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

3 January 2020 Apart from seeing my first snowdrop - in the Quaker cemetery at Jordans, near Beaconsfield, not much has changed since my last entry. The seesaw song of great tits and coal tits (the former ending on an up beat, the latter on a down beat) and the single repeated note of the blue tit are getting a little more common, but one could not say that either bird is in full voice yet. Probably we are still at the phase when younger males are practising, though the singing should get more organised and competitive soon. As I said last time, these will build in frequency and become the dominant bird sounds of January.

That, and the twittering of robins, which still to my ears seems to be a bit muted compared to previous years. I don't really feel that they are yet singing seriously. By contrast, I regularly hear goldfinches warbling away as they feed communally in trees and bushes. I have read that up to 80% of our goldfinches migrate to the continent in winter, but there seem to be reasonable numbers this year in this part of the world - possibly due to the food available on bird tables.

I also heard one brief snatch of dunnock song this week. I find it hard to describe, except as a random riff that sounds a bit like a bit of music played backwards. I am surprised by how even experienced birders say that they don't know the song of this bird, since it is one of our common garden birds. It starts to sing sometime in January and that kicks off a frenetic time of sex and infidelity for this bird, which is notoriously promiscuous.

On a sunny 30th of December near Shiplake I also heard over a dozen song thrushes singing away, some confidently, some less so. It is not uncommon to hear these birds practising their songs at this time of year, but to have them in competition with each other is a bit unusual. I can only conclude that one started and set the others off.

Down on the path verges I am still only seeing lesser celandine shoots occasionally (photo). You have to be quite specialised to pick them out from the other small plant leaves poking out the ground, but they are significant because they are one shoot that appears just at this time and builds up to become one of the key flowers of early spring. Easier to recognise are ramrod-straight daffodil shoots, which are showing their heads above ground in some places, as they tend to do about this time of year.

As for the snowdrop I saw at Jordans, it was earlier than I would normally expect, but not massively so. I would normally reckon to see one or two snowdrops in the second or third week of January, though it is towards the end of the month that they come out in earnest. There are some other flowers about, though you need to look hard to see them. The occasional daisy dots mown grass, for example, and as urban weeds you can see the unloved groundsel, as well as the occasional shepherd's purse. I am also seeing some very small and usually closed chickweed flowers (on urban wasteground, or pasture fields). I have not yet seen any winter heliotrope, a garden escapee plant with big circular leaves which produces pink flower spikes at this time of year.

In gardens and parks, notice three cheerful planted shrubs which cheer up this time of winter. Winter jasmine (photo) has yellow flowers on bare stalks, while any pink cherry blossom you see will come from a winter flowering cherry (photo). There is also the white-flowered viburnum, which always seems to be half in flower, half not. These are all cultivated plants, but if you happen to find yourself on heathland you may also notice that gorse has quite a few flowers too (photo). They build up slowly before peaking in April

And so January advances and we wait for better days, nature-wise. The satisfaction is knowing that we are now on the up slope, advancing (even if ever so slowly) towards spring.



21 December 2019 21 December is not just the shortest day (though I see this year that honour goes to 22 December for some reason): it was also once known as midwinter's day. That seems a bit odd when it is also supposedly the first day of winter, but as I said last time, I have always thought of winter as starting once the leaves have fallen from the trees. Still, midwinter? Surely that should be some time in late January.

The explanation is not just astronomical - because this is the point when the North Pole is most tilted away from the sun - but rooted in the medieval calendar. Then 1 February was seen as the first day or spring and 1 November the start of winter. That made sense if you were a medieval peasant. In February planting started and from August to October you were harvesting. On that basis, 21 December is indeed midwinter, a time to rest and feast.

It is midwinter for nature too, since, as I explained last time, from now on we are on the up slope. The most noticeable sign of this is birdsong. In the mild weather this week I have several times heard great tits singing their see-saw mating song, and the rapid run of notes that is the corresponding song of the blue tit. By rights robin song should also be picking up now, though I have to say in my locality it has been a bit tentative to date. But these three birds will fill the airwaves on January days as the great birdsong cavalcade gets underway.

All these birds are more likely to sing if the weather is mild or sunny, but I like to think that they notice the day length too. Indeed, it must be so, consciously or otherwise. Imagine that you are a first year bird and all your life the daylight has been getting shorter and shorter. If you thought about it at all, that would be a bit alarming. But then the process goes into reverse. Even though the weather is still cold, that carries the promise of better times to come.

