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Winter visitors conquer reserve

PUBLISHED: 11:24 26 January 2006 | UPDATED: 20:19 03 May 2010

A drake tufted duck, probably the commonest of the diving ducks

A drake tufted duck, probably the commonest of the diving ducks

RECENTLY I found myself in the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserve of Stocker's Lake in Rickmansworth. It is always a good place to visit but in winter, on a nice, bright, cold day, bathed in beautiful light, the reserve was a picture. Full of wint

RECENTLY I found myself in the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust reserve of Stocker's Lake in Rickmansworth. It is always a good place to visit but in winter, on a nice, bright, cold day, bathed in beautiful light, the reserve was a picture. Full of wintering birds, many from miles away, all enjoying the welcome sunshine but all frantically feeding in the pools of water which had remained free of ice. It is good to see the resident duck, geese and swans but I had taken a group to see the wintering wildfowl and other birds. They were not disappointed. This year there appears to be good numbers of visiting duck - it does vary from year to year. It all started in autumn with exceptionally large numbers of teal arriving on our east coast and numbers of all species have been increasing over the months. Stocker's Lake had its share of teal, the smallest of the dabbling or surface-feeding ducks, as well as gadwall, shoveler, widgeon and mallard, but I suppose it is the diving duck that makes the winter so exciting. The diving ducks have their legs positioned towards the back of their bodies - like grebes and divers. This makes them ungainly on land but expert swimmers underwater where they find and hunt their prey. The commonest of these will be the tufted duck or pochard but others, like the goldeneye, smew and goosander are always exciting to see and birdwatchers eagerly scan the acres of water to find them. The smew is the most sought after and the smallest of the sawbills. The name smew is probably an old variant of small. The males epitomise winter, not just the time of year they visit our shores but their pure white plumage streaked with thin black lines is reminiscent of white ice, cut with black cracks, a beautiful sight in the winter sunshine. All the wildfowl are in full breeding plumage and a great deal of posturing and displaying is already going on as the days begin to lengthen. At this time of year, the small mammal population is at its lowest, so owls will be regularly hunting those rodents that have survived the winter. Barn owls are particularly hard hit, as they do not change their diet, like other owls, from their usual voles, shrews and mice. So they have to hunt over a wider area, often running the risk of crossing main roads. Indeed, a barn owl was found dead on the side of the A1(M) near Welwyn in mid-January, presumably hit by a vehicle, a tragic end for one of our most beautiful birds. February is a busy time in the countryside. Rookeries will be very active, as rebuilding the nest begins, with constant squabbling among the birds as neighbours try to steal from neighbouring nests when unattended. Many territorial birds will be in full song as they stake their claim and woodpeckers will be heard drumming on their favourite piece of dead wood, proclaiming their presence. In mid-February, frogs and toads will begin migrating to their breeding ponds, producing spawn by the end of March. The eggs are laid in huge numbers, each coated in a jelly-like substance which swells on contact with water and produces the familiar frog spawn. They are laid in such large numbers because only about one in a hundred survives to become an adult, the others all part of the food chain which keeps this wonderful wildlife of ours surviving. The weather may still be cold, dull and damp but there is much to see and a great deal to look forward to in the coming months. FRED TWILLEY

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