Still very few wintering bird visitors or migrants, but lots of invertebrates seen under logs and stones. A surprising number of insects above ground too. First flowers spotted as well as fresh evidence of otter presence.
Wednesdays in January were kind to Wildwatchers, with chilly starts, frequent sun and no rain.
With no sightings of Fieldfares, Siskins or Redpolls, the lack of winter visitors to St Nicks has been a disappointing feature of this autumn and winter. Redwings from Eastern Europe or Scandinavia were seen in ones and twos during January but the major winter visitors were the abundant Blackbirds on the reserve. Ringing recoveries show that most wintering blackbirds in northern England originate from Norway and the Baltic region. Everywhere you turn at St Nicks you find blackbirds tossing up fallen leaves looking for invertebrates to eat. Most of these return to their eastern breeding areas in the spring, leaving behind a smaller population of our local breeding birds. There appears to be no way of visually distinguishing our resident blackbirds from the winter visitors. A helpful summary of the UK’s winter visiting thrushes can be found on the British Trust for Ornithology website.
Most other regular St Nicks species were seen in reasonable numbers during January, with an average of 26 species seen during each of our Wednesday morning Wildwatch walks (six more per week than in the autumn) and a total of 31 species for the month. Apart from the Redwings noted above we have taken pleasure most weeks in three scarcer species: Grey Wagtails on Tang Hall and Oswaldwick Becks, Treecreepers regularly seen climbing up tree trunks like mice, and diminutive Goldcrests flitting restlessly through twigs and branches as they search for insect food.
Mallards and Moorhens were seen on one or other of the becks most weeks, even during flooding. Robins, Song Thrushes, Great Tits, Greenfinches and Magpies were the most vocal birds on the reserve, with the plaintive calls of Bullfinches seemingly everywhere and reminding us how fortunate we are to have these beautiful birds in such numbers at St Nicks. It was always lovely to see Long-tailed Tits in small flocks lighting up the bare winter branches, and Great Spotted Woodpeckers put in regular appearances. Birds flying over included three species of gull, Sparrowhawks and a Grey Heron.
Not surprisingly insects were scarce in January, but those above ground included three of our regulars: Seven-spot and Harlequin Ladybirds, and our ever-present (when the winter sun shines on the gorse bushes) Gorse Shieldbugs. Single Early Bumblebee Bombus pratorum and Tree Bumblebee B. hypnorum were seen, and an unexpected find was a Crab spider Xysticus cristatus or ulmi. The overwintering chrysalis of a Green-veined White butterfly has been observed on one of the reserve’s tree trunks for some weeks. Pictured here, it’s surprising it hasn’t been snapped up as welcome winter food by investigating tits or treecreepers.
A large community of invertebrates live in hiding on the reserve, under logs or stones, or in the leaf litter. Taking care not to disturb them too much, we find beetles, springtails, millipedes, centipedes, woodlice, slugs, snails, worms and other denizens of the darkness. In January ground beetles Leistus fulvibarbis and Nebria sp were found, plus a click beetle larva Agriotes sp, Devil’s Coach Horse beetle larva and Clover Root weevil Sitona hispidulus. An ichneumon wasp Ichneumon oblongus was also discovered.
We recorded all five of our usual woodlouse species (Shiny, Rough, Striped, Pill and Pygmy) while four springtail species were found: Dicyrtomina saundersii, Neamura muscorum, Tomocerus minor and a Lepidocyrtus species. Six species of millipedes seen were Blaniulus guttulatus, Boreoiulus tenuis, Cylindroiulus punctatus, Polydesmus angustus, Polydesmus coriaceus, and Tachypodoiulus niger. A particular species of harvestman Nemastoma bimaculatum regularly scuttles away when logs are turned over. Slugs and snails have not featured much in our wildwatch bulletins but one of our regular participants has recently been getting to grips with them and we will report on these in a future bulletin.
