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December birds and insects

Other December pages: Woodland and hedgerowFlowersWeather

Picture: blue tit. Click here for more autumn and winter bird photos. For more information and sound clips of 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 consume enough energy during the short daylight hours to keep them warm during the cold night ahead.

This is a significant struggle. Only a third of blackbirds and half of tits survive the winter, and most birds living in a garden at the end of a summer will be dead within a year. This is despite the fact that in captivity (ie in ideal conditions, with adequate food and no predators) tits can live ten years, robins thirteen and blackbirds and starlings up to twenty.

Even so, birdsong gets a bit more prominent from mid December onwards 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. With the exception of robins, most of it is probably due to first year males practising, rather than full blown singing to attract a mate.

Robins certainly are not practising. With both males and females aggressively territorial, they sing throughout the autumn to ward off rivals. In order to mate in January they have to overcome their natural solitariness, however, and from mid December you hear the start of that process, with a marked pick-up in singing. As well as their somewhat formless warbling, they make a rapid clicking noise when agitated. 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.

Great tits make a variety of sounds - including a double cheep followed by a rattle, and a "see-choo-choo" call: all these are contact calls as they feed. In addition you occasionally hear a male bursting into its see-saw mating song, particularly in the second half of the month. Generally this is not sustained - you get a few minutes of it and then the bird stops. The less common coal tit also makes a see-saw noise ("too-twee too-twee too-twee"), with the emphasis very much on the second syllable. Both species are limbering up for January, when their mating season starts in earnest.

From mid December you can also hear 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. Now and again you can hear the nuthatch making a "wit wit" or "de-dit de-dit" call. Very rarely, one gets carried away and makes a trilling noise or a "wee wee wee", both spring mating songs. Wrens may also very occasionally burst into voice - the key to identification here being a trill in the middle of a rapid run of notes. The trill is sometimes missing, however, indicating that the bird is still practising.

Another bird that is sometimes moved to sing is the song thrush, whose varied song, repeating each phrase 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 were in full song 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. Sadly these days it is getting rather rare. Blackbirds don't sing at this time of year, but they may indulge in prolonged bouts of tup-tup-tupping towards dusk to mark their territories.

In the second half of the month you may hear the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker: otherwise it can be occasionally be heard making a chik....chik.... noise as it feeds in trees. Very very occasionally a green woodpecker breaks into its laughing "yaffle", or a somewhat flatter-toned version of it. You may also hear wood pigeons or collared doves practising their riffs, or the throaty "woo" of a stock dove. In the woods at night there may be tawny owls 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 high-pitched squeaks and rasps (sadly only audible to those with young ears) 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.

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. Chaffinches are supposedly found in big flocks too - apparently numbers of this bird are swollen in winter by migrants from continental Europe - but if they are around, they are very inconspicuous.

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 at dusk (for example around Brighton Pier, where as many as 25,000 sleep in winter, or at Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire). Meanwhile 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) or cotoneaster. Also from Scandinavia are siskins, a yellow finch that generally lives among conifers but can be lured into alder or birch trees in winter, but do not confuse these with yellowhammers, who also live in flocks at this time of year.

Insects

You may think that there are no insects around in December but you would be wrong. Look carefully and one can see small swarms of winter gnats on windless days. There are in fact ten different species of these in the UK, and the swarms are their mating dance, which they have evolved to do at this time of year to avoid predators. If you look at them under magnification (try focusing binoculars on them - not easy!) they are like miniature crane flies or mayflies.

If you turn over a rotting log in woodland you might also 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 "diapausing": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. If you leave them alone they will soon go back to their state of suspended animation.

The same is true of flies, which sometimes make an appearance on sunny days. Bumble bees and wasps overwinter in the shape of fertilised queens who make burrows or find a cosy nook to lie dormant in: all other members of the species die off in the autumn. If it is very mild, a queen bumble bee may emerge from her hole and take wing in December, thinking it is spring: she hopefully soon realises the error of her ways and goes back to bed. Honeybees are different, living communally in their hives in winter on the honey they have hopefully built up in the summer; they may also be occasionally seen on the wing if there is a food source - for example on winter flowering cherry trees.

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, while in very mild weather you may be surprised to see one on the wing (red admirals are particularly prone to this). 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. 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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