Tonight Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games will be back in one of the coldest places in the UK for Winterwatch – the National Trust’s Mar Lodge estate by the River Dee in Aberdeenshire. They’ll be finding out what impact the warmest and wettest December on record has had on the behaviour of our native animals, including ptarmigan and capercaillie.
Last time Chris Packham was up there, we asked him where else he’d recommend fellow bird-spotters train their binoculars at this time of year…
“It’s another goose and winter birds spectacle,” says Packham. “What I like about Farlington is that it’s very industrial, you’ve got the whole of Portsmouth behind it. It’s a large inland sort of brackish lagoon and it gets large numbers of Brent goose.
“It’s got good access and on a fine morning people can walk their dogs there, there’s sort of a loop around the reserve (no dogs on the reserve please) but it’s dry and secure and you can take your kids around in a pushchair and see this remarkable spectacle. There are lots of waders, redshank and curlew, plus lapwing, grey winged plover. There’s a lagoon there as well, you get bearded tits on it.”
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“On the north Norfolk coastline, there’s an RSPB reserve that’s tide-dependent and therefore moon-dependent,” says Packham. “There are perhaps four days, once a month, throughout the course of the winter when the tides are exactly right and are high enough to push these birds off their roosting sites out in the mud. Normally they can stay on these little platforms of shingle, but once a month the tides are too high and they have to fly inland over your head on the beach and land at some gravel pits, where there’s another roosting site.
“If you get up early and the tide’s right, you can sit or stand on the shore and these birds in their vast numbers will be directly over your head. You could almost jump up and touch them. They’re zooming in at high speed over your head in the early morning light. I’ve seen it about three or four times in my life, and every time you think this will never be as good as last time, but it’s always brilliant. It’s something that people really ought to do.”
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“Here in south-western Scotland, you get large numbers of barnacle geese,” explains Packham. “There aren’t any captive birds at Caerlaverock, but you do get this huge flock of black and white geese and if you get there on a sunny winter’s morning and they’re all flying around, it’s sort of a kaleidoscopic spectacle with no equal. It is quite magnificent – there’s a sense of an ancient wilderness.
“The land is farmed, but as soon as the birds are in the air this great gaggle of geese all swirling round with their black and white plumage in the sunlight makes it a dazzling spectacle. Seeing large numbers of any type of animal these days is a treat because there aren’t that many left. When you see large numbers of them like that it can be really, really good.”
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You can read about Chris Packham’s other favourite places for birdwatching in winter overleaf…