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January birds and insects


Other January pages: Flowers and treesWeather

For more photos, sound clips and information on birds mentioned in this section, see the RSPB website

January is a good time to see birds on rural walks and to learn to identify common native birdsong. The slow increase in birdsong that started in December - after the near total silence of late summer and autumn - gathers pace during January, as males of some species respond to the lengthening days by establishing their territories and starting to look for mates. The lack of foliage means it is much easier to spot them than later in the year.

Sunny days and mild weather increase birdsong - this is undoubtedly one of the subliminal factors that makes spring seem just around the corner on a bright sunny January day - while snow or cold dampen it down. This may be because birds feel more optimistic on sunny days, but is more probably because they have to spend more time feeding when it is cold.

Though smaller birds can go into a kind of partial hibernation on winter nights to save energy, it is still a struggle to keep warm. Some huddle up together - in a line in the case of the long-tailed tits, in places such as disused house martin nests in the case of wrens - but blue tits just sit alone on a twig and shiver. They can lose 5 percent of their bodyweight in one night keeping warm and then have to spend 85 percent of daylight feeding to recover that.

The signature sound of January is the see-saw song of great tits (often described as “teacher, teacher, teacher” though this describes the intonation rather than the sound itself). If the weather is mild this can be quite widespread even early in the month, but if it is cold - as in 2010 - it remains very tentative.

Great tits also make a variety of other sounds, including an urgently repeated note (which is in fact the see-saw speeded up if you listen carefully) and another that is a kind of "see-choo-choo". The less common coal tit also makes a see-saw noise (an emphatic "see-CHOO, see-CHOO").

The other very common birdsong at this time of year, particularly near houses, is the rather formless twittering of robins. Solitary for much of the year, this is the month when they must end their isolation and allow a mate into their territory, hence the singing. If you see two robins together that are not fighting, then the pairing up has taken place. The boldness of these birds - they tend to adopt prominent perches and are relatively unafraid of humans - makes them particularly easy to see. At dawn and dusk there can be a postive cacophony of competing robins, particularly in suburban areas. When agitated they make a clicking noise.

Less prominent mating calls you might hear in January include blue tits - a rapidly repeated note sung from a static perch, in contrast to the rattles they utter as they hop around branches feeding. This is peak time for them to sing but their song is quite quiet and so easy to overlook. The same might be said for the riff of the dunnock, which has been likened to the sound of a squeaky supermarket trolley: they are quite easy to see as they sit on prominent perches.

From 2010 to 2012, song thrushes were also widely heard in January and throughout the winter. Their song is a variety of different riffs, each carefully repeated several times. They were silent in the winter of 2012-13, however, and in 2014 did not start to sing properly until the end of January, though one could hear them quietly practising right from the start of the month. In 2015 I heard them a handful of times in January, while in 2015-6 they sang fairly regularly in the very mild December and early January but were much quieter after colder weather set on 11 January.

Other sounds you may hear include the drumming of a greater spotted woodpecker, the laugh ("yaffle") of a green woodpecker, or the brief outburst of a wren, the key to identification here being a trill in the middle of the phrase. Collared doves occasionally make their distinctive "hoo-hooo hoo" call (almost always near houses), while wood pigeons (both near houses and in woods) go "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo". Also in woods you occasionally hear the deep-throated "woo" of a stock dove.

In some places, nuthatches can be quite vocal. They have a variety of sounds including a galloping "de-WIT de-WIT" type call and a trill that could be mistaken for the song of the blue tit, but which is more staccato. A much rarer nuthatch call at this time of year is a rapidly repeated "wee".

Blackbirds do not sing yet, but mark their territories at dusk with competitive bouts of "tup-tup-tupping". If you do think you hear a blackbird singing, it may be a mistle thrush, which is sometimes heard this early in the year. It sounds like a blackbird in a hurry, with very short melodic phrases which are also rather repetitive. It is a peculiar quality of mistle thrush song that it nearly always sounds far away even when it is in fact relatively close. In popular legend it is the stormcock, which sings before storms.

You may also just hear the nasal "squeezh" of a greenfinch in January: they more normally start to sing in February but sometimes you hear one (perhaps an over-enthusiastic youngster) jumping the gun. The same is true of chaffinches, who just occasionally break into a repeated "hweet" call (known as a "rain call", though it is not particularly connected with imminent rain as far as I can see). You may just also hear a lark practising brief snatches its song over arable fields in January. Both these birds, like the greenfinch, otherwise start to sing in February.

Communal birds you may notice in January include flocks of birds include goldfinches, who chatter excitedly as they feed in the high branches (though they are surprisingly hard to see: when you look closely what seems like a whole flock of birds chattering also often seems to be coming from one male), and fluffy long-tailed tits, which move restlessly through the trees in small groups, uttering tiny "zip" sounds . Near farms and houses one might also hear the incessant cheeping of sparrows (often coming from within some impenetrable bush).

If you look carefully at a flock of small birds in a tree, you may find some of them are yellow siskins - a Scandinavian finch that winters here. Likewise, a flock of thrushes on a bush or a lawn will be seen on closer inspection to be either fieldfares or redwings - thrushes from Scandinavia who are distinguished from our native species by their more colourful markings. Much more rarely colourful waxwings cross over from Scandinavia and Russia in search of berries (they like rowan particularly), but these irruptions down the east coast rarely seem to get to the south east.

Flocks of rooks and jackdaws (often mixed together) gather on arable fields and roost noisly together in trees, and if you are lucky you may see starlings wheeling in formation in enormous numbers towards sunset. Up to 25,000 of them roost on Brighton pier, for example, many of them having migrated here for the winter from continental Europe.

Insects

You may think that there are no insects around in January but you would be wrong. Look carefully and one can see swarms of winter gnats on windless days. They are performing their mating dance and presumably evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.

If you turn over a rotting log in woodland you might also be surprised to see woodlice or spiders. These are all inactive in winter, but not actually hibernating, a term which only applies to mammals. Instead what the insects are doing is known as "diapause": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. The same is true of ladybirds, flies, and bumble bees, all of which sometimes make an appearance on sunny days. With all these insects if you leave them alone they will soon go back to their state of suspended animation.

Peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, comma and some speckled wood butterflies, meanwhile, lie dormant as adults (Second World War pillboxes are apparently one popular spot for peacocks). Technically this is known as a "diapause": the butterflies shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again.

On a mild and sunny January day it is also not unheard of to see a red admiral butterfly flitting around. Since this is a migratory species their presence at this time of year is a bit of a mystery: there is no evidence that these winter survivors go on to breed in spring, but it is just possible that they do.  (In addition in the third week of January 2017, I saw a brimstone flying, but this may have been because it was disturbed by conservation volunteers clearing brambles.)

Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, or in the shape of one fertilised queen (as with bumble bees and wasps). Honeybees remain closeted in their hives, living off the stores of honey they have hopefully built up over the summer. Every species has to have some strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer.

More January pages:


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