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Nature & Wildlife

Across the region, we are lucky to have a wide variety of habitats and landscapes giving us the opportunity to observe a wide range of flora and fauna. From windswept shores to inland waterways, from plains to craggy rockfaces, each has secrets to share. 

At Living, we have teamed up with experts in the region to show you what to watch out for at the different times of year...

 

Nature notes on... Winter Visitors

Nature notes on... Winter Visitors

Winter is a time for many animals to hibernate but here in Poitou-Charentes we have plenty of visitors flying in from cooler climes. Chris Luck gets out his binoculars to show us who we should be watching out for…

 

 

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Nature has evolved many different methods and mechanisms for surviving winter, protecting against cold or managing for long periods with little or no available food. Where species remain in one place this can be through storing food, increased outer protection, suspending normal life or growth processes or a combination of means. Some species will also move from one place to another where conditions are more favourable, mammals may move to a lower altitude whereas some birds and butterflies may fly up to 10,000 kilometres or more.

Bird migration, as with dormancy and hibernation, can be either Predictive or Consequential, which putting it simply means some birds migrate when they think it’s the right time and some birds migrate when and if conditions become too harsh for them to stay where they are. In this region in winter we will have non-resident birds arrive here in winter for both reasons, and we will also have substantial population increases to some of our resident bird species. I’ll take us through some that should be easily seen with an indication of how and where we are most likely to see them.

Starting in the garden and always depending on food sources that can be either natural or provided, the Hawfinch stands out being the largest of the finch family with their shimmering orange-brown head, black eye-stripe and bib. Under parts are orange and the back is dark brown and it is possibly most noted for the remarkable, massive bill. It uses this to crack nuts and seeds, including cherry stones, an action that also gives rise to its French name of Grosbec casse-noyaux. Resident here in small numbers and rarely seen in summer, their numbers are increased in winter with birds from the north. They should be easy to encourage with seed feeders, especially in quiet gardens.

Bramblings, (Pinson du Nord), are strictly winter visitors from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and can also be encouraged to feed in gardens from or around seed feeders. In winter they have a black head, orange breast and white rump, upper parts are mainly black mingled with orange. They usually form medium to large flocks and will sometimes join with other mixed flocks of finches.

Siskins, (Tarin des Aulnes), are another bird that is resident here in small numbers. In winter their numbers will also be increased with birds from the north, sometimes by quite large numbers although you will rarely see more than half a dozen together. A fairly timid bird they have adapted in recent years to feeding in gardens from seed and nut feeders. A small finch, they are generally yellowish-green and yellow with a dark streaked belly and striking yellow rump, wing bars and sides of the forked tail. Males have a black cap and bib and bright yellow cheeks. The female does not have a black crown or bib and is more heavily streaked.

Fieldfare, (Grive Litorne), and Redwing, (Grive Mauvis), will often visit gardens situated in open countryside from around mid November onwards, especially if they have a plentiful supply of windfall apples and a good supply of worms. Fieldfares actually nest in France in very, very small numbers but the large numbers come here from the north-east, Germany and Scandinavia. The Fieldfare is the second largest European thrush, slightly smaller than the Mistle thrush. It is more colourful than its cousins, with a grey head and rump, brown back and chestnut wings. The underside is pale yellow, strongly marked with black chevrons. Redwings are strictly non resident winter visitors from Scandinavia, Siberia and Iceland. They are the smallest of the Thrushes with olive-brown upperparts, pale buff under-parts and with dark spotting on the breast and belly. The flanks and under-wing are reddish with a bold pale whitish or yellowish eyebrow above each eye. Both species form communal roosts in trees and will also be seen feeding in the open fields.

Out in the fields there will be large flocks of Lapwings by December that have moved down from the north and north-east to join the relative few that breed in our region. It’s always a complex winter movement with Lapwings with many birds remaining where they are until driven south or west by cold spells. Also known as the Peewit or Green Plover, Lapwings appear black above and white below from a distance although in reality “the black” is a beautiful iridescent dark green and purple. In winter the throat is white and both sexes have a long crest. Lapwings will frequently fly up and descend again in large groups with their characteristic flappy, somewhat erratic flight especially towards dusk or when disturbed.

The flocks of Lapwings in the open fields will frequently have large groups of Golden plover mixed among them. These will mainly have come from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. They are a medium sized plover with gold, buff and white plumage in winter and as with many birds, they really need to be seen in full sunlight. In the fields they typically stand upright and run in short bursts. Flight is quite rapid and in tight groups or V formations. Both Lapwings and Golden Plover also like to feed at night in good moon light when worms come to the surface.

Some of the visitor ducks we can more easily see on the lakes or coastal waters in winter are Pintail, (Canard Pilet), Wigeon, (Canard Siffleur), and Shoveler, (Canard Souchet).

shutterstock 115359445Although there are a few Pintail that nest in France the vast majority arrive here in late autumn from their principle breeding grounds in Russia and Scandinavia and over winter in coastal regions, marais, estuaries and lakes usually in pairs or small groups. They are a slender elegant duck with a long neck, small head. Males are easy to spot with their long pointed tail. The Pintail feeds by dabbling and upending in shallow water for plant food mainly in the evening or at night, and spends much of the day resting.

Wigeon don’t nest in France at all and they arrive here in early winter from Russia, Scandinavia and perhaps a few from Scotland. They are mainly coastal here and concentrate mainly on three sites: the Gulf of Morbihan and the Bay of Aiguillon on the Atlantic coast, the Camargue on the Mediterranean coast and numbers are hugely variable depending on the severity of the weather in the north east. They are a surface feeding or “dabbling” duck and can from quite large groups.

And finally, distinguished from all other ducks by their huge spatulate bill Shoveler has an estimated population in France between 700 and 1,300 couples but again these numbers are greatly inflated with birds from Russia and Scandinavia. Shoveler feed, especially at night, on small insects and plant matter sifted from the water. Here they are to be seen on lakes, rivers and around the Baie de l’Aiguillon.

 

 

Chris Luck runs Planete Passion, an English language association for wildlife in France based in Poitou-Charentes. See www.planetepassion.eu for more details.

 

 


Asian Hornets – an update

This year has seen this species increasingly making their nests at much lower heights, sometimes almost at ground level in shrubs and bushes. Should this be a trend it will be good news and enable easier destruction but people should perhaps keep an eye out next year when working in the garden. There is also talk of listing them as “nuisibles” to enable more funding for their destruction – but don’t hold your breath.