Friday, 23 January 2015


I always look forward to the changing of the seasons. Each one brings the promise of change, of fresh and exciting new natural phenomena to be observed. They also bring with them the knowledge that Springwatch, Autumnwatch or Winterwatch are just around the corner waiting to wow me with more stunning wildlife photography, experiments and live cams.

This past week has been all about Winterwatch which, in my humble opinion, runs nowhere near long enough at only four episodes but those episodes were packed with all of the above and more. I thoroughly relish being able to see so many wonderful species up close and learn about their habitats and behaviour at the same time. I certainly picked up some fascinating facts this time around, so I've rounded a few of my favourites up.

1. Rodents are amazing

Martin's segment on the fourth and final show focused on how rodents manage to survive in such harsh conditions. It was fascinating to learn about the subnivean layer in the snow; the top layer of snow forms a crust and beneath this, as a result of the heat given off by the grass, the snow warms enough to crumble. This allows the mice, voles and other rodents to borrow through the lower snow, therefore being able to move around, going unnoticed by predators, with a plentiful supply of food provided by the grass.

On the same episode, common shrews were shown on a carcass planted by the Winterwatch team, high up in the mountains. It was a surprise to see such a tiny animal surviving in such an area but Chris them went on to explain that shrews have the extraordinary ability to actually reduce their body mass by shrinking their skeletons and internal organs, including their brain and liver. With a reduced body mass during the winter, they require less energy to survive, a condition perfect for times when food availability is low.
 2. Dippers can eat under water

Amazing footage was captured by one of the cameras set up under water of a dipper diving from the icy bank down to the riverbed to feed. The current was strong, as demonstrated by the chunks of surface ice rushing by, but the dipper was unaffected by this. They have several features that allows them to swim underwater, setting them apart from all other British songbirds. Their feathers are waterproof, they can close their nostrils to prevent water entering and the smaller pieces of food they catch, such as insects, they are able to consume underwater. They can store extra oxygen in their blood so that they can forage for aquatic prey and watching this particular dipper in the Cairngorms release a plume of tiny air bubbles as it ascended was a wonderful sight, and from such a unique perspective too.
3. Little Owls aren't native

I was a tiny bit disappointed to learn that the charismatic Little Owl isn't a native species to the UK. During the late 19th century, they were introduced from the continent. Despite never having seen one in the wild, they are definitely one of my favourite owls; they have a fantastic set of facial markings that gives them a range of expressions, helped hugely by their wide yellow eyes. When compared side-by-side to the majestic European Eagle Owl on Winterwatch, I got an idea of just how small the Little is, although the name itself is a dead giveaway!
A few other facts I picked up:

-A newt tadpole is called an eft
-Ptarmigan have feathered eyelids
-Otters aren't fussy with their food!
-Mice hate cheese (who would have thought it!)
-Red squirrels are more curious than greys

Now that it's over, I have Springwatch to look forward to in May/June. With any luck, I'll have as much nesting activity in my own garden as I did last year; I've already spotted one great tit checking out the nest box that was used by the blues in 2014. Let's see what Spring brings!

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