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February birds, insects and animals

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Picture: blackbird. Click here for more February bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

In medieval times 14 February - St Valentine's Day - was considered to be the day when birds began to mate, and that is still more or less accurate. While great tits, robins and blue tits have already started singing in January, mid February sees a definite upsurge in birdsong. By the month's end most of our common native countryside birds are in voice, singing to attract a mate or to protect their territories. With no foliage, the birds are (relatively) easy to see, and there are no migrant species about to confuse the novice, making February a wonderful month to learn to identify birds or birdsong.

The fringes of suburban areas are a particularly good place to hear birdsong. Here birds take advantage of garden feeders, as well as the scrub and mix of high and low trees on the edge of the wild grassy spaces that often characterise suburban country parks. By contrast arable fields are largely devoid of songbirds. Song is stronger in the early morning and before dusk, though by no means exclusively confined to those times - blue tits, great tits, greenfinches and chaffinches sing more during the day, for example, while towards dusk song is dominated by robins, song thrushes and blackbirds.

Those birds that are singing in February are particularly loud because they are establishing territories and want to notify rivals a fair distance away of their intentions: once territories are established they only need to produce enough volume to be heard by their immediate neighbours. Similarly, in order to attract a mate they have to project their song over as big a distance as possible. In some species (for example song thrushes and great tits) they are also aiming to sing creatively to demonstrate their experience to prospective females: the wider the repertoire, the better the male is likely to be as a food provider.

Sunny days or ones with mild westerly winds encourage birds to sing, either because they feel more optimistic or are devoting less time to feeding to keep warm. Equally, cold weather or northerly or easterly winds can reduce birdsong substantially and cause many or all of the species that start singing in February to fall silent again.

Robins produce probably the most common birdsong in February near human habitation, and their song can be heard throughout the month, particularly around dawn and dusk, though also during the day. It is a formless twittering, hard to define, but robins are very easy to see, their boldness making them happy to sit on prominent perches quite close to humans.

Great tits are also stalwart songsters in February, singing throughout the day and more persistently than in January. Their most characteristic output is a piercing see-saw (sometimes described as "teacher-teacher" though this only gives the intonation), but they make a range of other sounds, including a repeated forceful note (the see-saw speeded up essentially), a kind of "see-choo-choo", and a double "weep" call that is very like that made by a chaffinch. Single "weeps" can sometimes be joined into an insistent metronome (again similar to chaffinches and possible to confuse with a nuthatch) and there is also a churring contact call. Even the see-saw sound has variations (the more a male can do, the more attractive he is to females, apparently), but if you hear a "too-twee, too-twee, too-twee" sound (with emphasis on the "twee"), you are listening to a coal tit.

Blue tits also continue to make their soft mating call - a rapid repetition of the same note, which is often delivered between mouthfuls as the bird hops around the branch feeding - though towards the end of the month it is perhaps starting to tail off a bit in intensity and duration. Their characteristic social churring can also be heard, distinguished from the almost identical noise made by the great tit by a rising note at the end.

Listen carefully to that blue tit song, however, as it is just possible if you hear it in woodland that it is coming from a nuthatch. A rapid series of notes - more pronounced and clearly ennunciated than that of the blue tit - is one of several sounds that this bird makes. Much more common at this time of year, however, is a "wit wit" or "de-dit de-dit" call, that sometimes evolves into a "wee wee wee", delivered either rapidly or in a slow measured way (the bird has to stop and tilt its head up to do the latter). It also does a kind of trill. In general, nuthatches are limbering up in February, with March being when they start to sing more earnestly.

Joining all these songs is the dunnock, which can be heard throughout the month with a song that sounds like a squeaky supermarket trolley. Like the blue tit, it is not a very loud song, but once you get your ear in it is quite common - usually, but not always, heard near habitation. A much louder, and so more obvious, explosion of notes, with a trill in the middle, is the hallmark of the wren. It can be heard any time of year but there is a definite pick up sometime around the middle of February, at which time it starts to make several outbursts in a row.

All these songs suggest that spring is on its way, but the real confirmation comes from the mating song of the chaffinch, whose accelerating cascade of notes ends in a flourish that seems to almost trip over itself. In some years it is heard right from the start of February, but more often it is heard from mid month. The bird also makes a "chink chink" sound very similar to the double "weep" sound made by great tits.

After practising by young males in January, February also sees song thrushes piping up in earnest - easily recognisable because they produce a great variety of phrases and then repeat each one several times. They are heard particularly often at dusk, when they seem to like to be the last bird to stop singing, but can be heard at other times of the day. As with great tits, the more variations a song thrush male can make in his song, the more attractive he is to females. Less easy to identify - and rather rare these days - is the mistle thrush, whose song is like a clipped, more repetitive version of the blackbird's and which sounds far away even when it is quite close.

If you see a flock of thrushes feeding on the ground or on bushes, then they will either be redwings (who do indeed have a red patch under their wings, along with a light stripe above and below their eyes) or fieldfares (like a thrush, but with a grey head and rump), both of whom are winter visitors from Scandinavia. At the end of the winter when food sources get scarce, they can sometimes come into suburban parks. They can be distinguished easily from our native thrushes because they are in flocks - song thrushes and mistle thrushes never flock. When they congregate in trees, they make a chattering sound.

