Winter Birdlife on Our Heathland

The deep winter months might be the time of year when we humans veer away from the idea of visiting the open heathland on top of Quantock on a cold foggy day. But for a lot of wildlife it has to be business as usual! And if you do venture out in misty, maybe frosty, conditions the visual rewards when visiting the dramatic winter Quantock landscapes can be high.

We are often concerned about protecting and enhancing the places, habitats, that birds breed in during summer time but we should be equally concerned to protect and enhance the places that they come to winter in. The place they call home during the winter months.

Perhaps the most exotic creature that comes to winter on the Quantocks is the Merlin. This is a tiny bird of prey, smaller than a Kestrel and only a little bigger than a Blackbird. Merlin seen on the Quantocks in winter could well have travelled to our heathlands from their summer breeding grounds in Iceland. This is a minimum distance of 1,000 miles!

To see a tiny Merlin sitting on low heather bushes before flying of fast and low hunting for food is a very rewarding sight. The birds they are most likely to prey on are Meadow Pipits, which are very common on Quantock during winter, but they are known to feed on many small birds , sometimes up to Woodpecker size. They were definitely feeding on Redwings on a day I watched a Merlin, on a cold very misty December day, chasing after Redwings that were in turn feeding on Holly berries. A small patch of mainly pale brown feathers, with a few of the red feathers which are on the underside of a Redwings wing, showed that one chase was successful.  

Buzzard, Peregrine and Kestrel can also be seen hunting over the open heathland on Quantock during the winter months.

Another winter visitor to our open heathland areas is the Woodcock. Although technically a wading bird Woodcock breed in woodland, and very often Oak woodland. Woodcock seen on Quantock during the winter months are likely to be from breeding areas in Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. I have several times had a Woodcock flash up just a metre or so from in front of me whilst walking a narrow path through the heather. I always feel a little guilty when this happens as Woodcock rest in the daytime and mainly feed at night, so the birds I disturb could have been asleep. This is a good reason why we should keep to the regular and well worn path network across the heathland, so we give these migrants the best chances of surviving through the winter. Woodcock breed in several Quantock woodlands, but our breeding birds may well go down to the southern parts of France or Spain for the winter.

Although we mostly associate Snipe seen in Somerset with wetland habitats a good number seem to spend at least part of their winter feeding on Quantock heathland. The Snipe that you might spot on Quantock in winter is likely to come from Sweden or perhaps Finland. Snipe that breed in Britain mainly migrate south with many wintering in Spain. As with the Woodcock you are most likely to see Snipe as they take off like a rocket from beneath your feet when walking across heathland.

Both Woodcock and Snipe are supremely well camouflaged in many shades of brown and black stripes, which match the dead leaves and other winter vegetation perfectly, making it nigh on impossible to spot them before they take off.

All the above birds could be wintering on the tops of the Quantocks till mid March. Seeing great wildlife at any time of year does include a great deal of luck, but the more you get out and tramp about the more you are likely to see. For me, making the effort to get out on those misty winter days is always worthwhile as there will be winter landscapes and winter wildlife that cannot be seen any other time of year.

Written by Nigel Phillips