THE outdoors haven’t been pleasant for the past couple of weeks, with Atlantic storms and short, dark days. But there are many places worse off.
The great boreal forest is under a smothering blanket of snow, and the tundra to the north of it is a hard, icy desert. Daylight is reduced to a slight increase in brightness in the southern sky, around midday.
I have visited the Arctic in winter, and it’s a strange place. The only wildlife I remember was a pair of ravens, which looked much blacker against the blinding whiteness of undisturbed snow.
Though, oddly, there is a lot of human activity. Much of the Arctic is boggy and this makes it hard to get around in the summer — this and the mosquitoes. But when everything freezes, snowmobiles can travel across countryside that was previously inaccessible. And our ability to create artificial light and heat makes these places habitable in winter.
Most buildings tend to be over-heated and you spend a lot of time putting on, and taking off, layers and layers of insulated clothing as you move between minus-20 and plus-25.
The majority of arctic and sub-arctic birds leave in the winter. The forests empty of redwings, fieldfares, crossbills and waxwings. They head southwest, and some of them end up in Ireland, though the crossbills and waxwings don’t make it this far every winter. Woodcock take a slightly different route, using the Eastern Atlantic Flyway to travel down the edge of Europe.
Woodcock are nocturnal and travel and feed after dark, though they prefer a clear, moonlit night to navigate. They seem rather flimsy creatures, with their erratic, moth-like flight, but they are capable of travelling great distances, some of them making it as far as the tropics.
Satellite tracking has revealed the details of some of these remarkable journeys. In 2009, two woodcock were trapped on the island of Islay, in the Hebrides, and fitted with transmitters. They were on their way back to their breeding grounds. One flew straight to Norway. The other completed a huge journey to the edge of Siberia. Its final destination had the latitude of Alaska and the longitude of Iran.
And, of course, as well as all those forest birds there are the waterfowl from the arctic wetlands — the massive numbers of ducks, geese, swans and waders that search out the nearest place to home that doesn’t freeze solid. In many cases, that means Ireland. We may grumble about our weather, but it’s our mild climate that turns us into a huge refugee camp for birds every winter.
The wigeon (sometimes spelled ‘widgeon’) is a medium-sized wild duck and, as with most ducks, the female is nondescript, with camouflage plumage in various shades of brown. The male is much more striking, with a chestnut head with a cream-coloured stripe and a distinctive white patch on the front of the wing. It also has a loud whistling call. A short neck and beak give both sexes a characteristic silhouette. In the past up to 100,000 wigeon visited Ireland every winter, flying in from Iceland, northern Europe and northern Russia. This number has been declining and the species is now amber-listed in this country. It also bred here in very small numbers in the past but there don’t seem to be any recent breeding records. Wigeon over-winter in coastal wetlands and also inland on freshwater lakes and callows.
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