Tracking bird activity through the winter woods

Light snow cover brightens a winter woodland walk by letting you track what birds have been doing

We've had topsy-turvy weather these last few weeks with bright, warm sunshine bringing the bees out one day, cold and snow a few days later, followed by storms and gales. It makes me wonder how the wildlife manage to keep going. 

Pheasant footprints in snowSpending time in the woods after snow gives an interesting opportunity to look for signs of activity that wildlife leave behind them. It's easy to spot where they've been, but not always easy to tell what the species was.

Walking along one of the main paths through the woodland I've been working in during winter since late 2014, I spotted the footprints of a large bird and knew immediately that it was a pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). The footprints, one placed directly in front of the other, brought to mind a clear image of a male pheasant in all his flamboyant glory as he stalked along the path. Male pheasants always look slightly foolish to me; their tentative gait makes them seem uncomfortably nervous, as if they wish to be invisible. I must look kindly on them as pheasant season has not long ended and they've no doubt been dodging the lead shot of hunters for many weeks. 

Walking on through the woods I spot snow that has clearly been disturbed over a large area. Patches of snow have been moved aside, revealing the leaf litter beneath. I wonder what creature did it. Was it badgers visiting the latrines we find throughout the woods? Or were they looking for food, perhaps? A slow walk and closer observation amongst them and reveals the answer, for next to almost every bare patch I see the faint footprints of a blackbird (Turdus merula) in the melting snow. The bird's passage between the trees, as it cleared snow and foraged amongst the leaves, is clear and reminds me of how blackbirds throw up leaves and bark chippings in gardens. I hope it found what it was looking for, be it worms, grubs, beetles or slugs.

Blackbird foraging activity in snowThis woodland is host to a large number of fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) during winter. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and leaving in late winter, and I first noticed them in November, when I saw a flock of them perched in a tree in a hedgerow on the nearby farm land, all of them facing the same direction.

They are timid on their migration visits and fly off at the hint of a nearby human, but their presence in the woods is clear. Certain trees, often larch or pine, tell that they've been used for roosting and the evidence is seen in the dense scattering of droppings at the base of the favoured tree. Stand still and you won't necessarily see the fieldfares but their voices are all around you. It is a strange cacophony of whistles and clacks and it sounds to me just like I imagine a sound effect might do in an old science-fiction B-movie, used when insectoid aliens are about to terrify some unsuspecting humans (you can hear them towards the end of this clip). One day the fieldfares might stop for me to photograph them, but that day is yet to come. 
 

Please note: the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS. 

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