Nature Menu

Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Books and online tools Week by Week Nature Blog SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

This Week Message

For the latest observations, see the Nature Blog or the @SWC_Nature Twitter feed.

Nature Blog

Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more December photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

14 December 2017 In the snow we had this week I was wondering, as I often do in winter, just how birds manage to survive it. Monday night and Tuesday in my part of the world were particularly bitter: snow and ice frozen as hard as a brick and not even melting in the sunshine. How does something as tiny as a blue tit or a wren manage to stay alive in such conditions?

Some don't, is the short answer, I suppose. This is the time of year when the cruel logic of survival dictates who will go on to breed next year or not. Of course we assume that "instinct" tells the birds what to do to get through the cold nights, but I suppose luck and chance also play a part. Just like us if we were unexpectedly flung out into the cold, some survive and some don't. Remember that many birds only live a year or two and so have likely not experienced these conditions before.

What do birds do on cold nights? Some huddle together to keep warm. Long-tailed tits do this, snuggling up in a line, with the dominant birds naturally in the middle. I read that wrens find old house martin nests. But blue tits apparently just sit alone and shiver. They can lose five percent of their bodyweight just keeping warm (or is it 25 percent? I read that somewhere too) and then have to spend 85 percent of daylight hours feeding to recover that. How they find that food when all is frozen, heaven knows.

Blue tits will be feeding on moth caterpillars and other grubs they can dig out of tree branches. For other birds berries are a midwinter lifeline. Blackbirds are particularly prolific berry eaters, apparently, though to get a balanced diet they also need to be able to feed on the ground, pulling up worms and the like - impossible when the soil is frozen. Flocks of Scandinavian thrushes - redwings and fieldfares - can also be found stripping berries from bushes, and I read that sometimes we get irruptions of waxwings from the same place and for the same reason, though I have never seen them personally.

Is there a hierarchy of berries, I wonder? By which I mean, are some berries nicer tasting than others?  Though you can still see some haws (from hawthorn bushes) and sloes (from blackthorn bushes) about, they seem to disappear quite early in the winter. Is this because they are nice to eat or just because they fall to the ground more quickly? Yew berries also seem to be all gone by now. They have a poisonous seed but their fleshy outer parts are perfectly nutritious for birds.

Less quick to disappear are the berries of such semi-wild shrubs as cotoneaster and pyracantha (firethorn), the former bright red, the latter usually orange but sometimes red. Yet come January both are enthusiastically snapped up by blackbirds and thrushes. It can't be - can it? - that they don't ripen till then. My guess is they just don't taste very nice and so get eaten last.

January and February must be the toughest time for birds. All the good sources of grubs gone, all the berries eaten. Yet ironically this is the time when male birds have to sound at their most optimistic. Anytime now in the next week or two you might hear great tits or blue tits starting their mating song, and in January they are joined by dunnocks, while robin song picks up. I have already heard some song thrushes and mistle thrushes practising, though they don't normally sing till February.

So at the hungriest, toughest time of the year, males presumably have to sound confident, well fed, desirable, even when conditions are conspiring against them. It is a tough life being a bird.

27 November 2017 After the leaves have gone, it is winter. The conventional dates for the start of seasons break down here. 21 March is pretty much the start of spring and 21 June is about the point spring optimism gives way to the ragged fecundity of summer. Autumn sometimes starts a bit before 21 September, but it is pretty much the date when you realise there will be no more days at the beach.

But 21 December is too late for the start of winter. Once the trees are bare, once the Christmas lights are on in the high street, then it is winter. Four months of cold, mud and a landscape dominated by brown twigs.

But while the cold weather is here for the duration, the low point for nature does not last long. In January - sometimes in late December - the great tits start to sing. I have heard one or two already, and also a couple of mistle thrushes: also a song thrush quietly practising its riffs. But these are probably first year males, jumping the gun through youthful enthusiasm: early January is when birdsong restarts in earnest.

So in less than a month we already start looking forward - very tentatively - to next spring. There are also snowdrops in late January or early February and hazel catkins starting around the same time, and so the whole cavalcade begins again

That makes now rather a special time. It is the bottom of the curve, the low point for natural activity, a time when the nature's decks are cleared for action. It may not be midwinter from a weather point of view, but it certainly is for nature. There are no insects, no leaves and only the occasional very stubborn flower. All is to come.

