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February birds and insects

Other February pages: Flowers • Trees and shrubs • Weather

For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website

In medieval times 14 February - St Valentine's Day - was considered to be the day when birds began to mate, and that is actually fairly accurate to this day. While great tits, robins and blue tits have already started singing in January, mid February sees a definite upsurge in birdsong. By the month's end most of our common native countryside birds are in full voice, singing to attract a mate or to protect their territories, and on a sunny day there can be a positive cacophony. With no foliage, the birds are (relatively) easy to see, and there are no migrant species about to confuse the novice, making February a wonderful month to learn to identify birds or birdsong.

Song is stronger in the early morning and before dusk, though by no means exclusively confined to those times, and the fringes of suburban areas are a good place to hear it. Here birds take advantage of garden bird feeders, as well as the scrub and mix of high and low trees on the edge of a wild grassy space that often characterise suburban country parks. By contrast arable fields are generally relatively devoid of songbirds. Sunny days do seem to encourage birds to sing, either because they feel more optimistic or are devoting less time to feeding to keep warm. Equally cold and grey weather can reduce birdsong substantially.

Robins are probably the most common birdsong in February, at least near human habitation, and their song can be heard throughout the month, particularly around dawn and dusk. It is a formless twittering, hard to define, but robins are very easy to see, their boldness making them happy to sit on prominent perches quite close to humans.

Great tits are also stalwart songsters in February, singing throughout the day. There most characteristic output is a piercing see-saw (sometimes described as "teacher-teacher" though this only gives the intonation), but they also make a range of other sounds, including a repeated forceful note, a kind of "see-choo-choo", a double "weep" call that is very like that made by a chaffinch, and a churring contact call. Even the see-saw sound has variations, but if you hear a "too-TWEE, too-TWEE, too-TWEE" sound, you might be listening to a coal tit.

Blue tits also continue to make their soft mating call - a rapid repetition of the same note, which is often delivered between mouthfuls as the bird hops around the branch feeding. The characteristic social churring of the birds can also be heard, distinguished from an almost identical noise made by the great tit by the fact that in the blue tit's case the note rises at the end.

Listen carefully to that blue tit song, however, as it is just possible if you hear it in woodland that it is coming from a nuthatch. A rapid series of notes - more pronounced and clearly ennunciated than that of the blue tit - is one of several sounds that this bird makes, another being a measured "wee...wee....wee". It also does a kind of trill, but its most common sound in February is a "de-dit, de-dit, de-dit" call.

Joining all these songs is the dunnock, which can be heard throughout the month with a song that sounds like a squeaky supermarket trolley. Like the blue tit, it is not a very loud song, but once you get your ear in, it is quite common. A much louder, and so more obvious, explosion of notes, with a trill in the middle, is the hallmark of the wren. It can sing any time of year but there is a definite pick up in frequency in February, and at this time of year it will sometimes make several outbursts in a row.

All these songs suggest that spring is on its way, but the real confirmation comes from the mating song of the chaffinch, whose accelerating cascade of notes ends in a flourish that seems to almost trip over itself. In some years it is heard right from the start of February, but more often it is heard from mid month. Occasionally you also hear the bird making a repetitive and slightly raspy "wheep…wheep…wheep" call (with about one wheep per second: known to birders as a "rain call"), though it is easy to confuse this with the repeated single note song of a great tit (the latter is usually more rapid, but sometimes great tits seem to sing more slowly). The chaffinch also makes a "chink chink" sound very similar to the double "weep" sound made by great tits.

If they have not started already in January, February sees song thrushes starting up – easily recognisable because they produce a great variety of phrases and then repeat each one several times. They are heard particularly often at dusk when they seem to like to be the last bird to stop singing, but can be heard at other times of the day. Less easy to identify is the mistle thrush, whose song is like a clipped, more repetitive version of the blackbird's and which always sounds as if it is far away even when it is quite close.

If you see a flock of thrushes feeding on the ground or on bushes, then they will almost certainly be redwings (who do indeed have a red patch under their wings) or fieldfares (like a thrush, but somewhat more highly coloured), both of whom are winter visitors from Scandinavia. At the end of the winter, as food sources get scarce, they can sometimes come into suburban parks. It not being their breeding season, they do not sing here.

From mid February you may start to hear some blackbirds, their beautifully measured and melifluous song evocative of spring days to come, but is not till March that blackbird song really starts to become common. One theory I have read is that it is young males in their first mating season who are singing in February, carried away by enthusiasm and so jumping the gun a bit. Older more experienced males still mark their territories at dusk by making the tup-tup-tup call they use throughout the winter.

If the blackbirds do sing they do so from high perches such as chimney pots and so are relatively easy to see. You sometimes see them silently sitting on such perches towards dusk in February as if trying to remember what they are supposed to do there. The rest of the day they search for worms and bugs on the ground: you can see them cocking their ear to listen for earthworms. The arrival of a walker disturbs all this, of course, and they fly off in disgust, uttering their fluttering alarm call.

Among the sociable group-forming birds, long-tailed tits continue to flit restlessly through the branches making an almost inaudible squeak, and you may hear sparrows cheeping away near buildings, sadly much rarer than they used to be. From mid month greenfinch males make their mating song, a repeated "squeeeezh" sound as well as trilling noises. You can also hear the twittering of goldfinches high up in trees, which sounds like communal chatter but may turn out to be a lone male singing away.

Other birds to listen out for in February (you almost never actually see them) are green woodpeckers, whose call is a kind of manic laugh, and greater spotted woodpeckers, who drum on trees to show off to females. On bushes or alder trees you might see a quiet flock of siskins, another winter visitor, which look like yellowy greenfinches, but if you see a flock on the ground, look more closely because they might just be yellowhammers.

Wood pigeons also occasionally make their "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" call, while collared doves (nearly always found near habitation) go "hoo-hooo hoo". A rarer call is the throaty "woo" of the stock dove which is only heard in woodland.

In arable fields, as well as the fieldfares and redwings mentioned above, you get large flocks of rooks or jackdaws (or both mixed in together) or starlings, and the latter also can be seen wheeling in formation in huge flocks (many tens of thousands strong) at dusk (Brighton pier is a wonderful place to see this). In the second half of the month in rough grassland or fallow fields you might be surprised to hear a lark singing – an incongruous summer sound, but actually quite normal at this time of year.

Smaller creatures

One doesn’t associate February with insects, but there are some around. You might catch sight of a cloud of tiny winter gnats - and around crocuses, violets or cherry plum blossom early bees - particularly bumble bees (probably a queen, emerged from hibernation) or honeybees (which spend all winter in their hives), as well as possibly solitary bee varieties. Queen wasps may be out looking for nesting spots. All of these, if the weather turns cold again, can simply go back to bed.

Other insect species are dormant and so may appear if the weather is fine - ladybirds are a prime example. If you turn over a rotting log you can also find woodlice or spiders, though normally they are well out of sight at this time of year.

On a sunny day you may also be surprised to see a butterfly. Red admirals are the ones often seen, for some reason: they are normally summer migrants, but a few do over-winter here and may just wake up on a warm day. Hibernating species such as brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma may also just be seen, and I am told it is not unknown for painted lady (another migrant normally associated with high summer) to pop up too. As with bees, all these soon realise the error of their ways and go back to sleep.

Towards the very end of February frogs may emerge from their hibernation (which they do in leaf litter, log piles and underground tunnels and sometimes in in the mud at the bottom of the pond). They then mate - the male hanging on grimly to the female's back - and lay their eggs - frogspawn - in ponds.

More February pages:

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