Periods of cold, clear, settled weather are such a treat at this time of year.  It feels like spring is on its way when you find a sheltered sunny spot but, when you feel the full force of the cold wind, you quickly realise that its still very much early days!

Summer is not just around the corner. I find these are the days where I am caught out by the cold, more often than not.

Last week, I spent a few hours in the bird hide at Colyford Common. Even though I was wearing a short and long-sleeved fleece, it took me the full half hour drive back to get the feeling return to my hands. I’d left my gloves in the car, thinking they would not be needed - how wrong I was!

The trouble was, there was so much to distract my attention while on the Local Nature Reserve, I didn’t realise that my hands were becoming stuck in a claw-like rictus.

It was spring tides last week, which meant that, even with the strong northerly winds, the Axe estuary flooded and Colyford Common was a lake when I arrived. The boardwalk causeway led me across the water and to the viewpoint, from where I had an excellent view of the estuary birds, all of which were confined to very little dry land and so fairly easy to watch.

Firstly, a pile of gulls contained five different species, with a potential sub species to boot. Common gulls mingled with the largest of their number: black headed gulls. Despite their name, common gulls are not frequently encountered by many people, but are a very pretty little gull.
Look for a miniature herring gull with a jet black eye and the chances are its a common gull.

Standing next to a juvenile herring gull, an immature great black-backed gull towered over the throng, and when compared to the lesser black-backed gulls roosting next to it, the sheer weight and power of its beak was clear to see.

Among the lesser black-backed gulls was a very similar bird, which stood about two centimetres taller than the other lesser black-backs, but as it didn’t move as much as a feather while I was there, it was impossible to tell if this was just a trick of the telescope.

On the reserve, three pipits displayed the marked plumage difference between rock pipits and water pipits that is so hard to communicate in a book. The rock pipits were a dark, dusky brown while, at this time of year in comparison, the water pipit was a distinctly blonde version of the rock pipits, soon to moult into its pink-tinged summer plumage, what a treat!

A spoonbill fished for a short while on the large saltwater lagoon that the bird hide overlooks. With such a stiff breeze buffeting the bird, it was not long before the appendage which gives this bird its name was safely tucked beneath its wing.

In cold weather, spoonbills seem to spend a great deal of time with their bill under a wing, and I have a theory about this. My suspicions are that the bill is either so sensitive or has such a rich blood supply that the bird is physically uncomfortable in cold weather and secretes its head below a wing to protect the beak and provide a little respite from the icy chill. It’s only a theory, but I will do a little digging and see if this holds up to scientific scrutiny.

A few hundred wigeon took off in a whistling flock of flashing white wing patches. The numbers may be well below the seasonal high of over two thousand birds, but this was still a wonderful sight to behold.

Snipe jumped excitedly in the reed beds, being pestered by a mob of four crows, which seemed to be systematically herding the snipe, in short bursts, up river. If I was prone to sentimental outbursts, I might suggest they were playing with the nervous, stuttering snipe. But I’m not, so I won’t.

A merlin was the highlight of the morning, flashing through on short, stiff wingbeats. This is our smallest falcon, and indeed our smallest raptor. Merlin are another bird which goes largely unnoticed outside the birding community, living a secretive life chasing small birds, and looking, in flight, a little like a miniature sparrowhawk with slightly pointier wings. As merlin move to their upland breeding grounds, so we will begin to see winter visitors leave and the summer birds return. Sand martins are the first of the swallow troop to arrive and birds have been seen along the south coast already this year - keep a look out throughout the district over the coming weeks, on rivers and estuaries.

Wheatear are the bird which possibly heralds springtime, with the brightest flash. This robin-sized bird has a bright white patch at the top of its tail, and it flashes this rump as it takes off in fright. They are relatively approachable and will allow you to walk quietly to within a few metres of them, before flitting off along a fenceline or path, normally only a few metres ahead of you.

Spring is in the air, but then again, so is a viciously icy breeze. So, if you are going to head out into the countryside this week, don’t let sunny skies fool you; wear an extra layer and don’t leave your gloves in the car!