Once the leaves are gone, the structure of trees is revealed. Bare branches stand out against the low winter sunlight. It is interesting to try and distinguish species at this time of year - oaks with their distinctive round outlines, ash with their twigs upturned at the end, hazel which is always a cluster of thin straight trunks, birch with its hanging shivers of branches.

Some oaks also still hang on to leaves, even though they are by now dead and brown. They can continue to do this well into December. Beech hedges which have been pruned in the past year also do the same, though mature trees only hang onto a few leaves at most.

Other species which can have a few leaves on them - as if they are reluctant to let go entirely - include elder, alder and crack willow. Weeping willows are in places producing some reasonable yellows as they shed their last foliage.

Notice also that some shrubs are still green. Buddleia even has new leaves on it, and there are tiny shoots on some honeysuckles (wild ones in the woods: ones in suburban areas often still have a full set of foliage). Privet (both wild and garden) and bramble are other species that mostly do not go fully bare. They are intriguing, these semi-evergreen deciduous shrubs. Do they lose all their foliage if you go far enough north? One day I must go and find out.

20 November 2017 There was near perfect leaf colour last weekend and - on Sunday at least - perfect sunny weather in which to enjoy it. Walking that day on Ashtead Common, just north of Leatherhead, there was one entrancing area where hazel was the understorey (lower level of the wood) and oak above. The hazel was all yellow (or yellowy-green), the upper levels (the oak) yellowy gold when seen against the sky, and so all was a riot of yellow. Nearer the railway line was a symphony of orangey-brown - golden oak and birch leaves, brown bracken. Quite entrancing.

All this foliage was shedding quite steadily, however, even in the near still air we had on Sunday. With westerly winds due this week, a good deal of it will blow off.

Still even next weekend there could still be some nice displays. In particular hazel - very reluctant to turn colour for most of the autumn - can go a very pretty yellow at the end. Some golden leaves also can cling to birch for a while after leaf fall is over, and both oak and beech can be very tenacious in holding onto dead leaves. On beech it tends to be a fairly small patch of foliage low down that remains, but on oaks quite large portions of their foliage can linger into December. It is as if being kings of the forest they feel it is beneath their dignity to shed their garments.

Another hold-out tree, surprisingly, is weeping willow. One thinks of this as being rather delicate (perhaps the adjective "willowy" doesn't help), but it is actually the first big tree to get foliage in spring and the last to let it go in autumn. Often it does this by slow shedding - minimal tint, the leaves just gradually falling. But sometimes it puts on a reasonable show of yellow towards the end (photo).

Alder is another slow-shedder that can keep some green leaves when most other trees are bare. Its leaves remain green and tend to be partly concealed among its blizzard of cones and catkin buds. It is the only tree to have both cones and catkins, so easy to identify.

One last tree to look out for at the end of leaf fall is larch. It is the only conifer to shed its needles, and before it does, they turn a wonderful orange colour (photo). Once fallen, they make a bright carpet on the ground.

As I pointed out in the 9 November blog, leaves on the ground are another thing to notice as you walk along. Field maple, Norway maple, hazel and to a lesser extent beech all retain lots of colour when they are freshly fallen and make a pretty carpet on the ground. Then they fade and rot and are pulled down into the ground by worms. So enjoy it all while it lasts.


Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

Sandy said...

Fantastic blog - I was particularly interested in the 19 September one about late-surviving flowers. I started noting down flowers still out in Nov/Dec a few years ago - e.g. 24 spotted on 3-4/12/2014 and 27 on 19-20/12/2015. It was astonishingly mild then of course. I don't seem to have any notes from last year but maybe I wasn't out walking at the right time. Look forward to comparing notes later in the year.

Peter C said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you find it interesting.

December 2015 was indeed the weird mild one when all sorts of early spring flowers and even blossom started to come out. But some flowers in early December are not unusual. Before writing the blog I should perhaps have checked my own December Flowers page which lists several. See

Peter C said...

I don’t know why the link in the last post says November in its url. But go to the main blue button menu above the Nature Blog and click December and you will find the page I mean.

Post a Comment