Just as winter is at its dreariest the wildflowers are starting to pop up. Snowdrops and celandines have been in flower for several weeks, and in sheltered spots keep an eye out for dog’s mercury and primrose. Coltsfoot and sweet violet are ready to appear, once the temperatures rise, to attract the emerging insects. Coltsfoot flowers before its leaves appear giving rise to its common name of ‘son-before-father’. Hemlock water-dropwort leaves have started to emerge around the lake path. Marsh marigold, also known as kingcup, is one of the earliest blooming wetland flowers. In mild years it is often in flower by the end of February giving the marsh a welcome splash of colour. Hazel ‘lambs’ tails’ catkins are already open in places. The pussy willow and alder catkins will open and shed their pollen this month. Unlike other early flowering trees, the pussy willow (also known as goat willow or sallow) doesn’t use the wind for pollination. It secretes nectar which attracts early flies, bees and butterflies which then inadvertently carry the pollen from plant to plant as they feed. Keep an eye out for the buds of hazel and elder which will soon begin to burst.
During February the dawn chorus will get louder every day. In particular listen out for Britain’s largest thrush, the mistle thrush, which was first heard during November. Song thrush started to sing on 31st January joining the great tits and the robins which were already singing at the end of December. Great-spotted woodpeckers start to ‘drum’ on old dead trees in February to mark out their territories, along with the smaller lesser-spotted woodpecker which has a longer, fainter ‘drum’. If February’s weather stays mild and the food supply is good then some birds will start to breed. In mild years robins, blackbirds, dunnocks and song thrushes lay their first clutch of eggs by the end of February. Tawny owls will produce eggs before the end of February also.
The bird activity at the walkway is excellent at the moment so it’s well worth a visit to view the woodland birds such as nuthatch, bullfinch, great-spotted woodpecker and the tit family. Goldcrests can be seen in the conifer at this time of year. They are the smallest birds in Britain so subsequently, when the weather is very severe, their populations take a tumble. They soon recover however after a few mild winters. Separate roosts of greenfinch, chaffinch and redwing have been recorded, albeit in reduced numbers, in the rhododendron overnight this winter, the temperature in these bushes being a few degrees warmer than the outside air. Siskin can be seen feeding on the alder cones around the lake.
Upto 4 cormorants have been recorded during January which is half as many as during January 2016. The highest counts of pochard and tufted duck for January were nine and fifteen respectively. The male mallards are now looking their best for the coming breeding season. Several pairs of mandarin ducks have been present on the lake during January. The kingfisher and heron have been seen regularly. A few herring and lesser black-backed gulls have been seen on the lake throughout January, joining the larger numbers of black-headed gulls.
Goosanders have been present on the lake from 17th January; numbers peaking at 8 on 31st January. Goosanders are the largest of the three British sawbills. It is a freshwater diving duck that is a winter visitor to the south. The great-crested grebes usually leave the lake for a spell during the winter, and the remaining adult left on 12th January. Once it returns, hopefully with a new mate, keep an eye out to witness their elaborate and graceful courtship display during February. The swans’ courting season has started too, along with the mallards’.
Over 60 snipe have been recorded in the marsh (along with regular sightings of water rail), which is a very important habitat for roosting waders during the winter months.
This is the time of year when the vegetation tends to be at its lowest. Most plants have been beaten down by the rain and frost, leaving fewer and fewer hiding places, which makes this an excellent time to be out spotting mammals. Foxes are very active at this time of year so you will almost certainly get a whiff of one somewhere in the Park. The vixens will start to move into their dens this month. You will be less likely to see badgers in February as they are at present giving birth to their cubs underground, so will only leave their setts infrequently. Look out for evidence of a good clear out around setts such as fresh soil and old bedding. Moles construct a multi-layered tunnel system which acts as a trap for invertebrates such as earthworms, instead of continually digging to catch their prey. In cold weather, however, the invertebrates burrow deeper into the earth to escape the cold surface soil, and the mole is obliged to dig new, deeper tunnel traps, throwing up new mole-hills as it does so. Therefore, it is quite common at this time of year to spot fresh mole-hills. Frogs will return to their breeding ponds to spawn this month. On sunny days keep an eye out for Brimstone butterflies which are normally the earliest butterfly of the year to be on the wing.
January’s volunteers’ day went very well – 28 volunteers spent the day clearing rhododendron from the lower wood. Nine students from Taunton School, five from Stover School, and a student from Trinity College joined our regular Volunteers, all of whose help is much appreciated. This month we will be working in the marsh (26th February) – chat to the rangers if you’re interested in joining us – everyone is welcome.