With many of us taking time off work over the Christmas and the New Year period, winter can be a fantastic time to get out in the fresh air and take a walk – and many will take the opportunity to visit our wonderful coastline.
Wrap up warm, stick to the footpaths and bring along a pair of binoculars and you could be in for a real treat.
There are all kinds of species to look out for, and whilst at this time of year you may be familiar with “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol which refers to a few different birds, there are 6 parts of this song that can be adapted to give you some classic Solent sights and sounds you may come across on your winter walk…
Four ‘calling birds’
One of the most famous calls you will hear on our coastline is that of the curlew. With their beautiful mottled brown feathers and long downwards curving beak, these large wading birds are unmistakable, just like their call. Often described as ‘haunting’ you can frequently hear it echoing across the shores and harbours around the Solent.
Find out more and listen to a curlew
Five ‘golden ringed’
Round in shape (almost like a Christmas pudding!) and often described as ‘plump-breasted’, two wonderful little wading birds to look out for at this time of year are golden and ringed plovers.
Their names are very appropriate, with golden plovers having a stunning gold colour plumage, and ringed plovers sporting the classic black ‘necklace’ ring of feathers below their head.
A characteristic they both share, along with their cousins the grey plover and lapwing (also known as green plover), are their big eyes. Plovers are visual feeders, and it’s thought that in some cases the large eyes help them to spot prey and gives them better nocturnal vision for night feeding.
Six ‘geese (not) a-laying’
Interestingly the geese that migrate to our shores for the winter are not here to lay eggs!
Dark-bellied brent geese which are seen around the Solent between October and March are actually here for their ‘winter-summer’ holiday, having flow thousands of miles down from Siberia.
They are escaping the bitterly cold and dark Arctic winter in the north and spend their time here with us feasting on an all-you-can-eat buffet made up of the Solent’s seaweeds and seagrass.
For these geese, the aim of the winter is resting, not nesting so they focus on saving and building up energy to make them strong enough for their migrations back to the Arctic in the spring.
Learn about brent geese.
Seven ‘swans a-swimming’ on the sea
Swans are a familiar sight to many of us, and while you may associate them with rivers, lakes and ponds, here around our coastline they are often spotted in our harbours and estuaries and even swimming out on the sea!
These birds will feed on different coastal grasses, plants and algae together with seagrass and marine insects and molluscs.
Over in Ryde on the Isle of Wight for example, it is very common to see a group of swans most days out on the sea in front of the Harbour or near the pier with the brent geese.
Find out more about mute swans.
Eleven ‘pipers piping’
This title could only go to one bird – the wonderful, charismatic and incredibly noisy oystercatcher.
Well known for their loud piping calls, they are a very familiar sound of the coast. Argumentative and vocal these stunning black and white birds with their large bright orange beaks just like a carrot are definitely one not to miss.
Find out more about oystercatchers and listen to their ‘piping call’.
Twelve ‘drummers drumming’
An interesting behaviour you may spot is gulls ‘tapping’ or ‘drumming’ their feet on grass, sand or even in water.
While it looks very comical, there is good reasoning behind this behaviour.
On grass and sand it’s thought that the movement and vibrations of the gulls feet imitates rain drops, which encourages worms to come to the surface. There are many theories of how this works and why, with the behaviour also known as ‘worm charming’.
When these birds do the same in water, it’s thought that they are helping stir up the sediment to uncover creatures and prey items hiding beneath.
Watch this black-headed gull grab a couple of tasty morsels then drum its feet on the ground to encourage more worms to surface.