Dormice, hedgehogs and bats may hibernate but you don't need to. Put out some seed for the birds and take yourself for a healthy walk.
The first frosts of winter have arrived, and with that the last of the remaining leaves are falling from deciduous trees, which reveals the shapes and patterns of the different species. Oak, ash and beech all have distinctive profiles, and can easily be identified whe stripped of leaves. Also revealed are the nests of birds, in trees and hedgerows, mostly abandoned, but some will be taken over by other creatures seeking shelter for the winter. An exception are the rooks, which nest communally, and will guard and even repair their nests during the winter. They are very early breeders, starting in late February or early March. The rooks are now easier to watch in the bare branches, and you will see each pair keeping watch over their nest, to prevent their neighbours from helping themselves to nesting material. The bare trees and bushes, combined with shorter days, also provide an opportunity to see other birds and mammals, as they are forced into the open to feed. Roe deer, normally hidden in the foliage, are more easily spotted grazing at the edge of a wood.
Animals you probably won't see but should be aware of, are hedgehogs, bats and dormice, as they will be in hibernation for the winter. These creatures must not be disturbed when hibernating, as doing so will place their survival at risk. All three have been very much in decline, as environmental factors have impinged on their very specific needs. Dormice will curl up in a ball of grasses and leaves at the bottom of a hedge or, sometimes use old nesting material in a bird box. Hedgehogs will make a hibernaculum by burrowing deep into leaf litter, often in a garden, or wood. Bats choose protected humid places to hibernate, usually caves, old buildings and hollow trees, where they cluster together.
As the weather turns colder, birds will increasingly be drawn to feeders in the garden, and provide a chance for you to watch them close up. A large range of species will come to most gardens, depending on the local environment. The very pretty bullfinch will happily eat pea-nuts from a feeder, a bird that has traditionally been persecuted because of its fondness for fruit blossom, but is now making a comeback. A bird that has joined our winter population is the blackcap, many of which have altered their behaviour from summer migrant to resident, presumably due to warmer winters. The reed bunting is now common at feeders in gardens adjacent to any marshy lowland areas. Nearby wooded areas the great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch will also be seen. Fieldfares and redwings are attracted to berries on shrubs, and when those run out, are very fond of soft apples left on the ground, so do leave some behind if you have an orchard.
It is worth providing different types of seed feeders, as goldfinches prefer small seeds like niger, the tits will feed from a upturned coconut half on a string, full of fat. Other species will struggle to get to this, and so cannot compete. And do allow for ground feeders such as robin and dunnock, plus of course the blackbirds, making sure the feed is not too near any cover for cats to spring from.
Mistletoe and mistle thrush
The bare branches of willows, lime, poplar and other trees will now clearly show the bunches of mistletoe clinging to their upper branches. Mistletoe is spread by the birds that feed on the berries, as they clean their beaks on a branch or twig in order to remove the sticky residue, or when their droppings are caught in the cleft of a branch. The seeds slowly develop, until a root will appear, and force itself through a crack in the bark until it reaches the sap bearing layer. The plant is hemi-parasitic, and sends a root down into the host tree, to feed from the nutrients in the sap. This does not normally affect a large tree too much, although you may see a neglected orchard overcome with heavy mistletoe growth. Mistletoe was much valued by the Druids, and thought to aid fertility, which is the likely origin of the association with romance. Ecologically, a lot of species depend on the plant for seeds and leaves and it is therefore a keystone species of great importance.
The Mistle Thrush is the largest of our thrushes, resident in the UK, and common but declining in numbers. Very upright, the breast strongly speckled brown on cream, the back brown, with a long tail, it is usually seen in just ones or twos. It is very fond of mistletoe berries (hence the name), along with yew and holly, and is unusual in that it will vigorously defend a bush or tree from competitors. It also has a habit of singing loudly from the top of tree, the song a series of rather tuneless phrases, before and during rain, and has the country name of 'storm cock'.
Siskin and redpoll
Take the opportunity to get out into the Somerset countryside for a healthy walk during the Christmas break, there are many wonderful things to see. Look for flocks of siskins and lesser redpolls feeding on catkins in birch or alder trees. Both are very pretty small finch species, and they often flock together in the winter months. The male siskin has a yellow chest and face, black capped head, and brown body with dark streaks. The female siskin is a browner version without the yellow and black. The lesser redpoll a smaller, striped finch with a striking scarlet patch on the head, and crimson tinge to the chest, fairly easily identified through good binoculars. The woodland areas of Shapwick Heath, are good places to see them, and they are sometimes spotted feeding on the ground, when the winds have blown down the seeds.
Photographs and text courtesy of Chris Chappell
Rook in Ash tree