that it was a very cold morning. A bit of fiddling with the pump, sometimes hitting it works, meant that the radiators were hot as I grumpily headed off to Stanwick Lakes for a walk.
This was my third visit to Stanwick for a walk in eight days (Saturday, Wednesday and Saturday) and at each visit a smaller and smaller expanse of water was open on the various lakes. This time almost all was frozen, and I didn’t see the smew that had brightened my last two visits.
However, I did see a bittern in a tree again – a different tree (this time a willow I think – though it was covered, as was everything else, with hoar frost) by a different lake and I don’t know whether it was a different bittern. I guess it isn’t very sensible to try to roost overnight in water that might freeze you solid in the ice and so this bittern was up a tree. It was a very good view and I wonder how many bitterns I pass here in winter without knowing that they are there.
As the mist cleared so did my grumpiness as the scene was very beautiful. All was white and there were few others around to share it. The water in the air was freezing in my nose and I had to brush ice off my moustache now and again. I met a friend out with his camera who pointed to the ice that had formed on my woolly hat from my frozen breath.
But I was tempted into a detour from my normal route by the sight of a cloud of small birds in the distance. They were in an area where in similar weather in a previous year I had seen large numbers of finches and so I was hoping for a brambling or maybe a tree sparrow if i were lucky.
But what I found were linnets – lots and lots of linnets in a small patch of vegetation which looked like it was deliberately left for the birds. There was one bullfinch and quite a few chaffinches and some greenfinches but loads of linnets. My first estimate was of about 1000 – based on counting 250 on the snowy ground next to the area where most were feeding, and a similar number perched in sight on vegetation, and then a guess that there were just as many out of sight too. But then as I watched, I noticed that there were birds flying in to the flock from a distant hedge. This steady stream of birds allowed me to count the incomers, in 10s, as small groups headed in to join the main flock. Almost all were linnets, with a few other finches (not a goldfinch in sight though) and reed buntings, and I counted, easily, and accurately I think, 940 linnets fly in to join an already large number. There might have been 2000, maybe 2500, linnets there, but 1500+ is a conservative estimate.
Wow! That’s a lot of linnets in a small area.
And thanks to the wonders of Birdtrack I can tell you that in 270 visits to this site over the last few years I have seen linnets on only 42 occasions – so they are hardly an abundant species. There aren’t huge numbers of ringing recoveries for this species and so it is difficult to know from where these linnets might have come – but they certainly aren’t all nesting within sight of where they were feeding yesterday.
You may be wondering about the role of the farmer in this wildlife extravaganza – and I’m afraid I can’t help much as I don’t know the owner or the ownership boundaries. But, and I don’t want to appear rude here, it doesn’t look like the most productive and intensively farmed land in the neighbourhood to me. This looks like a good example, though, of a small area of land (much less than a hectare) feeding an awful lot of birds. We need more such patches, dotted across the countryside, to do an awful lot of good, and I have a feeling that the National Farmers Union position on productive farming won’t leave much room for thousands of linnets.
I wonder whether this was the biggest flock of linnets in Northants – I’m told it is the biggest for many years, but maybe you can tell me. Whether or not it was, it warmed me up and thrilled me to see so many of this bird in such a small area. But I was still relieved, when I got home, to find the radiators were still warm.