Watch Out for Berries
As winter sets in, day length continues to shorten and preparations for Christmas loom large, it's all too easy to miss out on the wildlife to be seen in Dorset as we approach the end of 2013. This year the countryside is full of bumper crops of berries on the holly, rowan and hawthorn bushes and although redwings and fieldfares have been with us for a couple of months, this is the time to see them as temperatures drop and the search for food becomes urgent.
Welcome to the Migrants
Redwings are the same size as song thrushes but have a white stripe above the eye and a rusty-red flank. They join us from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia and loose flocks keep in contact with a high pitched 'tseep'.
Fieldfares are somewhat larger with subtle changes in colour from the grey head, brown back, light grey rump and darker tail. Most of the birds we see in winter breed in Scandinavia and their characteristic 'chack chack' is a familiar call on a winter walk in the countryside. If conditions turn cold, then look for these winter thrushes in your garden where they will take fallen apples and berries from ornamental trees.
Who Eats the Mistletoe Berries?
Unlike these winter visitors, the mistle thrush, our largest resident thrush, can be heard singing in the second half of this month. Listen for a melodic blackbird-like song often delivered from a high perch and sometimes in poor weather conditions - hence its alternative name 'stormcock'.
The mistle thrush also feeds on berries, including the sticky white berries of the mistletoe, found most frequently in the north-east of the county. If the berries get deposited on the soft bark of an apple or poplar tree, the developing mistletoe plant makes some food using its own green leaves but also acquires some minerals from the tissues of the host plant.
More widespread and more noticeable in winter is butcher's broom, a small shrub that occurs in old woods and hedgerows. The flattened spiny 'leaves' are in fact flattened stems which first bear a single small flower, to be followed by a bright scarlet berry.
Although leaves and berries provide much of the colour in the countryside in December, Gorse has also started to flower and will continue to provide an abundance of yellow until June of next year. Gorse is widespread throughout Dorset and has played an important role in the past as a fuel and as food for cattle and horses.
On our heathlands, gorse is still managed by cutting and by livestock in order to provide the young growth favoured by dartford warblers. If you peer into that complex gantry of vicious spines, it is difficult to comprehend how dartford warblers pick off the spiders and insects required for their survival without coming to harm. I still haven't seen a one-eyed dartford warbler!
Listen for Screams in the Night
Foxes are common in Dorset and feed on small mammals, insects, earthworms and even fruit in the countryside and discarded food in urban areas. The mating season occurs in winter and at this time the vixen produces an unmistakable blood-curdling scream at night. By day, particularly when temperatures are low, foxes can be seen patiently searching for food.
Cheeky, Noisy Garden Visitors
And finally, if you feed garden birds and include nuts and fat balls, keep an eye open for roving parties of long-tailed tits. Numbers are high at present and flocks of 12 -20 individuals are not uncommon. Never silent, they keep in touch with high 'see-see-see' calls and a soft 'tupp' and just as suddenly as they appear, they pass through and are gone.
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer
Fieldfare - Photo by Linda Yarrow
Mistletoe - a favourite of the Mistlethrush
Fox - Photo by WildStock
Long-Tailed Tit by Julian Sawyer
Photographs by John Wright
unless otherwise stated