Finding food starts to get tougher for birds from now on, however: all the easy sources must now be exhausted. It is at this time of year that the tempting red berries of those garden escapees firethorn (pyracantha) and cotoneaster start to get eaten - blackbirds and thrushes in particular go for them, and flocks of fieldfares and redwings (Scandinavian thrushes that winter here) can strip a bush bare. A few ivy berries are also ripe and are being plucked at by blackbirds and wood pigeons: to my surprise the latter were even enthusiastically eating unripe ivy berries on a neighbour's wall recently, something I have never seen before.

On the verges you see signs of spring too. The little plant shoots I mentioned last time - next spring's flowers - are being joined by more, new little shoots of cow parsley or cleavers or dandelion or garlic mustard pushing up through the leaf litter. In places they are also being joined by the tiny shoots of lesser celandine (photo). These will build and build in number in the next month, until soon they are absolutely everywhere, until in March they become the ubiquitous flower of spring.



27 November 2019 Leaf fall is pretty much over now - pretty much, because some leaves remain on oaks. They can keep some desiccated foliage well into the winter and the same is true on the lower branches or saplings of beech (beech hedges even hold onto brown leaves until the spring). You also get the occasional lime, field maple or hornbeam that insists on holding onto some leaves after all its fellows have shed just to annoy people like me who like to make tidy divisions in the natural year. But basically autumn colour is at an end.

I used to think that this was the most depressing time of the year. It is certainly the start of winter in all but name. I realise that officially winter does not start till 21 December, but in nature terms this is a nonsense. The other season start dates work fine - 21 March for spring, 21 June for summer and 21 September for autumn. But there is nothing autumnal about the time between now and Christmas. We have a four month winter, plain and simple.

But while this time of year is the lowest ebb for nature, it is also the start of the turnaround. We are now at the bottom of the dip and from now on it is all uphill - admittedly very very slowly. Signs of this are already visible all around, if you only pay attention.

One might start with next spring's flowers, which are staking out the ground all around us. If you look closely, you can see bare verges already alive with the young leaves of cow parsley, which really does look like parsley at this time of year, with new dandelion and nettle shoots, and with the shoots of cleavers, garlic mustard, wood avens and a host of other plants (see here for photos).

It is particularly charming to see these shoots pushing up through the freshly fallen leaves, a symbol of new life amidst the decay of the old. And no, this is not a sign of climate change or "what a mild autumn we are having": this happens every year. These are all essentially plants of deciduous woodland which have evolved to start their growth cycle and stake out their territory on bare woodland floors, so that they can flower before the leaves reappear on the trees in spring and block out their light. Snow and cold will not affect them: they will not be killed by a hard frost like garden plants (usually Mediterranean or sub-tropical imports) are. This is their normal life cycle.

The other cheerful sign to watch out for is an uptick in birdsong. After the near silence of October and November, December sees the first stirrings of next year's bird mating season. Today - admittedly a very mild day which was also sunny for a time - was a good example. Robins, which have been fairly silent since September, were singing all over the place in my locality. Great tits were vocal, not just doing their contact calls, which they do all winter, but trying their see-saw mating song. And at least three song thrushes on my local riverside walk were practising their riffs. A very springlike soundscape.

You might think they (and I) are jumping the gun here. It is four months to spring! But both robins and great tits can start to sing in a more organised way in late December, albeit that things don't really get into gear till January. Song thrushes do not start singing properly till February, but they need to practise their very elaborate song before that. There is still plenty of cold weather to come, which will largely or entirely shut the birds up. But from now on mild or sunny days will spark at least some avian thoughts of spring, producing melodies to cheer up our winter days.

One last thing to look out for at this time of year: leaf fall may be over, but not all leaves are gone. Privet - both the garden and wild variety - keeps green leaves all winter, though will have some tinting yellow and falling for the rest of December and into January. Bramble is the same. It goes nearly bare (with a few remaining maroon leaves) if out in the open, but under cover (eg in woodland) can remain quite green, albeit continuing to shed some leaves (yellow tints mainly, sometimes gold and red). Buddleia is also semi-evergreen despite being an import. It not only still has green leaves but already has small leaf shoots ready for next spring. Honeysuckle, which you might see in the woods, also has new leaves.

Who would have thought that there were so many plants that were semi-evergreen in these latitudes? Is it the same further north, or do things get barer there? Whatever, in this part of the world, even at the lowest point in the natural cycle, there is always plenty happening. The end is followed by a new beginning
















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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