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

16 January 2019 A lot of people have been remarking to me recently what a mild winter we are having and pointing to some unseasonal nature event in support.

I am much less sure about that. It has certainly been very dry since mid December - I have never known a winter with (so far at least) so little mud on rural footpaths. But temperature-wise? Glancing at the first half of the month, I see maximum daily temperatures of 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11 degrees. The Met Office says average January temperatures in London are 8 degrees. So it sounds as if January has so far been pretty typical.

Nature-wise there are some things that have happened on the early side of the normal range, but we are nowhere near the bizarre early spring that happened in December 2015 and the early part of January 2016, which really was weirdly warm.

To take one obvious example, daffodil shoots appeared somewhat early this year, with quite a lot visible in late December. But this is not unheard of, so long as the weather is not fiercely cold. Barring freak reports from central or inner London (which I exclude!), I have not seen any in flower or anything like in flower - which definitely did occur in 2015-16.

Snowdrops are a bit early. I usually expect to see the occasional one in the second week of January or so, with the main body coming out in force at the end of the month or in February. But this year I saw one, very tentative, as early as New Year's Day and I have seen small numbers on pretty much every country walk I have been on since. But I would still not say they are out en masse. That normally does not happen till the end of the month or early February.

Other flowers I am seeing at present are not so very unusual. A few daisies still lurk in mown grass: in a cold winter they would be killed off but in a reasonably mild one you get some. Red deadnettles - quite common this year - likewise fall into this category. White deadnettles are completely unpredictable and I am not surprised to see them any month of the year. I do not think I have recorded smooth sow thistles before in January but they are one of those opportunistic plants that can crop up here and there out of season, so seeing a few this year has not got me that excited.

Other plants that can take advantage of mild spells - such as chickweed and field speedwell - remain very tentative. These are arable weeds that also crop up on bits of arable bare ground. I am seeing lots of both plants but very very few flowers - mostly only flower buds waiting for better times. Two of the new shoots one sees at this time of year are also not early at all. I have only seen waxy cuckoo pint leaves (photo) once or twice so far and I have yet to see any sign of bluebell plants, which typically start to poke out of the ground in early February.

Another big January milestone is hazel catkins lengthening into the familiar yellow "lambs' tails". No doubt you have already seen one in full flower, as have I - I see one or two on each walk I go on. But there are always some hazels coming out early like this. The vast majority of them that I see in the countryside are not flowering at all, though in a normal year one would expect that to change towards the end of the month.

As for birds, great tits are getting quite vocal with their see-sawing and blue tits pipe away in their own quite fashion. Robins twitter away (mostly near houses) and I have heard occasional dunnocks, wrens and nuthatches limbering up. All this is pretty much the soundscape I expect at this time of year. The song thrushes who were so audible in December now seem to have fallen silent, and the same is true of collared doves. This is not surprising as that December song was probably young males getting in some practice, or perhaps jumping the gun a bit. February should see song thrushes resume.

So all in all, surveying the scene, things seem pretty normal for the time of year. We are entering the snow season, though - those weeks in late January or early February when snow often comes if it is going to (last year, when the Beast from the East came at the end of February being an exception). If snow or ice sets in, all this tentative progress towards spring comes to a halt, as it did for two months in 2013. It could still turn out to be a late spring, not an early one.



1 January 2019 At the risk of sounding like a Scrooge, I am always glad to get Christmas and New Year's Eve out of the way, because now I feel like we are on the up-slope again, on the long climb to spring.

It is a very very slow climb, of course, and we still have all the joys of winter - cold, mud, snow, beasts from the east etc - to come. But at least the natural world is now pointing in the right direction. We are advancing not retreating.

I mentioned last time the way birdsong responds to this change. I am now hearing great tits and blue tits daily and robin song is picking up noticeably as their mating season kicks off and they have to overcome their natural hostility to each other to pick a breeding partner. Add into this the occasional song thrushcollared dove and dunnock, all of which I have heard more than once in the past week, and perhaps one mistle thrush, though I am not entirely sure about that - as I said last time, it is a hard one to pin down sometimes.

But then last Saturday I was walking in Berkshire and heard almost nothing. This made me wonder: if all this pre-season birdsong just a suburban phenomenon. Hopefully not entirely, but at any time of year there are noticeably fewer birds to be heard on farmland, particularly arable. It is often as you approach a village that the birdsong starts to pick up.

This is a somewhat sad reflection on our age, and made a bit sadder by comparing it to the world described by Gilbert White, the eighteenth century clergyman who wrote the Natural History of Selborne, which I was reading over Christmas. As well as mentioning various winter species that we never see these days - woodcock, snipe - he also talks of the vast flocks of birds he sees when out riding in winter - chaffinches, linnets and others. In an average year I consider myself lucky if I see one linnet and while chaffinches are still common, I somehow never seem to encounter the large winter flocks of them my bird books talk about, yet alone the yellowhammers and other species that are supposed to mix in with them.

We are left with rooks and jackdaws, very large concentrations of which you can still see feeding on arable fields or nesting noisily in trees. If you go to Brighton Pier or (I am told) the Otmoor reserve near Oxford, you may also see large flocks of wheeling starlings.

But there is one other type of bird that you can come across in flocks and it seems to be doing rather better than it used to these days. Goldfinches, once a farmland bird, now fond of garden bird feeders, can fairly easily be encountered in the tree tops. It is their twittering sound that usually alerts you to them, but even then it can take a while before you spot them high in the branches. But if you catch sight of them, eagerly feeding on seeds, they are a lovely colourful sight.

