Meteorological March and Spring are just three weeks old but Winter still has some spite left to inflict on an unsuspecting world. Just when I thought that it was time to shed a layer or two and welcome the boys of Summer back from their long odyssey in a different hemisphere, something iron hard and cruel is still clinging to the edge of the turning world’s abyss.
The mercury said -1 but the mocking gale told me that -7 was where it was at. Four days ago, I heard my first Chiff-Chaff and Willow Warbler of this Spring but today they are mute, struck dumb by the deep chill that freezes the hopeful notes as they leave their throats. Those rough voiced emissaries of Winter, the Fieldfares, move emboldened through the rough grassed meadow with a swagger that says they are going nowhere just yet.
The snow came silently and quickly in the dark fastness of the night, somnambulant and cunning as we dreamed of warmer days. The white icy crystals stacked up quickly on the wind. The boardwalk I was on became a timber canal through this wetland and covered in this frozen precipitation. I had not expected to see snow again until we had passed the Autumn Equinox.
Hidden behind a wall of small, sliding observation holes, like a peepshow, small birds were omnipresent, flickering back and forth, frantically attacking the feeders. This is more than just a feeding frenzy, this is a renewed fight to survive this plunge in temperature. Hard winters are the killing fields for songbirds. In the winter of 1963, when a mosaic of snow and ice covered the ground from Boxing Day until early March, it is believed that around 50% of birds in Britain perished. Watercourses and even the see were armour plated with ice and 90% of Kingfishers died, deprived of their ability to fish.
The snow lying on the ground threw light and heat back into the dark womb of interplanetary space and uplit the birds. It was as if they had been freshly painted. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew in to slap silently against a tree trunk and flitted from feeder and back to its perch. It moved crab-like and jerky, back and forth and around the Ash in a slightly ascending spiral. Black and white with a deep scarlet on its head, and the base of its tail, it looked for all the world like a giant Zebra Spider with stigmata.
Female Chaffinches in their dark beige garb, shone a little more than usual but the arrival of a male Bullfinch dazzled me. His breast was the glowing pink of Cherry Blossom and contrasted with the matt black mask that was his head. His bill shone the way newly cleaved coal does in sunlight and his underparts looked as if they had been scattered with fine ash.
I saw a male Pheasant, a humble and oft overlooked bird in its ubiquity. He was transformed by the blank white screen and glowed as if he were lit from within, all golden brown, green and red, enamelled like a cloisonné Faberge egg.
I walked on and the wind cracked and roared as it filled the clouds like sails, pushing the sky ever onward and taking with it all it contained. Two Buzzards, mere silhouettes against the neutral backdrop, surrendered and drifted obediently with it.
I retreated to the shelter of another hide, elevated to give views over the fen and into the canopy of the woodland. The view was dominated by a feeding tray on top of a tall pole. A cloud of small birds were gathered in the surrounding branches and dived down to excarnate the pile of seed.
The small Winter visitors shone like small lanterns in a way that many of our Summer visitors don’t. A male Brambling was furtively hopping among the stale wood chip for fallen grain, too shy to visit the platform. I was mesmerised by his orange glow, like a sunset on his breast and sides.
His wings were soot black with flashes of orange blush and his head was mottled black and brown with a Zorro mask over his eyes. His bill was as yellow as a grain of wheat save for the gunmetal tip.
An exquisite male Reed Bunting appeared. His black/brown mottled head and long beard were punctuated with a white handlebar moustache, His grey streaked flanks contrasted with his chestnut and black back and wings. He hopped fearlessly among two docile Muntjac. They were rooting in the ground under the feeding tray with snow bedecked noses.
My attention was drawn to the drainage channel ahead of me by the persistent and loud trilling call of two Little Grebes. They floated among the waterside vegetation like two dark doughnuts. A Kingfisher flashed along the watercourse, betrayed by its shape. Dark without sunshine it was as if someone had switched its lights off.
My fingers grew numb and I decided to visit the Volunteer Hide where two feeders hung like silent wind chimes and usually attracted three of my favourite winter species. I was not to be disappointed.
My attention was caught immediately by a male Lesser Redpoll, a Knickerbocker Glory of a bird, with its glace cherry cap, rouged cheeks and raspberry ice cream patches on his breast.
The rest of his plumage was a flecked mixture of caramel ice cream brown, beige and black with strongly barred wings. Although resident in Britain, their strongholds are the west and north where they breed, coming to this region in the winter in search of easier pickings.
A more modestly attired bird was in close proximity. A Mealy Redpoll, the Common Redpoll, is also a winter visitor, but paradoxically a much rarer sight, with around 300 visiting our shores each year. These birds are resident in mainland Northern Europe, venturing here in small numbers in search of more clement climes. While sporting the jaunty red cap of its cousin, this bigger bird has pale plumage, as if its colour had been desaturated by the sun and wind.
I searched the bare trees, their branches painted bright green by lichen and found the third bird I was seeking. Even brighter than the lichen, a male Siskin was vivid, resplendent in its khaki green plumage with a Dayglo yellow back, like a tessera bordered by black wings and tail. I had heard and seen distantly a large flock of these social little birds in the tops of tall Alders on the way to the hide. Their calls, shrill and piercing, swirled through the trees like smoke but it was only at close quarters that their beauty could be appreciated.
I left the hide and was blown back by an increasingly cruel wind to the visitor centre and the lure of hot chocolate.