The end of winter means there are more opportunities to spot wildlife
- Credit: Archant
Although a time when wildlife often struggles to survive, this month still offers untold delights for observers and photographers, writes Paul Hobson.
January is a tough month for wildlife but February is probably tougher still. The days are getting longer but the bounty from the previous autumn (and 2017 in Derbyshire was a bumper autumn), is now running seriously low.
Most birds and mammals rely on their knowledge of their local patch and hope the available food can tide them over until March or April when plant growth kicks in again. A small number, however, don’t just rely on the local food supply and very cleverly create their own secret caches of food.
Jays and grey squirrels would have spent a considerable amount of time in the previous September and October gathering up acorns and burying them away from the prying eyes of mice and crows. February, particularly if the weather is harsh and snowy, is the time when they can reap the rewards of their forward thinking and this creates a lovely spectacle for us as they search the areas where they buried their secret larders.
Snowdrops are now poking their delightful white heads through last year’s leaf litter and enriching a walk through many of our woodlands. The origin of British snowdrops has never been made really clear. Some people think they are a native flower whilst others believe the Romans brought them here around a thousand years ago. Still others think that they were introduced in the 1500s – we definitely know they have been here since that date. In Derbyshire Hopton Hall and Hardwick are both excellent places to enjoy the white and green beauties and, for those who want to venture out of the county, Hodsock in Nottinghamshire will delight you with a superb snowdrop-laden walk.
Many birds, such as thrushes, don’t secrete food but will often attempt to guard good sources of fare. Rowan trees that are still richly laden with bright red berries are often aggressively defended against all comers. For much of the winter, particularly if it is mild, birds may be able to manage their own tree successfully. However, if the weather takes a turn for the worse and new migrants such as waxwings and fieldfares pour into Derbyshire from the frozen north, they are simply overwhelmed by the sheer number and hunger of the newcomers. What to us is a lovely spectacle of a rowan tree bubbling with a flock of exotic waxwings is a very different kettle of fish to the poor blackbird who had thought he or she was set up until April.
If the weather turns really bad and we get prolonged spells of snow, our local wildlife and birds in particular, can really struggle. They will often band together into quite big flocks and once they have denuded the larder in the countryside, they will turn their attention to our towns and cities. Garden feeding is really vital now and alongside the normal feeders stocked with peanuts, niger and sunflower seeds you can really help by putting out apples and raisins. Thrushes in particular will love these emergency rations and they may make the difference between survival and a hungry, cold death.
Derbyshire is blessed with many coniferous woods, particularly in the northern Peak. Whilst these are not really the best woodlands for wildlife watching they can provide a delightful half-day’s walk in February. You should be able to hear the ‘pink pink’ of chaffinches and occasionally the alarm call of a wren. However, the birds you should look out for are the diminutive, striking goldcrests. They are small, active birds and insectivorous so have to use the short winter days to forage almost non-stop to make sure they get enough energy to survive the night. It is incredible to think that they can actually find enough hibernating spiders and other small insects every day to survive. The easiest way to locate them is by learning their high-pitched but low-volumed call. Once you have found one or a pair they should provide a delightful half hour of bird watching.
Most birds are still in winter mode but a few are already starting to set up breeding territories. If the weather warms you will often see blue and great tits checking out nest boxes or holes in trees. A few birds, such as tawny owls, will have set up their territory the previous autumn so they should be firmly established by now and sure of which tree hole they will use to lay their two to four large, white eggs. However, there are always a few stray or young tawnies still looking for that des-res woodland territory, so it’s not unusual to hear the resident pair calling to each other to reaffirm their pair bond and warn rivals that they are prepared to fight, if necessary, to defend their ‘castle’.
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March is now approaching with the warmer days that encourage us to go out on a favourite walk. However, never underestimate the delights that February can bring. The weather can be harsh but this is often the best time to get out and experience the joys of watching wildlife.