Other flocking birds you might see at this time of year include long-tailed tits, charming balls of feathers who flit restlessly through the branches as they hurry to put away enough calories to get them through the cold night to come. If you are reasonably young you might be alerted by their high pitched contact calls. If you are older, sadly, this noise is out of your hearing range.

Look out also for any thrushes you see on cotoneaster and firethorn (pyracantha) bushes. These semi-wild shrubs with their bright red (or in the case of firethorn also orange) berries become a favourite food for blackbirds and thrushes at this time of year. Among the latter are fieldfares and redwings, Scandinavian thrushes that winter with us. The clue is in the fact that they appear in flocks: our native thrushes never do this.



16 December 2018 As I write a period of colder weather is giving way to milder conditions, something that not infrequently seems to happen in the run-up to Christmas. What is interesting is that despite the cold weather in the past week, the "signs of spring" have continued unabated.

I put "signs of spring" in inverted commas because obviously it is not nearly spring or anything remotely like it. Indeed, officially it is not even winter yet. But as I said last time it is the bottom of the natural cycle. From now on it is all uphill - longer days, increasing plant growth and birdsong, a slow but very definite ascent towards the light.

There is an echo of this in the fact that 21 December is known as "midwinter's day". How can that be the case when winter is only just starting? But in medieval times winter started on 1 November and spring on 1 February. Those dates corresponded with the end of harvest and the start of sowing. In nature terms too 21 December is the bottom of the dip, the time of least activity.

Several of our native bird species respond instinctively to this turning point. I am fairly regularly hearing the see-saw song of great tits now, as well as song thrushes either quietly practising their riffs or singing them out loud. These have been joined this week by blue tits - a rapid run of notes of single pitch - and, just today, two greater spotted woodpeckers in my local woods having a tree-drumming contest. Once or twice I have also thought I heard a mistle thrush, whose song is like a rather unimaginative blackbird's, but on each occasion this was quite far away (mistle thrushes always sound far away!) and I couldn't be sure that it was not a song thrush I was hearing.

Hearing such birdsong in mid December it is tempting to get carried away and start burbling on about how mild winters caused by climate change are confusing the birds into singing at the wrong time of year. But actually none of what I describe in the previous paragraph is unusual. None of this song is yet systematic - that is, you don't hear it all over the place, just occasionally, now and then. And all of these birds (with the possible exception of the song thrush) are not far off the start of their normal mating session.

What you hear is almost certainly first year males, who have never been through mating before, and who either are jumping the gun a bit through inexperience, or who are practising their song in readiness for the main event. Older, wiser males bide their time with the bird equivalent of a wry smile on their faces (or in their brains, at least).

Something else you might conclude is a result of climate change are all the green shoots you can see on path edges or pushing up through the leaf litter. I mentioned some of them in my last blog and this week was happy to add the most exciting one of all - lesser celandines, whose new leaves look like this. They start to appear from mid December and become particularly numerous during January and February. The lovely yellow flowers are then everywhere in the first part of spring (photo).

Much easier to recognise flower shoots are those of the daffodil (photo), which are also appearing in a few places: again, there will be lots more in January. If you are a plant nerd like me and want to amuse yourself by identifying other winter shoots, here is a handy photo guide.

The reason for all this plant activity is that we live in a part of the world where the natural vegetation is deciduous woodland. For seven or eight months of the year the foliage of the trees in such a habitat blocks sunlight from reaching the woodland floor. But winter is the exception and a whole range of wild flowers have evolved to take advantage of winter sunlight to do some growing. These plants are also colonising bare ground that has been cleared of taller summer plants, aiming to flower in the spring before the summer growth chokes them out.

It is not only ground-based flowering plants that do this. A example you might spot at the moment if you are sharp-eyed is honeysuckle. As well as growing in hedgerows it is also to be found in woods and at this time of year you can see tendrils of the plant with tiny new leaves on (photo). Not all honeysuckles start this early but some do, and again it is not the least bit unusual. Not a sign of climate change at all.
























































15 comments:

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
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramblinros/13649168915/

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 (http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/search/label/April-verge)….

"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 http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/2011/12/november-hedgerow-and-flowers.html

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.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Glad you are also enjoying the sunny weather and the May/June flora display. Hope your trip to Devon went well despite the train disruptions at
Paddington the day I went to Hartlocks nature reserve. I saw the lady, monkey and hybrid orchid. Also green hair streak and grizzly skipper butterflies.
Went to Homefield Wood nature reserve in Marlow yesterday. Great day out very sunny. Saw hundreds of Military (soldier) orchids, Greater butterfly, Fly,
Spotted, Scented, Bee and broad leave helloborine orchids. Plus a Marsh Fritillary orchid which is odd. Another frittary is the Green heath and silver
wash fritillary. I shall explore Warburgh nature reserve when I get back from Scotland. Off to Newtonmore on Saturday 9th and 23rd to Mull.
Regards Monica

Mike A said...

Wild tales from the Village
For those of you who haven't seen this program, you may wish to watch it on Iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b086k8db/wild-tales-from-the-village?suggid=b086k8db
It's an animal drama that tells the story of a year in the life of an extraordinary village, hidden away in the timeless French countryside. Narrated by Tcheky Karyo, this tale reveals the parallel world of incredible tiny creatures that live side by side with the unsuspecting humans

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