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The (occasionally) Frozen Planet

15 December 2011 | Posted in Birds , Wildlife

Author Michael Blencowe

fieldfare / Phil Avery

We’ve all been watching the stunning images of Sir David’s polar animals over the past few weeks but now is our chance to see some arctic wildlife in the highest definition possible – real life.

Sir David may have shown us the Tundra and Taiga and the birds that live there – but what he didn’t show us is where some of them spend their winter holidays. As these northern areas, once green, buzzing and crawling with bird food start to freeze many bird species that live here are victims of the greatest ‘push’ factor for any migration. Hunger.

They need to head to where the winter isn’t so wild, where the ground isn’t permanently covered by snow and where the lakes and rivers are not frozen.

You’d expect it to be simple. The further south you fly from the North Pole the warmer it gets. However, thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream – the current that sweeps warmer waters to our western shores - the temperature gradient across Europe actually runs markedly east-west. It is nine degrees in Henfield today and two degrees in Chernihiv over there in the Ukraine at a similar latitude. Keep on that latitude even further east and it’s a rather chilly minus five in Astana, Kazakhstan. This sliding temperature scale pushes birds west towards the UK.

For many birds heading south to avoid the chill just isn’t an option – they’re victims of geology. The Himalayas, Carpathians, Caucasus and Alps rise up forming a wall across Eurasia which also channels them westwards.

Sussex offers them vital feeding stations at estuaries, gardens, hedgerows and marshes which stay open for business over the winter only occasionally receiving a snow covering.

Across Sussex right now you’ll find bewick’s swans, fieldfares, brent geese, waxwings, redwings, sanderling, short-eared owls, jack snipe, pintail, hen harriers, purple sandpipers, brambling and many other species enjoying our relatively warm winter. We can identify them straight away as winter visitors because these species do not breed here but there are also ‘invisible’ visitors arriving too. Blackbirds, chaffinches, herring gulls, starlings and many other birds arrive from the north and join our resident populations – moving in to our gardens and towns un-noticed.

So grab your binoculars and get out to search for these invaders from the frozen north over the winter in Sussex. It’s much cheaper than travelling north to see them and there is less risk of being chased by a polar bear or a BBC cameraman.

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