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January birds and insects

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

The slow increase in birdsong that started in December - after the near total silence of late summer and autumn - gathers pace during January, as males of some species respond to the lengthening days by establishing their territories and starting to look for mates. The reason they start now is in order to have territories set up, nests established and young hatched in time to coincide with the greater abundance of food in spring.

Singing is a risky activity, pointing out the males to potential predators. The lack of foliage makes this danger even more acute - though on the plus side it makes the birds easier for us to spot than they are later in the year.

Sunny days and mild weather increase birdsong - this is undoubtedly one of the subliminal factors that makes spring seem just around the corner on a fine January day - while snow, cold or northerly or easterly winds dampen it down. This may be because birds feel the sap rising on milder days, but is more probably because they have to spend more time feeding when it is cold.

Getting enough to eat is, in fact, a big struggle, especially now when the easier food sources of late autumn have been exhausted. Most birds living in a garden at the end of a summer will be dead within a year, and while predators play a big part, starvation is also a factor. Only a third of blackbirds and half of tits survive the winter, and even those that do are unlikely to see a second one. 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.

And though smaller birds can go into a kind of partial hibernation on winter nights to save energy, it is still a struggle to keep warm. Some huddle up together - in a line in the case of the long-tailed tits, in places such as disused house martin nests in the case of wrens - but blue tits just sit alone on a twig and shiver. They can lose 5 percent of their bodyweight in one night and then have to spend 85 percent of daylight feeding to recover it.

The signature sound of January is the see-saw song of great tits (often described as "teacher, teacher, teacher" though this describes the intonation rather than the sound itself). In general you hear brief outbursts early in the month which get more persistent from the third week onwards. But if it is cold - as in 2010 - it remains tentative all month. The less common coal tit also makes a see-saw noise with the emphasis on the second syllable ("too-TWEE too-TWEE too-TWEE").

Great tits also make a variety of other sounds, including an urgently repeated note (which is in fact the see-saw speeded up if you listen carefully) and another that is a kind of "see-choo-choo". In addition they produce a rattling noise or do cheeps singly, in pairs or, more rarely, a long irregular series of them. The more varied the noises a great tit male makes, apparently, the less likely rivals are to encroach on their territory.

The other very common birdsong at this time of year, at least near houses, is the rather formless twittering of robins. Ruthlessly solitary for much of the year - they will happily kill rivals - this is the month when they must end their isolation and allow a mate into their territory. If you see two robins together that are not fighting, then the pairing up has taken place. Even then it is a tentative affair, the birds tolerating each other's presence for the purpose of raising young rather than showing any affection.

The boldness of these birds - they tend to adopt prominent perches and are relatively unafraid of humans - makes them particularly easy to see. If it has not already done so from the start of the month, robin song becomes widespread in the second half, particularly in residential areas towards dusk, with competition between rival males obvious. When agitated - or just want to signal their presence without singing - they make a clicking noise.

Less prominent mating calls you might hear in January include blue tits - a soft but rapidly repeated note sung from a static perch. They also utter rattling noises as hop around branches feeding and make a kind of "zee-zee-zit" sound that is halfway to the mating song. This is the peak time for them to sing, but their song is quite quiet and so easy to overlook. The same might be said for the riff of the dunnock, which has been likened to the sound of a squeaky supermarket trolley. This can be heard even at the start of the month, but sometimes it does not really become common until later in the month or even early February. They are quite easy to see as they sing from prominent perches.

Song thrushes are not in full mating mode until February, but you can sometimes hear them practising their song in January, something they start to do as early as late November. What you hear is males (probably first year ones) "sub-vocalising", that is trying out different riffs very quietly, the most varied repertoire being what attracts a female. Occasionally one might get over-enthusiastic and sing at full volume, and sometimes a competing male will sing back, but this is usually not sustained. One exception was from 2009 to 2012 when for three years in a row song thrushes sang all winter, to the puzzlement of ornithologists

Other sounds you may hear include the occasional "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" of the wood pigeon (in woods and near houses) or the even more occasional "hoo-hooo hoo" call of collared doves (almost always near houses). Both are more prevalent in milder weather. Also in woods you may hear the repeated deep-throated "woo" of the stock dove. For all three birds these are mostly brief outbursts, however: limbering up rather than serious mating behaviour.

In some woods nuthatches can be quite vocal. They have a variety of sounds including a "wit wit" (or "de-dit de-dit") call, and a trill that could be mistaken for the song of the blue tit but which is more staccato. Much more rarely the "wit wit" starts to morph into a rapidly repeated "wee" or a more leisurely and emphatic run or three or four "wee"s: this is the bird practising its mating calls.

