It is at this time of year, with the wind howling and the rain battering against the window, when we realise just how sensible much of our wildlife is by either migrating to hotter, sunnier places of simply hibernating! Virtually all our warblers (with the exception of a few Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs) leave our shores along with flycatchers, redstarts, Whinchats, cuckoos etc for either the Mediterranean or Africa. I was lucky enough to spend Christmas in The Algarve, Portugal, and it was great to be looking at hordes of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Swallows, House Martins, Sand Martins and Common Sandpipers. Even luckier, perhaps, I was in The Gambia before Christmas keeping a lookout for Scottish Ospreys. It is very interesting to consider that these could be birds that I saw at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Montrose Basin during last summer. Certainly, Ospreys stock up on flatfish before heading south, and Sand Martins nest in the man-made nesting bank in front of the Wildlife Centre.
Although it sounds wonderful for these birds to escape a Scottish winter, they have a very arduous journey to undertake, encountering many hazards en route such as very poor weather conditions, droughts and being shot at! No-one really knows just how many birds perish during these migrations. But it is an essential part of their lives, and they have no control over it.
I find it slightly puzzling why Whinchats head to Africa whilst Stonechats stay behind with the same applying to Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Mediterranean) and Herring Gulls although more and more of the former are now also staying behind.
Hedgehogs, bats, Red & Grey Squirrels normally spend our winters snuggled away in a warm place but during milder periods you can see them out and about looking for food. The Red Squirrels, in particular, seem to be fairly happy in the snow!
Some of our butterflies such as Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock hibernate as well, going into a torpid state, and others such as Painted Lady and Red Admiral will try to do the same but usually without success. I have only ever seen one Red Admiral on the wing in early February.
As I mentioned, many of our birds leave us for warmer places where more food is available but many birds from more northern climes will come to spend the winter with us. Notably, the thousands of Pink-footed Geese which roost in the Montrose Basin but there are thousands of Starlings, thrushes, finches and other species which would much rather be in Scotland than Iceland or Scandinavia when winter sets in.
A cosy place to try to watch some of these birds is the Wildlife Centre at the weekends where you will be made most welcome.
Russell G Nisbet – Teacher/Naturalist.