Country Diary: Bare branches now reveal the witches broom

A male wigeon.
A male wigeon.

The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,

The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying...

From Autumn, by PB Shelley.

Excuse me. Has your mother-in-law lost a broom? Since Halloween, and the biting wind and hail of bonfire night, the final clinging leaves have been swept from their anchorage. The carnival is over. But wait – what can now be revealed amongst the bare boughs of many silver birch trees? Old crows’ nests? No. Squirrels’ dreys? No. Look up into the crowns of some trees, and you’ll discover that some have witches’ brooms suspended there!

How careless of witches to leave them there, after riding their broomsticks through star-spangled skies on Halloween. Seriously, what are those twiggy outgrowths that do, by the stretch of imagination, resemble brooms? They’re caused by an abnormal attack on the tree, made by an insect, fungus or virus.

Whatever the stimulus, it causes a whole cluster of tiny buds on the branches to grow together – buds which under normal circumstances would never develop. They don’t appear to harm the trees.

From Scalby Mills car park you may see a large flock of wigeon riding the waves. We usually hear the males’ evocative whistle, “whee-oo”, in winter indicating their presence, but on this occasion silence resigned.

As sunlight broke through the clouds, their beautiful colours were revealed.

The handsome male has a chestnut head with cream crown, a clear grey back, black under-tail, and a white patch. It’s a surface-feeding duck and does not usually upend, spending more time grazing on land than any other duck. When disturbed by waves crashing over rocks they would leap from the water straight into flight before re-settling.

A visit for Forge Valley’s bird watchers’ car park usually presents a good variety of birds and their antics within an hour or so.

The bird tables were well supplied with corn, bird seed and peanuts – to squirrels’ delight! Upon our arrival, a very sharp, high call of “tzi-tzi”, surprised us. A little bird running rapidly along the ground, was well camouflaged by the autumn leaves. Each time it stopped, it wagged its long tail up and down. You’ve guessed? It was a grey wagtail, more associated with upland streams and lakes in summertime, but now at lower levels seeking food, especially insects.

The male in summer has a black throat, grey crown and back, yellow-green rump, and long white-edged tail. This one was in winter plumage, and less conspicuous. It’s the first time we’ve seen a grey wagtail here.

Other birds included chaffinch, robin, nuthatch, bluetit, great tit, coal tit, willow tit, and pigeon. We keep hoping to see the little tree creeper spiralling up a tree trunk, but unfortunately no luck again. We’ll spot it one day!