You also might hear the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker, the hysterical laugh ("yaffle") of a green woodpecker, a brief outburst of a wren (listen out for the trill in the middle of the phrase, though they have often not perfected this part of the song at this time of year), or (at the very end of the month) the nasal "squeezh" of a greenfinch. All of these birds more usually start in February so what you are hearing in January is probably a youngster practising or jumping the gun. Great spotted woodpeckers also continue to make their year-round "chik..chik.." call as they feed in trees.

Blackbirds do not sing yet, but may mark their territories at dusk with competitive bouts of "tup-tup-tupping". If you do think you hear a blackbird singing, it may be a mistle thrush. It sounds like a blackbird in a hurry, with very short melodic phrases which are also rather repetitive. It is a peculiar quality of mistle thrush song that it nearly always sounds far away even when it is in fact relatively close. In popular legend it is the stormcock, which sings before bad weather. Sadly these days it is quite a rare bird.

Communal birds you may notice in January include goldfinches, who chatter excitedly as they feed in the high branches (though they are surprisingly hard to see: when you look closely what seems like a whole flock of birds chattering often seems to be coming from one male), and fluffy long-tailed tits, which move restlessly through the trees in small groups, uttering tiny squeaks and rasps (sadly only audible to young ears...). Near farms and houses one might also hear the incessant cheeping of sparrows (often coming from within a bush).

If see a flock of small birds excitedly twittering in a tree, especially an alder, they may be siskins - a yellow-hued Scandinavian finch that winters here. Look carefully, though, as siskins are very easy to confuse with goldfinches, or with yellowhammers, who also flock together in winter but feed on the ground and do not twitter. Chaffinches are supposedly found in flocks in winter too, with numbers swollen by migrants from continental Europe, but if they are around, they are very inconspicuous.

Redwings and fieldfares make a chattering noise as they gather in trees that could at a pinch be mistaken for that made by siskins. These Scandinavian thrushes come to our shores in winter to enjoy our milder climate and greater availability of food - especially berries of all kinds, but also insects and worms that they find on grassland - and can be distinguished from our native thrushes by the fact that they are in flocks (song and mistle thrushes never flock). Redwings also have a red tinge under their wings and a light stripe above and below their eye, while fieldfares have grey heads and rumps. 

Much more rarely colourful waxwings cross over from Scandinavia and Russia in search of berries (they like rowan particularly), but these irruptions down the east coast rarely seem to get to the south east. The most common flocks of birds you are likely to see in our part of the world are enormous (often 100 plus) gatherings of rooks and jackdaws (not infrequently mixed together) who feed on arable fields and assemble noisily in tree tops, where they also roost.

If you are lucky you may also see starlings wheeling in formation in enormous numbers towards sunset. Up to 25,000 of them roost on Brighton pier, for example, many of them having migrated here for the winter from continental Europe, and there are reports of up to 100,000 at Otmoor RSPB reserve near Oxford (though usually only early in the month).

At the very end of the month you may come across a skylark practising its song and display flight over arable fields or downland, though this is rarely sustained for long. You can still also occasionally hear the hooting of a tawny owl in January.

Insects

You may think that there are no insects around in January but you would be wrong. Look carefully and you can see 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 so 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 minature crane flies or mayflies.

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 "diapausing": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. Flies do the same and very very occasionally make an appearance on sunny days, and the same is also true of bumble bee queens. The bee species you are most likely to see in January is a honeybee, however. They live in hives all winter feeding on the honey they made in the summer, but may emerge in January in surprising numbers if there is a food source - for example a winter flowering cherry tree in a garden.

Peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and comma butterflies also diapause as adults, waiting to breed in spring. (Second World War pillboxes are apparently one popular spot for peacocks). On a mild and sunny January day it is also not unheard of to see a red admiral butterfly flitting around. Since this is a migratory species their presence at this time of year is a bit of a mystery: presumably they are diapausing too. There is no evidence that these winter survivors go on to breed in spring, but it is just possible that they do. (In addition in the third week of January 2017, I saw a brimstone flying, but this may have been because it was disturbed by conservation volunteers clearing brambles: there are also occasional reports of peacocks on the wing in this month.)

Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, or in the shape of one fertilised queen (as with bumble bees and wasps). Every species has to have some strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer.

Squirrels

If you see squirrels chasing each other around a tree trunk in January, it is part of their mating ritual.

More January pages:


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