Wondrous Winter Wildlife in Essex

As my “Big Idea” for my ocean acidification blog post is still under construction, and I haven’t really done a local wildlife post in a while, I thought now might be a good time to write about the winter critters I’ve been spotting over the last few months. I mentioned in a previous blog post that we associate winter with a lack of life, a time where plants die, small animals hibernate and many birds migrate to much warmer climates. There is still plenty around though, even some new additions only seen in the winter time.

It might be difficult to believe, but some birds do actually migrate to the UK during the winter. These are birds that breed in places like Iceland and Norway, so come winter time, England seems like a nice place to visit for a beach holiday. Many of these are wading birds, and as it happens, Essex is a good place to spot these migrants. The Colne River offers the perfect array of habitats for waders; there are plentiful mudflats, brackish rivers and lagoons, and a vast selection of salt marshes. I’m lucky enough to live about 300m away from a tidal part of the river, and as such have been treated to rotating cast of local wildlife.

Common redshank (Tringus totanus)

The first guys to show up from around November onwards were these bright-legged chaps, common redshanks (Tringa totanus). Redshanks are medium sized waders, easily identified by their bright orangey-red legs and bill. Interestingly, these guys are resident in Essex all year round, but normally live on salt marshes. During the winter, they move inwards and are more frequently seen further up the estuary. They appeared in quite large numbers, sometimes there are groups of up to 10 of them all wading through the gooey mud.

Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa)

A month later, a pair of black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) turned up. Godwits are distinctive-looking waders that are easily told apart from shanks and sandpipers. They have long, straight bills, long legs, and a somewhat elongated neck. Two kinds of godwit occur in Europe, the black-tailed and the bar-tailed, and they are easily distinguished when in flight. The bar-tailed (as you might have guessed) has a striped tail, while the black-tailed, with its solid colouration, has a more “pied” appearance. There is a breeding population in East Anglia, but most godwits are winter visitors, and I think these definitely are. Over the last month or so, more of them turned up, and they got much more used to people so I have been able to get some good shots of them.

Other waders that I’ve noticed arriving since the winter months rolled in have included common sandpipers, some dunlins and a grey plover. I have been unable to get any (decent) photographs of these, but I am hoping I can snap them before they return to their breeding grounds.

I’ve also had a “stay-at-home” wader who seemed not to care when the weather turned nippy. This is my friend the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), who first appeared on the river this summer, and appears to now have gathered some friends. Last week, I saw 4 lapwings on the river at once, which was quite a pleasant surprise. Lapwings are beautiful waders, and very distinct with their flicked up crest, dark eye mask, and greenish-purple feathers – it is impossible to mistake them for anything else. Their call is also somewhat unique, a squeaky “pee-wit!”, which happens to be another name for this bird. Seeing the lapwing on the river will always make me smile.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

In addition to these, a non-wader also turned up on the river this winter. It is a member of a much overlooked group of birds – the ducks. I feel sorry for ducks. Because of the extremely widespread mallard, most people pass over ducks as “common”. In fact, I’m sure most people only think of a mallard when they think of ducks, and don’t realise the level of diversity that exists in the group. I feel sorry for mallards in particular. I wish they weren’t so common, because they are gorgeous animals. The beautiful shimmering emerald of the male’s head, with the brilliant blue wing patch, the sunny yellow bill and that little curled tail – this description for any other bird would have us conjure up an image of something very exotic. That’s why I was excited when this particular duck turned up, as I think it rivals the colours of the mallard.

Male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca)

This is the male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca), and I hope you can see why I was perhaps a little too happy when it turned up on the river just a couple of weeks ago. The identifying feature is of course the blue-green patch over the eye (incidentally, it’s where we get the name for the colour “teal”) bordered by cream on the chestnut head. Without the right lighting, the head appears much darker than in the photo. They are tiny little ducks, smaller even than the black-headed gulls that are always roaming the mudflats on the river. It’s actually the smallest dabbling duck commonly found in Europe.

Male and female teal

Teals can actually be found in the UK during any season, but in the winter populations from areas like Siberia migrate over here so they are seen much more often at this time of year. I was surprised to find them on the river as I’ve never seen one around here, and in the last few weeks the number of teals has gone from one pair to about fifteen. I guess there’s something in the water here.

While we’re on the topic of ducks, I would like to continue showing you that there is life beyond the mallard. Check out this handsome fellow who came and visited with his mate on the weekend.

Male and female tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula)

These are tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), which, like the teals, are here all year round, but their numbers are bumped up in the winter by migrants from colder climes. I’ve actually seen tufted ducks here all through last year, so it seems that we have a few residents. I’ve cheated a little with these guys because I don’t see them on the river, they appear only on the pond behind my block of flats, or the lake on the university campus (but both of those are about 10 minutes from the river so… it counts). They’re medium-sized ducks, smaller than a mallard, but mallards are actually fairly large ducks (we just think of them as normal-sized ducks because they’re the most common). The males are quite elegant-looking, sporting a very smart black and white get up, golden eyes, and that nifty little head tuft. So, there you go, ducks can be very interesting, too.

Portrait of a male tufted duck

I would carry on with a section about the songbirds that either stay behind or come and visit through the winter, but I think I’ve rambled on about birds long enough. I need to save some material for future posts as well, anyway. I encourage you to look for the wildlife that comes and goes with winter in your own local patch, I guarantee you’ll find more than you expect. And, of course, spring is fast approaching! I saw a bumblebee on Saturday so it’s officially on its way. Keep an eye out for emerging butterflies, queen bees looking for new nests and the return of summer birds like swallows and meadow pipits. Happy spotting!

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8 thoughts on “Wondrous Winter Wildlife in Essex

  1. Oh Laura, it is so beautiful to see the world through your eyes (and lens)! I, too, love ducks, and in the areas that I frequent (mainly the Castle Park pond and lake as well as the adjacent strip of the Colne river), I have seen at least two more duck species other than mallards. Unfortunately my knowledge of them is nowhere near yours, and neither is the quality of my camera. If I get lucky and manage to get a shot I’ll definitely send it to you, if only so that you can tell me what species they are.
    On a related issue, have you ever come across nightingales in the area? I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on them and alledgedly East Anglia is the only place in the UK where they are to be found. I have never been this lucky though, but then, I usually don’t go out a lot at night 😉
    “come winter time, England seems like a nice place to visit for a beach holiday”. hahaha, my words exactly. And yes, spring is well on its way as of late. All over the Castle Park there are crocus and snowdrops blooming, it’s absolutely stunning.

    • Sandra, thank you for your lovely comment! I would love to see any duck pics you take, I will gladly ID them for you! I should take a stroll down to Castle Park myself anyway, I haven’t been there in ages. With regards to nightingales – I have heard them! They apparently get them regularly at Abberton Reservoir, and if you go at the right time you can hear the wonderful song!

      I have also seen snowdrops around campus, I need to take some pics before they all go away!

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