From mid February you may start to hear some blackbirds, their beautifully measured and melifluous song evocative of spring days to come, but it is not till March that it really starts to become common. It is young males in their first mating season who are singing in February, carried away by enthusiasm and so jumping the gun a bit (but still a very welcome spring-like sound for us humans). One can sometimes also hear them quietly practising their song (subvocalising) in a bush. Otherwise, they typically sing at dusk and one often hears one's first blackbird of the year in a suburban area on a damp mild day. Older more experienced males may still mark their territories at dusk by making a tup-tup-tup call.

If the blackbirds do sing, they do so from high perches such as chimney pots or tree tops and so are relatively easy to see. You sometimes see them silently sitting on such perches towards dusk in February as if trying to remember what they are supposed to do there. The rest of the day they search for worms and bugs on the ground: you can see them cocking their ear to listen for (or perhaps look out for) earthworms. The arrival of a walker disturbs all this and they fly off in disgust, uttering their stuttering alarm call.

Among the sociable group-forming birds, long-tailed tits continue to flit restlessly through the branches uttering tiny squeaks and rasps (sadly only audible to young ears...), and you may hear sparrows cheeping away near buildings, often from within a bush. From early in the month greenfinch males make their mating song, a repeated "squeeeezh" sound as well as trilling noises. You can also hear the twittering of goldfinches high up in trees, though they are surprisingly hard to see.

Other birds to listen out for in February are green woodpeckers, whose call (known as a "yaffle") is a kind of manic laugh, and great spotted woodpeckers, who drum on trees to show off to females, as well as making chik...chik... contact calls. On bushes or alder trees you might see (or more often hear) a noisy twittering flock of siskins, another winter visitor, which look like yellowy greenfinches. (Be careful, though, as it is easy to confuse them with the much more common sight of a flock of goldfinches).

Wood pigeons occasionally make their "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" call, while collared doves (nearly always found near habitation) go "hoo-hooo hoo". Listen out also for the throaty "woo" of the stock dove, which is usually only heard in woodland.

On arable fields, as well as the fieldfares and redwings mentioned above, you get large flocks of rooks or jackdaws (or both mixed in together): they also assemble noisily in tree tops, where they roost. You might just come across a flock of starlings on arable fields, too, but this is sadly a rare sight these days. At dusk they fly in hypnotic formations called murmurations. Brighton Pier is a wonderful place to see this, with tens of thousands of starlings roosting there at dusk. Many of these are in fact migrants from the continent, attracted here by our milder winters.

Right from the start of the month (though more commonly from mid month) you might be surprised to hear a skylark singing over rough grassland or arable fields - an incongruous summer sound, but quite possible (if not exactly common) at this time of year. You may also observe several of them on the ground, scuffling and making singing forays into the air, presumably competing for territory. Also in February you can still occasionally hear the night time hooting of a tawny owl.

Insects and butterflies

One doesn't associate February with insects, but there are some around. You might catch sight of a cloud of tiny 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 so at this time of year to avoid predators.

Look out also for early honeybees - for example around crocuses or cherry plum blossom. They live in hives all winter, feeding on the honey they made the previous summer, and so can emerge when conditions are right to search for pollen. In addition on mild days, a loud buzzing may alert you to a queen bumble bee who has emerged from her winter burrow. They are the sole survivors of their species who have mated the previous autumn and then lain dormant. Their task now is to find a nest site and start a new generation. You may just come across a queen wasp on a similar mission. All of these, if the weather turns cold again, can simply go back to bed.

Other insect species are dormant - or to be more precise in a state of diapause, where their metabolism is switched off entirely but can be awakened in a moment to deal with a threat. Thus if you turn over a rotting log you might find woodlice or spiders, who will rapidly scuttle off to find shelter again. Ladybirds are also hidden away but may emerge on a warm sunny day. The occasional fly is also not impossible.

On a sunny day you may also be surprised to see a red admiral butterfly. Their presence in England at this time of year is an anomaly, as they are normally summer migrants. But a few do over-winter here and may just wake up if the weather is mild. As with bees, they soon realise the error of their ways and go back to sleep.

If the weather is exceptionally mild, other hibernating (or rather diapausing) species of butterfly can also wake up. These include the brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma. All four were seen in the last week of February 2019, when warm air from the Canaries lifted temperatures to a record 21 degrees. However usually it is not until the second half of March that these species emerge.

Animals

Towards the very end of the month frogs may emerge from their hibernation (which they spend in leaf litter, log piles and underground tunnels or sometimes the mud at the bottom of ponds). They then mate - the male hanging on grimly to the female's back - and lay their eggs - frogspawn - in ponds (choosing ones too shallow to have large fish, which might eat their tadpoles).

Any sheep you see in the fields are probably looking rather chubby, since they are about to give birth to lambs. If you see grey squirrels chasing each other around tree trunks, this is part of their mating ritual.

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