In the middle of this winter we had a brief visit from a Blackcap to the garden. This was not strictly a new bird, because Blackcaps are quite common summer migrants and we see and hear them quite often. In winter, however, there are very few. These are not birds which have stayed here rather than migrating south. Evidence from ringing shows that they are from northern and eastern Europe, and arrive after our own summer birds have already left. Look for a small, slender bird, grey, with a neat little black cap. The only confusion is with one of the tits, the Marsh Tit, which despite its name is a woodland bird, visiting gardens in our area in small numbers. It is plumper and browner, with a black cap extending from the beak, across the top of the head, and down onto the neck. It also has a neat black bib just below the beak, looking like a Hitler moustache. Female Blackcaps have a dull, reddish-brown cap.
In summer, Blackcaps, like the other warblers, are insect feeders. For the winter visitors this is not an option, and they make much more use of berries in their diet, as well as various foods which they find on garden bird tables. Ours was eating the berries of a small garden shrub called Callicarpa, given to us when we first moved here. This is the first bird I have ever seen taking these berries, which are small, in clusters, and an astonishing bright metallic purple. They look like shiny metal balls (think the colour of 1960’s anodised aluminium ashtrays), most unappetising and I am not surprised that the birds are not interested, although the Blackcap ate quite a few.
Following the success of the nesting Barn Owls, we thought we might also try and encourage the Little Owls which are also found in the area. In 2014 they seemed to be very active and noisy. Although these owls often sit out on branches and may be seen or disturbed in the daytime, they seem to be most active and noisiest late into the dusk. They have a loud, short, sharp yapping call, which distinguishes them from the other owls. We have put up a nestbox of a design appropriate for Little Owls on one of the large trees not far from the house, in hope that they may be encouraged to roost or even to nest there.
Check out the gulls in the fields at this time of year. Some are the familiar Black-headed Gulls, which have just a small dark spot behind the eye. Surprisingly early in spring, and quite quickly, this will change to the breeding plumage, the complete blackish head that gives this gull its name. This winter there are also large numbers of the so-called Common Gull. These are only slightly larger, with grey backs and black-and-white wingtips, like a small version of the Herring gull. Despite their name, they are only scarce breeders in East Anglia, but many come from further north in winter to feed on ploughland and pastures here.
Finally, a winter plant to look out for. The exotically named Winter Heliotrope occurs on some banks and verges in the area. Not a true native plant, it has spread into the wild in the last 200 years. It forms a dense cover of round leaves through which emerge loose spikes of small, rather untidy pink flowers. If you find it, just have a sniff – it has an amazing fragrance like sweet vanilla – a real antidote to a dull February day.
By Geoffrey Abbott