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Stuart Bullen: Enjoy watching our wildlife

A nuthatch. Photo: Terry Barnatt.
A nuthatch. Photo: Terry Barnatt.

Hiking about the windy countryside this past few weeks has been a real endurance test for me.

It’s not necessarily the tracks, rides and paths becoming watery quagmires of ankle deep mud which make walking an arduous and laborious ordeal. Nor has it been the indecisive kid in a sweetshop attitude of the Great British Weather, unable to make up its mind whether (no pun intended) or not to hail, rain or stay sunny.

With the woods bare, skeleton like, with little or no leaf or ground cover, wildlife can be easier to watch.

No, what made this fortnight particularly testing have been the strong gales. The sudden violent gusts that bite through the Gore-Tex jacket, penetrating all thermal protection right through to the inside core of the body. Continuous invisible body blows of instant cold that knocks the energy out of you. Walk headlong into the gales and you become momentary blinded and unable to catch your breath as wave after tidal wave of accelerated air crashes into your face like a stormy sea smashing into rocks. You start to mentally question the sensibility of being out. Man versus Nature; with me coming off a very poor second best.

But this time of year, the no man’s land between the end of late winter and the start of spring proper, does give you the chance to enjoy our nature in a way that’s not often available during the rest of the year.

With the woods bare, skeleton like, with little or no leaf or ground cover, wildlife can be easier to watch. Animal tracks can be followed, as their footprints stay fresher and sharper on muddy footpaths. The first early signs of badgers can be found around their setts. Fallow deer stand out against the horizon as they walk across empty ploughed fields. You might catch a fleeting glimpse of fox stealthily blurring in and out of view in the distance

And with sunny interludes and the need for them to take advantage of the break in the weather and forage, the woods become noisy with the sound of birds.

Identifying birds through their birdsong can seem a daunting, complicated and near impossible task; almost nerdy. And that’s what I thought till recently. Then Terry Barnatt lent me a CD of birdsongs and calls. Terry makes sound recordings of local wildlife in our area, and this was a CD he had produced. Initially when I was given it, I was a little dubious as to whether I would find time and, to be frank, the inclination to studiously learn the different songs. But I did and I’m glad I took the little effort to do so. By memorising just a couple of birds that I knew I could see this time of year, I found the results have been a real eye opener. When out for walks I now can “see” these particular birds everywhere.

One of these birds is the nuthatch. These attractive small sparrow size woodland birds have long been a favourite of mine. With its slatey blue back and crown with white under parts, a splash of orange near its tail and a long black mascara line of its eye stripe down to its prominent beak, a nuthatch looks like a cross between a miniature woodpecker and a kingfisher. What makes them unique among UK birds is their ability to walk up and down head first on tree trunks. Spotting them darting upwards and downwards, performing acrobatic manoeuvres like tiny wall of death daredevils can be a little tricky. They tend to live in the top of deciduous mature trees like oak, right up in the canopy, which means seeing them usually requires binoculars, especially later in the year when the leaves are fully formed. But after the changeable weather we have been having, nuthatches foraging around for beech nuts or acorns can be seen on lower parts of leafless trees. Listen out for their pee-pee –pee call (described by the great Derwent May as the sound of a stone skimming across a frozen lake bouncing on ice), look where it’s coming from and you will probably see one.

If you are really fortunate you may see one hammering open a nut wedged in a hole in the bark of tree. This action gives nuthatches their name: hatch to open. Another old name for them is the mud dauber due to their practise of plastering the entrance holes to their nests with wet mud in which they repeatedly go through before it dries to make a hole in which no other bird can enter, something else you might see in a trunk.

They are not particularly common nationally though not rare either; but they seem quite abundant in our local woods. All together an unusual and interesting bird to watch. Walking at this time of year does have its challenges; nature can be like that. But the reward is well worth the endeavour, whatever the weather throws at you.

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