When I left for work the car temperature gauge read -3. By the time I had finished scraping the windscreen clear the cold was eating painfully into my exposed fingers. It has been cold all week. The wildlife will have to be bold to survive, push the boundaries where normally they would be tentative and wait. If there is opportunity for food or water they will have to take it, the risk of waiting outweighs what dangers may lie in wait close by. The blackbirds and thrushes, and the smaller birds that joined them, had stripped the shriveling berries from the hawthorn bushes opposite the pub in Stedham village at least a week before Christmas, and it will be many weeks yet before the first caterpillars and grubs become easy pickings.
A redwing was making use of the puddles where cars had broken the ice as they enter and exit the car park at work; this freed water will be a magnet to all sorts of birds in need of a drink and a bathe. I wish I could’ve stood and watched longer.
Driving to work in the mornings this week, has been a journey through a prefect picture of winter in Sussex. Down here in our gentler southern county, we rarely see the sheep-flock-burying drifts of snow of the Cumbrian hills, and the blizzards of the Moors and Highlands are largely unheard of; our winters are somewhat more sparkly, and temporary. Spells of ice and frost are intermittently disrupted by grey cloud, and damp dreary days, giving nature and us a brief reprieve.
When the frost does come, it is sharp. The air from your lungs condenses into tight swirling clouds the moment it leaves your lips, and when fingers get wet from the gate latch or car door handle, the cold-pain bites deep to the bone. In the harshest freezes, when the nights are as clear as crystal and brightly starlit, the frost forms such that it binds to un-melted frost from the previous day, ice freezing to ice. The ground under foot feels iron hard. Non-flowing water is like a stone to over 3 inches deep in places. These times are hard for the wildlife; food is hard to find whilst thirst can be a killer.
The local birds have one thing in their favour however; the general public and their gardens. The popularity of feeding garden birds has risen greatly over recent decades and there is some evidence to suggest that this could be an important favour in winter survival rates of wild birds. Some birds, such as the Black Cap, are even appearing to couple this supplementary feeding with the warming effects of climate change, and are altering their habits, choosing to stay in the south of England rather than migrate further. Interestingly, if this strategy works out for them, it also means that these birds are in their breeding territories and in better condition than exhausted migrants arriving back in the spring, possibly giving them a breeding advantage.
Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Wren, Nuthatch, House Sparrow, Wood Pigeon, and Blackbird regularly visit my garden bird food offerings. Goldfinches used to be frequent feeders but I have only seen them flying over recently.
Despite the cold weather, I have been hearing Great Tits singing loudly from the trees that border the plant nursery where I work. Their song is a repetitive, high pitched, two note affair, which I often liken to a bicycle pump or squeaky wheelbarrow. Many people says it sounds like ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ which is probably quite appropriate as the children return to school after the Christmas holidays.
These days of iron frost focus the attention of our birds and other wildlife on simply surviving, but warmer times will come soon and then many other species will begin to sing and pursue other needs beyond the present moments requirements.