Is it just me, or are there a lot more Grey Squirrels than usual this autumn? Certainly, there was a good acorn crop and they have been busy collecting and burying these, but every time we drive anywhere there seem to be squirrels crossing the road in Kamikaze fashion. Recently one living close to us has avoided this danger by tight-roping across the road on the overhead telephone wire – a real skill which must have taken some time to perfect. The squirrel nests, known as Dreys, are easy to see in the bare trees of winter. They are large balls of twigs, unlike birds’ nests in also incorporating a lot of dead leaves. Also unlike the nests of all the larger birds they are complete balls, not open at the top. Breeding and winter nests (Grey Squirrels do not hibernate, and are quite active during the winter) are larger and built close by the tree trunk, while summer ‘bachelor’ nests are smaller and further out in the branches. Squirrels do sometimes use holes in trees, and recently one reared a litter of three somewhere in our roof space. We didn’t know they were there until they appeared playing on the roof.
Red Squirrels sadly are no longer found in East Suffolk. I have happy memories of them in the Sandlings forests into the 1970’s, and even, in the late 1960’s in Ipswich, in Christchurch Park. A neighbour has made me very jealous by seeing them this summer in the North of England. They are still declining and their range diminishing it seems due to competition with Greys, and disease which these bring and to which the Reds are more susceptible.
Another creature that I have seen more of this autumn is the diminutive Goldcrest. A resident bird, its numbers are swollen in late autumn, sometimes considerably, by others coming over from the Continent. What are called ‘falls’ of Goldcrests are sometimes noticed by birdwatchers along the coast of East Anglia, before they disperse. Look out for them – they can sometimes be seen in the garden. They are very tiny, smaller than any of our other birds, and a dark greenish colour. The bright orange or yellow crest of the name is not always easy to see, so a more reliable feature is the small dark stripe across their wing. As it happens, falls of goldcrests often coincide with the arrival of Woodcock, another resident bird whose numbers are swollen in winter, and which are known as a game bird. Because of this timing and the fact that they seem too small and delicate to have flown unaided across the North Sea, they were often thought to have ridden over on the backs of the Woodcock. They were often referred to as ‘Woodcock Pilots’. I have not heard this name in real life, but I hope it is still used.
Still little sign of our winter visiting thrushes – Redwings and Fieldfares -I have seen only one Redwing to date. I am presuming that this autumn’s weather, with weeks of Westerly or Southerly winds counting against them, is to blame. Keep a look out for them when they do come. In the meantime, the Blackbirds are rapidly finishing off some of the berry crop, especially the orange Pyracantha beside our front door.