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November, December 2013, January & February 2014

As I arrived at reception I was surprised to find there were a few brave souls waiting and willing to face the elements and we set off for our ramble looking more like deep sea fishermen than ramblers.....

As winter approaches, the wildlife at Kelling Heath faces the toughest test of their lives. Imagine being a plant or an animal living on the heath or in our woods during this time. What could you do to survive the next three months? Most likely you will have made the critical choices already. Fundamentally, whether you are one of our nightjars, Bats, silver studded blue butterflies or one of the mighty oak trees in our woods you will have chosen one of three options - sleep, feed or flee.

The nightjars we hear ‘churring' so beautifully on the heath on the warm summer evenings or the warblers that sing so beautifully to us in the wood alongside the railway line are able to migrate thousands of miles to warmer climes such as the African sub-continent were food is plentiful. Our bats and hedgehogs opt for hibernation, shutting down their systems by dropping their body temperature and slowing their metabolism having spent the majority of their time in the warm months fattening themselves up. In the case of the bats, if you been on one of our wildlife at dusk walks, you may remember they do this by eating up to an amazing 3000 midges/mosquitoes every night!

Our Silver Studded Blue butterflies overwinter in the burrows of black ants as pupae or as eggs low down on the heather while the oaks, having shed all their leaves in the autumn rely on food stored in its roots to sustain it over winter.

Our deer, foxes and squirrels have no such choice and face a daily battle to find food during this time and it is one of the reasons we spot them out in the open more during this time of year but for those fortunate to make it through this period, opportunity beckons. Then as the days lengthen and the temperature creeps up the first signs of spring slowly start to appear.

Good weather for Ducks. Well strictly speaking we didn't find a duck but a solitary moorhen was spotted on the conservation pond but most of the woodland birds here had more sense than to stay out in the rain and were taking cover. But there is still plenty to see in the wood this time of year as the absence of leaf cover in the winter gives you a good chance to view last summer's nesting activity with lots of pigeons nest on view and a few magpies. It is also a good time to see witches broom that grows on the birch trees if you've not seen this before it is a parasitic fungus that causes the twigs to bunch together and can on occasion grow outwards to resemble a witch's broom.

Walking down towards the railway platform we spotted a group of 6 long tailed tits looking like they had found a food source in the oak tree and we disturbed a few pigeons out of the ivy covering a silver birch. Ivy is a good source of food for pigeons and many other birds this time of year as it is covered in purple fruits a tasty snack for deer too who will pick the lower hanging fruits. The rain eased as we climbed the hill just past the viewing point and the European Gorse provided some colour to the overcast conditions with its bright yellow blooms. Gorse blooms twice a year but it is only in the summer months when it gives off its lovely coconut scent. There are many Rowen or Mountain Ash trees along this path too and I don't think I've ever seen them so laden with their red berries as I have this year a feast the birds that remain and if we are lucky enough a great source of food for visiting Waxwings. Old wives tales would tell us with such a large crop of berries a harsh winter approaches, it is really down to the fact

that we have had a good summer and they've produced an abundance of fruit. The muddy paths gave us tracks of Muntjac and Roe deer and as the rains eased up so our luck improved and we caught sight of a Roe deer just disappearing into the woodland edge almost instantly follow be a Barn Owl hawking. Roe deer are very distinctive and easy to spot when running away having a prominent white patch on the rump.

As we made our way back to the village square we stopped by the lookout point to watch somewhere in the region of two thousand Pink Footed geese fly east. If you've not seen them before, they are medium size geese that are pinkish grey with a dark head and neck, a pink bill and pink feet and legs. The majority of the world's pink-footed geese winter in the UK from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland and the sight is one of the ‘must see' spectacles of the North Norfolk coast in winter.

On our February half term week walk was a much brighter day with periods of sunshine and a temperature of around 8 degrees and a very strong wind. The objective of the walk was to see if there were any signs of spring. We headed along the road to check out the conservation pond, but we had only gone 30 yards or so when found some Hazel catkins. The pale yellow catkins are the male flower and if you look closely at the buds you will find the small red female version. Hazel is always one of the first trees to produce flowers in the spring. As we crossed the road and headed up the grass track to the pond we found wild Honeysuckle in budburst, the leaves were just starting to unfurl almost giving off the appearance of saying "Is it safe to come out yet?" The pond was very still and quiet and apart from the brief appearance of two Sticklebacks, gave us no indication that the wildlife here thought it was spring. In about three or four weeks it will be alive with Frogs and Toads calling for a mate.

We crossed the road and went along the firebreak stopping by the pine trees where the grass was covered with Fir cones brought down by previous day's gales. Here the Grey Squirrels had had a feast stripping the spikes of the cones to get at the seed inside. Did you know by the way that the all familiar cones that we find under our pines are all female? The male cones form on the end of the branches, are more like a solid catkin and produce the pollen. We found three separate piles of pigeon feathers here on the grass. A sign that a Sparrow hawk feeds here on a regular basis.

In the woodland the tips of Bluebells were just pushing their way through the leaf litter in a few places as we walked down towards the railway and there were Great Tits were calling each other with their familiar "Tea-cher! Tea-cher!" calls.

As we got to the bottom of the hill we disturbed a Muntjac. It leapt the railway line and headed across the farmland towards Weybourne and a quick look through the binoculars showed the distinct downward striped black lines of a male. Once we got to the other side of the railway platform we had eight Long Tailed Tits moving through an old Oak searching every nook and cranny for insects. Pickings this time of year are very slim and they must be searching for food every daylight hour.

Up on the heath the gorse was still in flower and a pair of Yellowhammers were spotted sitting on the top of a silver birch trees close to the railway crossing. They very kindly sat there long enough for us to get the telescope on them and see they were coming into their beautiful spring plumage.

So a few signs of spring starting around Kelling. As I write this it is heading towards March and if the weather stays as mild as it has been this winter then over the next few weeks we can look forward to seeing more of the flora and fauna that makes this such a special place.

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