Early spring blossom brings out the queen bees, while some winter bird visitors depart. Plenty to see under logs, too.
February 2020 was officially the UK’s wettest February since records began 160 years ago, but happily every Wildwatch Wednesday at St Nicks in February dawned frosty and sunny.
27 bird species were seen on average every Wildwatch visit during February comprising a total of 34 species for the month. Of these, 7 were seen only in flight over the reserve while the remaining 27 were found on the reserve itself. Birds in flight were a mixture of gulls (3 species), Greylag Geese, Jackdaws, Mute Swans and Sparrowhawks (regular).
Down on the reserve there were few surprises, with only one Redwing seen (Redwings are winter visitors from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe). It was noticeable that the large numbers of Blackbirds seen everywhere on the reserve in the winter months significantly lessened during February. This suggests that the reserve’s many migrant blackbirds were returning early to their Scandinavian/Eastern European breeding areas, leaving the resident blackbirds, which are largely sedentary, in peace at last (see last month’s Wildwatch blog). Our third members of the thrush family – the Song Thrushes – sang lustily and persistently all month, with up to five on the reserve. Great Spotted Woodpeckers were a fairly frequent sight, and were heard drumming late in the month. We rarely see Starlings on the reserve, so the sight of two near Osbaldwick Beck was unusual.
Kingfisher was seen on Tang Hall Beck only once, but the observer was rewarded with a sight of it diving for a fish and swallowing it. Mallards, Moorhens and Grey Wagtails were also seen most weeks on Tang Hall Beck and occasionally on Osbaldwick Beck. It was good to see Goldcrests and Treecreepers on most of our visits, both species found in pairs towards the end of the month. Treecreepers seem largely absent from St Nicks during the summer, suggesting they move away to breed in more mature woodland.
Our remaining birds on the reserve were seen mostly in good numbers: Robins, Wrens, Dunnocks, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits (Coal Tit was seen only once), Wood Pigeons and Collared Doves, Carrion Crows and Magpies, House Sparrows, and our four regular and frequent species of finch: Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch.
As usual, Grey Squirrels were the most frequently seen wild mammals this month. Even in death they are a source of food for other organisms. They also provided us with some rather macabre beauty, at least after one dedicated Wildwatcher had carefully cleaned a skull that she had found.
We began to see queen bumblebees during the month visiting the Prunus blossom, willow and hazel catkins and other early flowering plants such as snowdrops and white deadnettle. Species identified included Early Bombus pratorum, Buff-tailed B. terrestris and Tree B. hypnorum Bumblebee. Queens need to be active early in the year both to find nesting sites in which to lay their already fertilised eggs, and to build up their strength for the breeding season after winter hibernation.
Other flying insects seemed slow to be on the move this year, the most frequently seen being Gorse Shieldbugs and ladybirds: Seven–spot and Harlequin. The first hoverflies were seen, mostly Eristalis tenax (pictured). There were surprises, such as the two pictured Rove Beetle species: Ocypus brunnipes and O. olens (Devil’s Coach Horse). A larva of the latter species was found in January, but in a different part of the reserve.
Many of the long list of February invertebrates were found by carefully lifting logs and stones to see underneath. A large community of species lives there, including ground beetles (three are pictured here), mites, spiders, slugs, snails, worms, millipedes, centipedes, woodlice, springtails and more. Some of these are listed in last month’s Wildwatch blog and the photos this month show a representative sample of the many species found.
There was hardly any snow in York this winter, but an abundance of Snowdrops at St Nicks during January and February. This month they were joined by some Garden Crocuses popping up perkily around the Environment Centre, and by Wild Daffodils nodding in the breeze near Osbaldwick Beck. Such plants can flower so early in the year only because they have food from last year stashed away in their bulbs or corms – swollen underground leaves and stem-bases, respectively.
Other flowers get off to a head start by using energy stored in their roots. Amongst these, Winter Aconites could be seen throughout February, and the first few Primroses and Cowslips appeared by the middle of the month. Lesser Celandine, Coltsfoot and Sweet Violet showed up by the end of February. But it was a challenge to spot many of these spring-time favourites, which will be at their best in March and April.
By the end of February, five attractive members of the borage family were in flower. All are non-native, having first entered the UK as garden plants, later escaping. One of these, Common Lungwort, was mentioned in last month’s Wildwatch blog, and lends it name to our “Lungwort Lane”. Another, Green Alkanet, is common around woodland edges throughout spring and early summer, not just at St Nicks but in many other parts of Britain. The other three – Red Lungwort, White Comfrey, and the eccentrically named Abraham-Isaac-Jacob – are scarcer, but have established themselves in the damp woodland around the Tang Hall Beck culvert. In the botanical literature such plants are considered “aliens”. But, quite apart from looking pretty, these newcomers are a vital source of nectar for many of our early bees and other insects as they emerge from hibernation.
Tree blossom, too, is immensely important for early-flying pollinators. Despite all the wind and rain that we endured this February, there were always plenty of trees and bushes sparkling white with flowers. This early in the year, all were members of the Prunus genus: first Cherry Plum, then Wild Plum, later the first pink-flushed Wild Cherry, and with Blackthorn still in bud. (It will be April before other white-blossomed shrubs, notably Hawthorn, really start blooming). The flowers of wind-pollinated trees were less obvious. The furry grey catkins of the male Aspens near the Melrosegate entrance were easiest to spot. All the “pussy-willow” flowers of Grey and Goat Willow seemed to be too high up to be properly admired by us Wildwatchers this month. At eye-level, but minuscule, the pollen-bearing cones of male Yews could be observed by the sharp-eyed.
Of course, plants aren’t just important because of their flowers. During winter they provide food and shelter for all sorts of animals. For instance, Wild Teasel seed-heads not only nicely framed a Wildwatch group this month (see the top of this blog) but are also a favourite source of seeds for Goldfinches, and a home for many tiny invertebrates.
Fungi and Slime Moulds
Fungi were rather thin on the ground in February. However, there was one new find for St Nicks, a brilliant little jewel shining out from shady leaf-litter by the cycle track. This was Scarlet Elfcup (or possibly the very similar Ruby Elfcup).
Underneath several rotting logs were masses of glossy black stuff that looked like caviar. But these weren’t the eggs of some kind of obscure creature. Nor were they fungi. They were actually a type of slime mould – a remarkable group of organisms, despite their unedifying name. To be more precise: these were the sporocarps (spore-producing organs) of Metatrichia floriformis.
This post was written by members of the Wildwatch volunteer group, with all photos taken by Wildwatchers at St Nicks in February 2020.