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A potentially harsh winter month but, among the hibernation and dormancy of much wildlife, there are the first stirrings to make us think of spring! Birdsong will be getting going – listen for Mistle Thrushes singing from treetops and Great Spotted Woodpeckers giving their drumming ‘song’. Fieldfares and Redwings will be moving into fields to feed having stripped berries from hedgerows. Look also for flocks of Lapwings in fields around the village, particularly some of the damper ones. Blackcaps are increasingly over-wintering and gardens are favourite places for them.
Traditionally a wet month (February fill-dyke) but much more variable with the climate changes of recent years. Look for the silky grey buds on Goat Willows (‘pussy willow’) which open to bright yellow catkins. Celandines should be coming into bud and maybe even into flower towards the end of the month. Song Thrushes and Blackbirds will be starting to sing in order to establish breeding territories. Other species will be joining in. Amphibians will be coming out of hibernation and moving to the ponds in which they breed. If you have got a pond in your garden go outside on a warmer night and shine a torch into the pond. With any luck you will see some frogs and smooth newts. If you have got a larger pond you may be lucky to have some toads breeding and perhaps some great crested newts. Remember, the best amphibian ponds are fish free ! Frog spawn will be seen by the end of the month and although your pond may have large clumps of the stuff remember that tadpole survival rates are very low as a result of predation by aquatic invertebrates such as water beetles and dragonfly larvae which are very active during February. Don’t be surprised if you see a few dead and bloated frogs in your pond at this time of the year – the exhaustion of breeding takes its toll – it is all part and parcel of the natural world.
The first month of Spring and a lot of wildlife activity will start. The first migrant birds will arrive: traditionally Sand Martins are first, followed by Chiffchaffs singing their onomatopoeic song (for me March 17 is ‘Chiffchaff Day’ in Tattenhall). These days we can expect our first Swallows right at the end of the month. However, some winter visitors hang on – expect to see flocks of Fieldfare and Redwing in fields looking for worms to fatten up on before their return migration to Scandinavia and beyond. March is traditionally the month to see Brown Hares ‘boxing’ as they pair up prior to breeding. Badgers will be much more active with their young venturing out of the sett for the first time. Trees will be coming into leaf and Celandines should be fully in flower. Wood Anemones can be seen in many local woods including the older part of Jubilee Wood. Frogspawn can be abundant in some ponds – check out the pond on our Nature Reserve.
Tadpole survival rates are very low as a result of predation by aquatic invertebrates such as water beetles and dragonfly larvae which are very active during February. Don’t be surprised if you see a few dead and bloated frogs in your pond at this time of the year – the exhaustion of breeding takes its toll – it is all part and parcel of the natural world.
Bird migration should be very apparent – Blackcap, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Sedge and Reed Warblers, House Martins and, maybe, the first Swift by month-end. The dawn chorus is well-worth getting up early for as resident birds join in with these migrants. Look for the first butterflies – overwintering adults of Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell will all be flying in sunny weather (as they can be in March as well) and Orange Tips should be egg laying on Lady’s Smock. The Nature Reserve is an excellent place to look for this. Bats should be flying on warm evenings and Pipistrelles can be seen around many houses in the village. The first damselfly of the year – Large Red – should be on the wing by the end of the month. Tadpoles will have emerged from Frogspawn and newts will be active in ponds.
The last of the bird migrants arrive – Swifts should be screaming over houses as they pair-up before nesting and Spotted Flycatchers (now sadly declined in numbers) often nest in gardens (open-fronted nestboxes sited in thick cover such as ivy-covered walls can be helpful). A few more butterfly species emerge and the three ‘whites’ – Large, Small and Green-veined – may be the most numerous. Look out for Holly Blues in gardens living up to their name on Holly but also on Ivy. Dragonflies start to emerge from water-bodies with Azure, Common Blue and Blue-tailed Damselflies alongside the Large Reds from last month. The first of the dragonflies are the Four-spotted and Broad-bodied Chasers, the former in particular around garden ponds. This is the key time to look for native Bluebells in woodland together with Wood Anemones and, of course, trees are coming into full leaf.
Will this be a ‘flaming June’ or perhaps another damp-squib? The bird-nesting season is in full swing and lots of young birds should be apparent. This is the time to look for any unimproved grasslands where wildflowers should be near their best. Damp areas may have Marsh and Common Spotted Orchids coming into flower together with Ragged Robin. In drier areas look for Birdsfoot Trefoil, Ox-eye Daisy, Red Campion and many others. Grassland butterflies should be taking advantage of these nectar sources: look for the diminutive Large Skipper first and soon followed by the very similar Small Skipper and also Common Blues. A good trip at the end of the month is to Prees Heath just south of Whitchurch for the rare Silver-studded Blue butterfly (and many others). A nearby extension could be to Whixhall Moss National Nature Reserve for the very rare White-faced Darter dragonfly (now being re-introduced to Delamere by Cheshire Wildlife Trust). More locally, the attractive Banded Demoiselle can be seen along the Shropshire Union Canal and the River Gowy.
