Dorset in Winter
Colin Vandell explores the effect of the year’s final season on Dorset
Published in December ’11
We may not cherish the thought of winter with the long dark nights and likely prospect of cold weather, but as humans we are more or less able cope with the season. However, wildlife in the Dorset countryside is pressed into a desperate struggle for survival once temperatures tumble and a freeze sets in.
It is unusual to see significant snowfall in Dorset, but mid-winter is the time when this is most likely to occur. Such extreme conditions can make the countryside pretty to look at but more often than not winter closes in with a cold, clammy dimness as daylight diminishes and darkness prevails. Raw, biting winds can slice across the countryside, penetrating every nook and cranny with icy tendrils.
As winter takes hold, birds need to feed throughout the day. With long, cold nights to endure, some of the smaller species must consume sufficient food to equal their own bodyweight, each day, in order to have any chance of survival. Although this struggle to survive becomes acutely apparent in harsh conditions, Dorset generally enjoys a relatively mild climate. So much so that many birds flee from the north and east to take advantage of the relatively milder conditions to be found here.
Fieldfares arrive to join other thrushes and blackbirds searching for earth worms in open fields. When colder conditions set in, fieldfares become bolder as they retreat to gardens and orchards to squabble over windfall apples. On winter afternoons, loose flocks of fieldfare may be seen flying to their night-time roosts uttering their ‘chuckling’ contact calls as they pass overhead. When the redwings arrive, they first feed on holly berries, completely stripping one tree before moving on to the next. There is direct competition between redwings and humans at this time of year because as the berries are sustaining the redwing population so the human population is harvesting them for Christmas decorations! When the holly berry crop is exhausted, redwings concentrate on searching for food in leaf litter, moving through woods and copses, turning over leaves to find insectivorous food hiding in the debris.
Throughout the winter, birds need to concentrate some of their daytime activities on feather care as well as feeding. We may well expect them to avoid freezing water but bathing and preening is essential, as well-cared-for plumage provides maximum insulation during the night.
The range of bird sounds at the coast reflects the build up of waders and wildfowl which has occurred through autumn and early winter. Flocks of ducks form rafts in the sheltered waters of the Fleet lagoon, Poole harbour and Stanpit Marsh. As high tides rise and fall the flocks of redshank, dunlin and ringed plover take to the air, twisting and turning as they drift like palls of smoke across the mudflats. At high tide avocets assemble in the lagoon on Brownsea Island, and are an impressive sight when they take to the air, flashing their black wing bars in perfect unison. Turnstones, (as their name suggests), constantly flip over small pebbles and seaweed at the waters edge in their search for food. These birds occur in small parties at Ferrybridge, Poole and Christchurch harbour.
Brent geese arrive from the high Arctic to spend the winter months here. This small, dark but conspicuous goose can be seen on the Fleet lagoon where it feeds on eel-grass. In spring these geese return to their northern breeding grounds once more. Other notable birds to look out for along the Dorset coast in winter include; whimbrel, curlew, purple sandpiper and both black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits.
Some species of bird roost together in flocks in winter. For example on December and January afternoons hundreds of pied wagtails congregate in the Tesco car park in Dorchester where they will go to roost nearby as darkness falls. One amazing spectacle to witness along the coast is the gathering of starlings at West Bexington before they funnel down into the reedbeds like being poured from a pepperpot!
The delicate nature of hoarfrost is arguably the most enchanting of winter weather conditions. Hoarfrosts often occur in river valleys like the Frome and the Piddle in freezing weather, but may also be seen on high ground where temperatures can be considerably colder than on low-lying land. During clear, cold nights the contrasting temperatures of the air and the land create condensation in the form of mist or fog. These water droplets freeze to twigs and branches to build up like wafer thin blades of white ice.
During persistent, freezing conditions small mammals are also vulnerable and need to eat frequently to maintain energy levels and body heat. Common and pigmy shrews, for example, are unable to survive for more than two hours without food, even during the night.
Apart from bats, very few of our native wild animals hibernate. It is only the dormouse and the hedgehog that actually go to sleep for the winter season, all other mammals may be encountered at any time. Badgers give birth to cubs in late winter and on frosty winter mornings the steamy vapour of badger breath can sometimes
be seen rising from the sett’s entrances as the mammals
Mid-winter is the mating season for foxes and the wraithlike sound of a vixen calling after dark may be heard anywhere in the county. The husky bark of the vixen carries far into the frosty darkness announcing her desire to mate. Frogs can spawn as early as mid-January, and will certainly have returned to water by late winter in order to mate and to lay eggs. Under cover of darkness, bullfrogs emit guttural, churring sounds which attract female frogs to join the orgy.
Even in the middle of the harshest winter, there are signs that new life is already stirring. Spikes of daffodil leaves push up through the leaf litter and snowdrop buds thicken and split. Flowers of winter heliotrope begin to show in the hedge banks and the male catkins of hazel and alder trees begin to develop. These small signs remind us that the cycle of life goes on and that winter will fade to give way to spring in nature’s fertile tapestry in this wonderful county.