Wildlife to see in February 2020

Daffodils - Chris Chappell

When the sun shines, there is a hint of spring in the air. Many birds will start to sing. Chris Chappell shares what wildlife we should be looking out for in February.
Robin

Robin - Chris Chappell

The first glimpse of Spring

When the sun shines, there is a hint of spring in the air. Many birds will start to sing.  Robins are claiming their territories, blackbirds and thrushes, while not in full voice, are building up the vocal muscles that power their song. 

Great tits are early songsters too, they have many calls, but the see-saw 'squeaky wheel' call will be heard from the top of a tree. Wrens and blue tits will join in too. 

Rooks are early breeding birds, and are busy rebuilding their nests. Wood pigeons perform their looping display flight, often with a single wing clap, as their wing tips touch below, and collared doves perform their aerial antics.  Both these species abundance is mainly due to their long breeding season.

Scarlet elf cup

Scarlet elf cup - Chris Chappell

The mild and damp winter has been beneficial to fungi, bracket fungi are proliferating on dead trees and branches.  Look for the bright red scarlet elf cup growing on dead wood on the forest floor.  This fungus fruits in early and late winter. 

Mosses and lichens have also flourished in the recent damp weather, lichens are composite organisms resulting from a complex relationship between fungi and algae.   They make great subjects for close-up photography.

Elder bushes are already sprouting shoots, as the countryside starts to turn green.

The elder tends to be a rather scrappy tree in winter, and not favoured in tidy gardens, but it is of major benefit to a great range of wild creatures. The flowers are wonderful early sources of nectar for insects, and the berries a great source of food in autumn.  Many rare moths including swallowtail lay their eggs on the elder. The rough elder bark harbours many insects, and the dead limbs support mosses and lichens. Currently you will see tits searching the bark crevices for food. In mythology an elder tree is thought to ward off the devil.

Lichens

Lichens - Chris Chappell

Early bulbs poke their shoots through the leaf litter as the days lengthen. Whilst still in the heart of winter, it is nevertheless  a great time to explore our wonderful county for the natural delights it has to offer.  And the bare trees and shrubs lend the advantage of our being able to see wildlife with ease.

Teal

Teal - Chris Chappell

On the flooded levels, winter ducks keep up a noisy cacophony, piping teal and whistling wigeon splash about noisily on the flooded meres. 

The majority of these birds breed in northern Europe and eastern Russia, but as winter draws on they start to compete for mates, and there is much posturing and display behaviour as the drakes aim to attract a suitable hen.

The larger shoveler will join in, grunting and squawking.

The Otter

Otters are generally reclusive and being largely nocturnal, difficult to see. Therefore it is always a delight to get a glimpse of one, often just a nose out of the water, with a triangular ripple spreading in its wake. But by the 1970s the otter was all but extinct in England, mainly due to poisoning from organochlorine pesticides in use on the land. And otters have always been in competition with fishermen, and were hunted with dogs up until 1978, when this was made illegal. The banning of the organochlorine pesticide enabled a slow recovery, such that they may now be seen all over the country.  Their biggest enemy these days is the motor car.

Mature otters are large animals, about 6kgs for a female and 8kgs for the male.  The dog otter takes no part in rearing the young, leaving the bitch to look after them.  She will suckle them for ten weeks or so, before the kits leave the holt and begin learning how to catch prey.  The mother and kits will stay together for some months.  This can be a good time to find them, as if undisturbed they call noisily to each other with a high pitched whistle.

Otter

Otter - Chris Chappell

Mainly living on fish, otters will predate bird's nests, and even eat small mammals.  They breed almost all year round, having two or three kits in a litter, the holt often under a tree root on a river bank. 

Otter are well known for marking their territory with their dark oily droppings, or spraints.  Their presence is most likely to be revealed by finding the droppings, and their footprints are quite distinct from other mammals.  They have retractable claws.  An otter can be distinguished from mink by size, the mink being smaller than a cat, and a adult otter considerably bigger.

An otter recently made a surprise appearance right in front of the hide at SWT Catcott, seeing one  it is just a matter of luck, and patience.

Bridgwater Bay and Steart Marshes

The Steart Marshes project, undertaken between spring 2009, when consultations began, and early 2014 when it was opened to the public, is  an amazing combination of working wetland, nature reserve and flood management scheme. The primary element in the project is the creation of new salt marshes. Rebuilding sea walls further inland, and breaching the old sea wall allows flood water that would otherwise surge up the Bristol channel to be absorbed in the marshes.  In addition to being a flood prevention measure, this has myriad benefits for wildlife of all kinds.  The rivulets that now run across the area provide  shelter for fish fry, which in turn attract herons, great and small egrets, and even spoonbills and the odd glossy ibis. 

Lapwing

Lapwing - Chris Chappell

At this time of year the area is host to many thousands of winter waders, and you may see huge murmurations of dunlin and knot glittering as they turn in the sun over Bridgwater Bay.  Try to time your visit an hour before high tide, and, as the sea comes in, this will force the waders to take to the air, as there feeding area is covered by water.

The bay is designated as a National Nature Reserve, and combined with Steart Marshes, offers a huge area of preserved natural habitat. In winter the area attracts the very rare hen harrier, and is usually winter home to a number of short-eared owls.  The short-eared owls are daytime hunters, and a delight to see, as they twist and turn in their search for voles. 

Out on the sandbanks, many thousands of shelduck will feed, along with curlew, oystercatcher, turnstone and redshank.  Inland, look for stonechats, skylarks and meadow pipits.  The reserve also has roe deer, badgers, foxes, weasels and stoats.

It will take all day to explore the reserve, and while there are very smart toilets at the main car park, you are a long way from any refreshments, so ideally take a picnic.

Treecreeper

Treecreeper - Chris Chappell

The Tree-creeper

This intriguing small songbird is often hard to spot, subtly camouflaged against the bark of a tree, where it feeds by prising out insects and pupae from cracks and crevasses in the tree bark, using its long curved beak. The plumage is streaked brown on the back, and highly camouflaged, while the underside is almost pure white. But with the trees bare, there is a greater chance of a sighting. 

The treecreeper characteristically lands on the base of a tree, working upwards, and then dropping down to the next tree from a height.  It has a high-pitched, descending call, a bit like a wren, but less boisterous. 

When disturbed, it can run up the trunk at speed, like a mouse, using its large claws to cling to the tree. It may be seen with other birds such as tits, but the call will distinguish it,  once you know it.  They do not travel far during their lifetime, and have established territories. 

Nest boxes

Birds are already establishing territories, and are looking for nest sites. If you haven't already done so, clear out any nest-boxes you may have, taking care not to inhale any dust from the nest debris, as this may carry fungal spores.  Check them for any damage,  and put up new ones.  It is easy to make your own, even out of scrap wood (the birds don't mind what they look like!).

See a handy guide below. 

Build a nest box

View

View - Chris Chappell