Hopefully ‘high summer’ with lots of wildlife to see! Look out for parties of the commoner tits – Blue, Great and Long-tailed roaming through woodland and gardens. Many others species should be on second broods (or maybe even third in the case of Blackbird and Song Thrush). Given good weather, butterflies should be much more abundant with Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and, a new coloniser of this area, Ringlet in grassy areas. Main broods of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma together with Red Admiral often visit gardens, particularly if Buddleia is grown. The large dragonflies – Emperor, Southern and Brown Hawkers can be seen over water and sometimes also in gardens. The smaller darters – Common and Ruddy – both occur locally. Migrant Hawker is the last species to emerge towards the end of the month. Wildflower meadows should still be spectacular and buzzing with bees and other insects.
This, the last summer month, can sometimes feel quite quiet for wildlife: migrant birds will be returning to their winter areas in southern Europe and Africa and not yet replaced by our winter visitors. Resident birds are undergoing a feather moult and keep out of sight, particularly when moulting flight feathers, which often leads to the question ’where have my garden birds gone?’ Don’t worry – they’ll be back! However, the butterflies and dragonflies from July will still be around and, given good weather, can often be abundant. This is the time for a trip to the coast – maybe to Talacre in North Wales but, best of all, to Hilbre Island to explore the rock pools and see the seals. Remember to check the tide times carefully before going to Hilbre.
Hopefully the fine weather from summer will linger on and give us an ‘Indian Summer’! However, there will inevitably be the first gales of autumn and this could be a time for the brave to venture to the North Wirral coast to look for storm blown sea birds such as skuas, shearwaters and, particularly, Leache’s Petrels which are a real speciality of Liverpool Bay after west to north west gales. Best spots are Hilbre, Leasowe lighthouse and New Brighton. Leaves on trees will be turning colour and the first fungi will be seen in woodlands. Hedgerows should be full of blackberries, hawthorn berries, sloes and rosehips giving a welcome food supply for birds – and humans!
The season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is the time to head for the woods to enjoy the autumn colours as leaves turn from greens to yellows, reds and browns. After a few rainy days fungi in all shapes, sizes and colours appear. Look for bracket fungi on tree branches and trunks, toadstools in the leaf litter and puffballs which produce a smoke of millions of tiny spores when touched. Many woodland birds and mammals are storing food for the winter. Look for Jays and squirrels gathering acorns and butterflies such as Small Tortoiseshells and Commas feasting on ivy nectar before seeking sheltered spots to hibernate in. Flocks of tits and finches should be roaming through and will be much more apparent in gardens now so it is time to top up the bird feeders!
The last full month of autumn and one of transition into winter. On warm sunny days there is the possibility of a late butterfly or dragonfly in sheltered places. Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma and Red Admiral over-winter as adults and occasionally can be seen in November as can Common Darter and Migrant Hawker dragonflies. Look particularly for Red Admirals on late-flowering Ivy. Virtually all of our summer visiting birds will have departed but wintering thrushes – Redwings and Fieldfares – will have arrived: initially in hedgerows feeding on berries but later in winter in fields looking for earthworms. In hard weather they will come into gardens. Starling numbers are boosted by migrants from the continent and begin to form large flocks prior to communal roosting. The sight of a flock of several thousand Starlings wheeling around (and often chased by Sparrowhawks looking for a late afternoon meal) is well worth searching for. In recent years the roost has been in the Cholmondeley area. Finally, there’s not much bird song now but listen for the sad, slightly melancholic, winter song of Robins as they proclaim their winter territories and of owls setting up their breeding territories for the Spring.
The winter thrushes – Redwing and Fieldfare – should be much more evident now and also increased numbers of Blackbirds and Robins as UK residents are joined by large numbers from the continent. Check Chaffinch flocks for their Scandinavian cousins Bramblings: usually at least a few get over to the west of the UK. If we are really lucky we may get the exotic looking Waxwings. These birds seem fearless of man and will frequent trees in gardens and supermarket car parks where there are ornamental red berries. Their numbers in the UK vary a lot from year to year but websites such as Birdguides will give an indication of numbers and localities. Wintering duck can be seen on field ponds: Teal favour those with some tree cover but Wigeon prefer more open ponds. If walking through wet fields Snipe will sometimes be flushed, flying rapidly up with a loud ‘scraping’ call. They also winter in the fen area of our Mill Brook reserve.