Two Wildwatch volunteers turned up at St Nicks on 3 January to discover how many plants were in flower. They managed to find ten – rather fewer than expected, but not a bad tally, given the time of year. These sightings contributed to the New Year Plant Hunt, organized by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. As well as being a fun bit of citizen science that most people can do, this project helps collect data about how climate change is affecting the natural world.
Amongst the flowers blooming at the beginning of January were Gorse, White Dead-nettle and Petty Spurge. It was no surprise to spot these, as such plants flower throughout the year. Others – like Cow Parsley, Common Hogweed, Wood Avens and Feverfew – usually flower in summer, but a few hardy individuals appeared this month as well.
Hazels were, as usual, the first trees to flower this winter at St Nicks. Their golden catkins (the pollen-shedding male flowers) put on a beautiful show, especially around the Dragonstones. It was worth looking out for the tiny female flowers, too – exquisite structures like miniature ruby-red sea-anemones. A few Grey Alders were also bearing catkins at the start of January. By the month’s end, other trees in flower were sallows (better-known as “pussy willows”), Common Alders, and Cherry Plums.
Snowdrops appeared by the middle of January, and were looking amazing by its end – all thanks to dedicated bulb-planting by volunteers here over the years. There weren’t yet many other early spring flowers. But, having survived being nibbled upon by rabbits, a few pretty Lungworts popped up. And plenty of other plants’ buds were swelling by the end of January, getting ready to burst into leaf and flower over coming weeks.
Cheeky Grey Squirrels amused us with their antics during every Wildwatch session this month. Rabbits and Brown Rats were more elusive, but were occasionally to be seen. Other mammals were more elusive still, being mostly nocturnal (mice and voles), in hibernation (Hedgehogs and bats), or both. This winter there have been several sightings of a Fox at St Nicks – but not, alas, on Wildwatch days.
Most exciting, so far as mammals are concerned, were fresh Otter spraints (faeces), seen twice in January by Tang Hall Beck. Composed mostly of fish bones and scales, these are used to scent-mark their territories. On the River Foss, just a short way from St Nicks, Otters have recently been photographed in broad daylight.
We didn’t notice much in the way of unusual fungi here this month. Turkeytails were, as usual, abundant. Some impressive Giant Puffballs were found, as well as several eye-catching clumps of Velvet Shank.
Strictly speaking, none of the galls we found in January are new. There have been mite-induced “Big Buds” on some of the Hazels since mid-autumn. The buds swell, and fail to open in spring. The size of the buds and the time of year suggest that the mite is Phytoptus avellanae, but it’s only possible to be certain by opening the bud and identifying the mite. The same ID problem applies to galls on male Hazel catkins (“lambs’ tails”). Two different species can cause them to swell. In theory, the mite Phyllocoptruta coryli makes the catkin tatty-looking and uneven, whereas the midge Contarinia coryli causes more or less symmetrical bulges. In practice, the only way to be sure we’ve got a gall, let alone what caused it, is to find and identify any creature present. One of our bug specialists had a go, and is currently trying to hand-rear the micro-moth larva that popped out. Meanwhile January is coppicing time, and this long-term valuable heritage skill has the immediate effect of taking out potentially galled catkins. If we open up any more of them, we risk ending up knowing what they were but not having any left.
One of last summer’s Sallow galls seems easier to spot among the leaf litter than on the tree. The more or less spherical, yellowish galls of the sawfly Eupontia pedunculi stay firmly fixed to the underside of the dark brown decaying leaves long after the larvae have emerged.
A tentatively identified new species for the 2019 list is another Black Poplar aphid gall. Previous finds have been on leaves. This one, only visible after leaf-fall, was on a twig, and seems to be caused by the aphid Pemphigus borealis. We need to authenticate this one because it’s said to be rare.
Finally, a light dawned and we now know what any competent tree surgeon or well-informed gardener could have told us: the large, knobbly growths on one of the willows are Crown Galls caused by bacteria, Agrobacterium tumefacians. Why did it take so long to find out? Well, it’s the downside of using a key based on host species. This organism isn’t a specialist – it can affect a vast range of species, so it only gets a mention in the preface…