Wildlife To See in February
Tony Bennett is a volunteer with the Trust. He has chosen some of his wildlife highlights to look out for in Somerset during February. You can tell Tony what you've seen this month using the contact form at the bottom of the page.
In this month, the winter’s flora and fauna are still very much with us, but, mercifully, the first glimmers of spring are beginning to emerge.
In the avian world, the winter visitors are still here. The Somerset Levels are much alive with ducks, geese, swans and waders of all types, as are the north and west Somerset coasts and estuaries. During the very cold snap around Christmas time, many water-fowl migrated from the Levels to the warmer coastal regions.
The Great Crane Project
An exciting development on the Somerset Levels has been the Great Crane Project. In the Middle Ages, Cranes were plentiful in the UK. They became extinct about 400 years ago, being annihilated by hunting and drainage. The Great Crane Project is an endeavor to reintroduce them.
The 20 Cranes, which were reared at Slimbridge, were freed onto the wild environment of the Somerset Levels last August. By now, the Cranes will be developing adult plumage, and by spring time they will be unmistakable at about 4ft. tall, with a wing span of an impressive 8ft. The Great Crane Project is a partnership between the The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, RSPB and The Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, with funding from Viridor Credits Environmental Company.
You can track the cranes’ progress and report your sightings at www.thegreatcraneproject.org.uk
On wetland reserves you may also see the fascinating courtship dance of the Great Crested Grebe. A number of phases of the courtship are recognized: ‘advertising’, ‘discovery ceremony’, ‘headshaking’, ‘penguin dance’, ‘the retreat’, ‘fish offering’, ‘inviting’ and … !
The Heron also displays courtship activity this month. Herons nest in groups in heronries, of which an impressive example is to be found at Swell Wood Nature Reserve. In the male’s courtship dance he stretches his neck up and then lowers it over his back, with his prominent bill signally pointing upwards.
Bird song this month will provide a welcome presage of spring. Mistle and Song Thrushes, Great, Blue and Coal Tits and Chaffinches will all vocally betray their presences, marking out their territories and seeking mates. Great Spotted Woodpeckers become obvious by their penetrating ‘kick’ calls and by their impressive drumming sounds on dead and resonant timber. This is not a dedicated courtship call or challenge, but a signal of either sex to announce its presence. The sharp chisel-like bill, powered by extra-strong neck muscles, is ideal for hammering into wood, and the brain is cushioned by spongy bone to prevent damage from the repeated impacts.
Badgers, although they are seen above ground much less frequently during winter, they may well indicate their presence in February by other means. Old winter bedding may appear outside setts, to be replaced by fresh, in anticipation of the arrival of the new year’s young. Many badgers will be giving birth within their setts this month, the young taking their first tentative forays a couple of months or so after birth.
Badgers are crepuscular and nocturnal in their habits. Although their sense of smell is acute, their eyesight is monochromatic - only moving objects attract their attention. Their hearing is no higher than that of humans. Therefore your best chance of seeing badgers is at the end of a warm day, to remain still, downwind, and to be quiet.
Frogs will be emerging from their winter hiding places and moving towards their chosen breeding ponds. Many frogs return to the bodies of water where they were born, often resulting in annual migrations involving thousands of frogs. Frogs spawn is commonly seen in February. The female lays gelatinous egg masses, containing thousands of eggs, in water. Common Toads breed later than frogs, but will now be migrating to their breeding ponds.
Regrettably a reminder of this migration is often individuals squashed by traffic - Join a toad patrol in Somerset and help these love struck animals get across the road safely.
February is the first month of the year when significant numbers of wild flowers make their appearance. Snowdrops become particularly common. Coltsfoot is often evident by the wayside. In the woodlands, Cuckoo Pint leaves are emerging. Dogs Mercury and Violet leaves are also evident, as are the first signs of Ramsons.
Find a woodland reserve near you
You may find patches of Sweet Violets by country paths or in scrub. Their deep blueviolet flowers elevate the spirit. You will find their fragrance apparently temporary as one chemical within the aroma set (alpha ionone) deadens temporarily the sense of smell!
(copyright Damon Bridge)
(copyright Ben Simmonds)
(copyright Brian Phipps)
(copyright Bob Hastie)