The Barefoot Birdman

Dan Mead explains how to care for, and enjoy, the wildlife around us

Food for Free

Spring is finally with us and the guard is changing once again. The over-wintering bird population has begun departing to make way for our spring and summer migrants. Whooper and Bewick swans, white fronted, pink-footed and bean geese will soon be swapping the pastures, marshes and nature reserves of the U.K. for their more northerly breeding grounds. Many depart for Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and Northern Russia returning to traditional sites. The main reason they favour such locations is that they are situated in remote arctic tundra where there are fewer predators to disturb them and decent food supplies. Taking their place will be some of our early spring migrants such as the garganey, an often overlooked duck that is well worth a second glance. These birds are pretty unique in the U.K. as they are the only species of duck that visit us in the summer and spend their winters in Africa. The female looks very similar to a number of other species, with pale mottled brown plumage, but when the males get their summer coats on they are unmistakable. Bold blue/grey/silver flanks and a bright, white eye stripe combine with a finely patterned brown/black ground colour, occasionally mistaken for a teal at a distance but without the teal's greenish head and wingbar. They tend to dabble around the edge of grassy marshland or upend themselves in the deeper water searching for tiny aquatic invertebrates and soft vegetation. They like to associate with teal and with shovelers, which can make identification of juveniles and females tricky, and are quite a quiet, understated species. A little bird that has been popping up all over the place lately is the redpoll. A rather reticent and shy garden visitor, I have had more reports of sightings in the past two weeks than ever before. This morning there were two feeding up by the shop here at Merriments, happily devouring the Nyjer seed whilst a small flock of goldfinches squabbled noisily over the sunflower hearts. Whilst they are pretty easy to distinguish from most other species, they can easily be confused with the linnet so I'll try to point out the main differences for you now. Both the redpoll and linnet are smallish finches similar in size to a goldfinch. They both have a reddish breast and forehead, with the redpolls generally being a little darker. The redpoll has a smaller bill, a tiny triangular affair suitable for cracking open small seeds such as alder and larch. The redpoll prefers to feed in the trees whilst the linnet favours the ground, also the redpoll has a small dark patch on the chin whereas the linnet has a paler head and cheek. Finally the redpoll has a more rufous back with whitish wingbars whereas the linnet is more buff-brown with dark trailing edges. So keep your eyes peeled for these colourful little garden visitors, particularly in mixed flocks with goldfinch and, if you are lucky, greenfinch. Until next time, have a great month's bird watching.