Observations on a Winter Morning

Observations on a Winter Morning

Whitecliff, 19th January, 2024

A crisp, cold, frosty morning with the low winter sun shining strongly out of a clear blue sky, making the ice crystals glisten and sparkle on every leaf and blade of grass. Not a breath of wind this morning – the water as still as the proverbial millpond, reflecting the glare of the sun into my eyes. A light mist rising gently from the woods on Brownsea Island, as the warmth of the sun starts to evaporate the frost.

Under a bare oak tree I hear gentle, melodious bird song – not the strident song of a robin, which is the most common at this time of year. Peering up through the ivy, I see a blackbird, perched on a prominent branch in the sun. And it is singing almost continuously, but it’s not the same as the familiar song of a blackbird on a summer evening. This is much quieter, more of a hum than a full-throated song, but still with a harmonious, ever-varying selection of notes. This blackbird is not singing to get attention – it’s singing gently to itself, enjoying the sunny morning, just as I am.

Then there’s a sudden twittering in the tree. Half a dozen long-tailed tits flitting from branch to branch, nibbling at the buds – or little insects? I’m not sure, but they seem a happy little crowd, chirping to each other as they feed, never still for more than a moment. Meanwhile, the blackbird sits on its own perch, and carries on humming gently to itself. Is it oblivious to the noisy group of tits? Or is it simply tolerant of them, knowing that they’re not a threat, and it won’t be long before they fly off together to the next tree?

Down on the shoreline, the tide is low, so there are plenty of seaweed-covered rocks exposed along the base of the sea wall. This makes a good feeding ground for gulls and crows – sea birds and land birds side-by-side, happily pecking in the seaweed to find molluscs, crustaceans and other tasty treats. The gulls have another option too, of course – they float on the water or fly low, dropping suddenly to try to catch a fish that’s come too near to the surface. The crows take advantage of the mud and the rocks at low tide, but they don’t wade or put their bills in the water itself.

One small bird flies quickly past, just a few inches above the rocks. I try to see where it lands, in hope of identifying it, but I lose it in the glare of the low-angled sun. I’ll guess it might have been a turnstone, having seen them here before from time to time. (The following day, in fact, I saw two pairs of turnstones on the shoreline – not turning stones, but busily turning seaweed on the rocks.)

In the shallow water, a group of oyster-catchers are wading to and fro. They seem to prefer ankle-deep water, and today, with the sun behind them and the sea so still, it even appears as if they’re walking on the water. They chatter to one another as they wade and feed – it sounds like the banter of a group of friends at a pub.

Further out there’s a flock of Brent Geese. Most of them are floating on the sea, honking now and then. They regularly dip their heads in the water, but what are they feeding on? Looking carefully, I see it – bright green seaweed. It must be floating in the water, and the geese obviously find it a tasty treat. Then three of them take flight and wheel back and forth in tight formation. I wonder why? Are they two males chasing a female? But do these geese mate at this time of year? As soon as the spring comes they’ll be off to breed in Scandinavia or Iceland. Perhaps these three are just enjoying a bit of fun, flying around together on a peaceful, windless, sunny day.

Time for home now for me. I turn my back on the sun and the sea and walk across the grass which is already defrosting, no longer white, but bright green. I’ll leave the birds to enjoy their day, and I’ll go home to enjoy mine, with appreciation for all that I’ve observed today.

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