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December birds and insects

Other December pages: Woodland and hedgerowFlowersWeather

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

The disappearance of foliage in November is a boon to birdwatchers in December. Suddenly birds can be seen as they feed busily on trees and bushes, racing against time to take on board enough energy during the short daylight hours to keep them warm during the cold night ahead.

Despite this, birdsong also gets a bit more prominent in December as several species approach their mating seasons. How much song there is varies with the weather - mild temperatures or sunshine can increase it, though a very cold frost overnight may dampen it and on grey cold days you hear almost nothing. There is also more near human habitation than in fields and woods.

The most sustained birdsong in December comes from the aggressively territorial robin. Their fearlessness when confronted with humans and the fact that they choose obvious perches overlooking open ground (from which they pounce to feed) makes them one of the easiest birds to spot. Both male and female robins maintain territories, so in order to mate they have to overcome their fierce rivalry. This starts to happen in January and from mid December you hear the opening salvos: there is a marked pick-up in robin singing at this time. As well as their somewhat formless warbling, they also make a rapid clicking noise when agitated.

Great tits also make a variety of sounds - including a double cheep followed by a rattle, and a "see-choo-choo" call - and you can also hear the occasional one bursting into its see-saw mating song. Generally this is not sustained - you get a few minutes of it and then the bird stops. The birds are limbering up for January, when their mating season starts in earnest.

From mid December, you can also hear lone blue tits singing their mating song, a rapidly repeated note, though it is not always easy to distinguish this from the "zee-zee zit" call which they make while they feed. They also rattle away to each other as they hop around the branches, their rattle having a slightly rising note at the end which distinguishes it from the great tit's.

Another song you may just hear from mid month is the rather random riff of the dunnock, which sounds a bit like a tune being played backwards: they also make a single 'tseep' as a call, though it is hard to distinguish this from a similar sound made by great tits. Wrens may burst into voice from time to time - the key to identification here being a trill in the middle of a rapid run of notes, but this is a very occasional event. More commonly you can hear the nuthatch making a "de-dit de-dit" call.

Another bird that is sometimes moved to sing is the song thrush, whose varied song, repeating each phrase two or three times, is not supposed to start till February. But sometimes in December you can hear them quietly practising it in a tree, or even breaking out into a more confident rendition. From 2009 to 2011 song thrushes sang confidently throughout the winter, puzzling ornithologists, but this has not been repeated. Mistle thrushes may also very occasionally be heard singing in December, uttering clipped phrases a bit like a blackbird's but with much less variety or creativity. A characteristic of this bird is that it always sounds as if it is in the far distance even when it is quite close by.

Nothing like as common as they once were but still found now and then, flocks of sparrows cheep away as they do all year, often from inside a bush and always near habitation. Blackbirds don't sing, but they may indulge in prolonged bouts of tup-tup-tupping towards dusk to mark their territories.

Later in the month you may just hear a "yaffle" (a sort of hysterical laugh) from a green woodpecker (this seems to happen some years but not others) or the drumming of a greater spotted woodpecker: otherwise the latter bird can be heard making a chik....chik.... noise as it feeds in trees. The "hoo-hooo hoo" of collared doves is also heard from time to time, the first time the bird has sung since the summer. In woods you may hear a tawny owl hooting (the classic "hu-hu-hu-HOO" sound), but it is less common than in November.

Otherwise, you sometimes see birds in flocks, feeding in the branches of trees or bushes. Particularly restless are long-tailed tits - balls of fluff with a long tail - which let out regular (but almost inaudible) high-pitched squeaks as they hop through treetops in a frantic search for food. Goldfinches give themselves away by their excited chattering (for example when eating ash seeds) but despite this are astonishingly hard to spot, seemingly always high in trees or concealed in thick bushes.

Chaffinches are supposedly found in quite big flocks too - apparently numbers of this bird are swollen in winter by migrants from continental Europe - but they make relatively little sound and so are often overlooked. They can sometimes make a "chink chink" call, but generally this noise comes from great tits.

On bare arable fields you can see large flocks of starlings, rooks or jackdaws feeding (the latter two often mixed together in one flock). Starlings can form great congregations that wheel in unison before they roost (for example around Brighton Pier, where as many as 25,000 sleep in winter), while rooks and jackdaws greet dusk with a great deal of discordant cawing and flapping about in their tree top roosts (apparently this is not just squabbling - research suggests they are also telling each other about feeding grounds).

If you see a flock of thrushes, they are almost certainly fieldfares or redwings (the latter with a dash of red by the wing just as their name suggests). These come from Scandinavia to spend the winter in England and are particularly fond of park and garden bushes which still have berries, such as firethorn (pyracantha). Also from Scandinavia are siskins, a yellow finch that generally lives among conifers but can be lured into alder or birch trees in winter.

Insects

You may think that there are no insects around in December 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 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 and comma butterflies also diapause as adults - Second World War pillboxes are apparently one favoured spot - and some red admirals, despite being migrants, seem to be learning the same trick. Very cold winter weather can actually benefit these species by killing off parasites. Quite a few other butterfly and moth species spend the winter as dormant caterpillars - one of the things the great and blue tits are looking for as they feed.

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 December pages:


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