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Species of the Month - February 2023

February is a month where many animals are getting ready for nesting. Songbirds are readying themselves for spring, making clear to all who will listen of where their territory lies. Blue tits are starting to hunt out the perfect nest site - these little birds are happy to reside in a nest box, making this a great time to ensure any old ones are cleaned out or put up.


Listen out for the 'drumming' of woodpeckers, echoing into the distance. You will also hear songs from the tuneful thrush family (mistle thrush, redwing, blackbird). Even if you don't see the birds, try to listen out from which direction their songs are coming from, perhaps getting closer to the area or groups of trees - you never know, they may spot them, especially those who find a high perch to sing out from.


While it might seem pretty chilly to us, as we begin to experience some warmer days, frogs will be making their way out of hibernation to mate and find ponds to spawn in. This will create a food source for fish, newts, dragonfly larvae, birds, foxes and hedgehogs. While good for their prey, this means only a small proportion of those laid will survive. Wet habitats and protection from predation will help.


As you are by water, look out for courtship dance of the great crested grebe. This enthralling dance starts with two birds facing each other in the water, turning their heads in opposite directions and arching their heads back into their wings.

Grey squirrels will be nursing their first young of the year and after the noisy January mating period, the red fox will now be looking for her den following, giving birth towards the end of the month or early March so in urban areas, this might be under sheds at the bottom of the garden.


Below are details of a few species to look out for:

Mammal

Grey squirrel - Sciurus carolinensis
  • Family: Sciuridae

  • Scientific name: Sciurus carolinensis

Grey squirrels have mainly grey fur, with red-brown patches, especially around the face and legs. Their distinctive bushy tail helps with balance when tree climbing.

They can be seen all year round and do not hibernate. They are not territorial so will be seen sharing home ranges with others. Any fights witnessed will be over food or males chasing females.


Breeding takes place between January and April. The young, known as kittens, are born in early spring and usually number between 3 or 4, although occasionally up to 6 or 7 can be born if there is sufficient food that year, taking the breeding into the summer months.


The young are born in a drey made of twigs and branches. Holes within trees may also be used as nesting sites.


They can be found mainly in woodland, specifically hardwood forests containing nut trees but are well known to inhabit gardens, stealing seeds and nuts put out for garden birds. Prey range from foxes and stoats to birds of prey.


Bird

The Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

Classified in the UK as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2021).

  • Family: Alaudidae

  • Scientific name: Alauda arvensis

They skylark is a bird of open lands: meadows, wetlands, farm and moorland. Due to their habitat's lack of trees, they are ground nesting, laying 2-6 spotted eggs which are incubated for 11 days.


Birds arrive at their breeding grounds from mid-February to early April. Both parents feed the chicks on insect, followed by small quantities of shoots and seeds as they get older. Skylarks need 2-3 broods of young each year in order to maintain populations. Ideal breeding vegetation is 20-50 cm high.

Male skylarks fly vertically up from farmland, grassland and moorland. Their distinctive song can be heard from a great height, singing all the way from ground to around 300m before decending rapidly back to earth. They'll also sing from perches, such as fence posts or large rocks.


They are a streaky brown bird, with a crest and a long tail but if you are fortunate enough to hear them, their glorious song make them indistinguishable.


Due to them being ground nesting, they are limited to where they can inhabit. Due to changes in the landscape of the British Isles over the centuries and changes to intensive farming practices, populations have severely declined since the 1980s.


In addition, the use of pesticides and herbicides kill the insects and wild flowers that form the skylarks’ diet. All of this means that Skylarks are now considered to be a redlist species.


Amazingly, skylarks can be found in London but due humans have been known to disturb nest sites so keep yourselves and your dogs away from long grass and heath.


Warren Farm in West London is an impressive and rare site where breeding pairs can be found.


Plant

Goat Willow - Salix caprea
  • Family: Salicaceae

  • Scientific name: Salix caprea

Goat willow, or pussy willow, is a small tree found in ditches, reedbeds and wet woodland.


It is found growing in woodland, hedgerows and scrub, and on damper, more open ground, such as near lakes, streams and canals.


The catkins are dioecious so the male and female flowers grow on separate trees, opposite to this is monoecious, when male and female flowers are on the same tree. The catkins will be seen towards the end of the month/ They male catkins are grey and oval, becoming yellow when ripe with pollen and the female catkins longer and green.


Catkins provide an important early source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and birds use goat willow to forage for caterpillars and insects.


Lesser Celandine - Ficaria verna

Family: Ranunculaceae

Scientific name: Ficaria verna


Cheering up any February day, these small low-growing plant from the buttercup family is a much needed sight. It's leaves are glossy, dark-green and heart-shaped with long stalks.

The 8-12 petaled yellow flower comes out between January and April. It loves damp habitats being found along woodland paths near stream banks and ditches. They are also found in gardens and meadows.


Like other early flowering plants, these can be a critical food source for insects coming out of hibernation such as the queen bumblebees and other pollinators.


Young leaves are high in vitamin C was used in as a treatment for scurvy and can also be used as salad leaves - should not be eaten too often.


Insect

Brimstone butterfly - Gonepteryx rhamni
  • Family: Pieridae

  • Scientific name: Gonepteryx rhamni

Brimstones are not common, but widespread across the UK. Found in damp woodlands, along sunny, woodland rides and mature hedgerows, and in large gardens. They can often even be seen flying along roadside verges.


Adults may emerge from hibernation as early as January and February being one of the first butterflies to be seen in the year. They tend to pass the winter hibernating in ivy, holly and bramble.

They prefer to drink from purple flowers, and bluebells are an important early nectar source. Females lay eggs singly on the larval food plant Alder Buckthorn and Buckthorn which the caterpillars feed on.


The Brimstone has a wingspan of 55-60 mm. The undersides of the male wings are a lemony yellow compared to the pale green of the females.


The common brimstone is one of the longest-living butterflies, with a life expectancy ranging from 10 months to a year.


The Brimstone gets its name from the old word for the element, sulphur... It’s even thought that their colour put the word butter into butterflies!

Other

Common frog - Rana temporaria
  • Family: Ranidae

  • Scientific name: Rana temporaria

The common frog can be found across the UK. They will be found on warm winter days to breed in ponds laying eggs in big 'rafts' of spawn. The female lays in excess of 4,000 eggs in one season. Spawning can take place as early as December to as late as April.


They are also found in woodland, hedgerows and grassland. They feed on a variety of invertebrates and even smaller amphibians. They hop and jump to move around and can be found in garden ponds.

The colours of the common frog vary greatly and can be green, brown, red or yellow. Their skin is smooth. The area behind their eyes are darker than the rest of their body and they have dark patterns across their body.


Adults can grow to 9cm from nose to tail.


During winter, they hibernate in pond mud or under log piles showing how important these habitats are for their survival.

 

This monthly series aims to highlight several species you can look out for. The aims will be to focus on teaching a little about them as well as showing the interconnections: the importance of habitat and how interactions with other plants and animals can be vital for survival - demonstrating that nothing can exist in isolation.


Sources below (some sources can be found in links to photos). Main cover photo of skylark taken from here and references to Paul Clarke photography:

Grey squirrel

- https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/mammals/grey-squirrel/

Skylark

Goat willow

Lesser celadine

Brimstone

Common frog



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