Over-wintering Chiffchaffs are followed by St Nicks earliest ever Chiffchaff song. Other bird winter visitors disappoint, but the reserve’s Gorse Shieldbugs, Sage Leafhoppers, Seven-spot Ladybirds and Rosemary Beetles defy winter and appear most weeks.
Winter Wildwatch began (on 5th December) with heavy rain, but that was the last we saw of it, and all other Wednesday walks were dry. Although less cold than last winter, January brought a few frosty mornings. Overall it was a mixture of sunshine and cloud on mostly calm mornings.
The generally milder winter resulted in fewer sightings of traditional winter visitors. No more Fieldfares were seen following October’s small flock, and just one Redwing (on 5th December) making only a disappointing three of this species for the autumn and winter period. However, over-wintering Chiffchaffs were found on 9th January (one) and during St Nicks Open Day on 30th January (two) followed by one heard for a few minutes in song on 27th February, our earliest ever song date for this species. It was not heard subsequently that day or in the following weeks, so this was probably a passing over-wintering male and not a new spring migrant. Some winters we have flocks of Siskins feeding on seeds from Alder cones but there were no sightings this winter, making the 19th September bird mentioned in our autumn blog the only one for this autumn and winter period.
We maintained a remarkably consistent weekly bird total of between 23 and 26 species, with our core of approximately 20 residents maintaining good numbers over the winter period. These are Mallard and Moorhen on the becks, and on the reserve Carrion Crow, Magpie, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and House Sparrow. Several Song Thrushes have delighted us with almost incessant singing since January, which with the many Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinches make the reserve a truly musical place even in winter.
Goldfinch flocks have been fewer in number than usual this winter, but our many active resident Bullfinches, with their plaintive calls, bring a touch of colour to the reserve and pleasure to Wildwatchers at all seasons.
Other more occasional visitors or residents have put in an appearance from time to time, though disappointingly while some have reported seeing Kingfisher, this species has not been recorded on our winter Wildwatch walks. However Grey Wagtail has been seen on several occasions on the becks while Treecreeper is fairly regularly found. Goldcrests are being seen increasingly frequently, with sightings on most weeks and four recorded on 9th January. Great-spotted Woodpecker puts in appearance occasionally, but is not seen every week.
We record birds in flight over the reserve, and these included Jackdaws, Sparrowhawks, feral (Greylag) Geese, Canada Geese, and four species of Gull (Herring, Lesser Black-back, Common and Black-headed).
You’d think that invertebrates (insects and other creepy-crawlies) would be few and far between in winter, but St Nicks came up trumps with six newly identified species for the reserve, and a good list of other creatures found. This was partly due to the warm winter compared with last year, including a February which broke many UK temperature records.
By the end of the month four butterfly species had been seen on the reserve: Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma (pictured). After 2018’s poor year for butterfly numbers we had been hoping for better this year, but balmy February days aren’t usually good news for insect life later in the season. We hold our breath in hope.
The six new species for St Nicks were all found while looking under fallen logs and stones on the reserve in February. This made a good start to 2019. With over 1,000 species of rove beetle on the British list it was good to make a positive identification of Ocypus brunnipes (pictured). One spider species has been observed before, but this time a local spider expert enabled us to identify it as Tegenaria silvestris. Western Yellow Centipede Haplophilus subterranea was also one of those species seen before but not positively identified. A striking white millipede (pictured – looking more like a centipede) turned out to be a Symphilid type, one of the Scutigerella agg. species, while a springtail Entomobria nicoleti was another new find, as was a parasitic slug mite Riccardoella oudemansi.
By exploring the world of invertebrates under logs and stones over several weeks Wildwatchers found four species of ground beetle and six of springtail (two of each pictured), a hibernating 14-Spot Ladybird, three species of centipede, five of millipede, five woodlouse species, one harvestman and the spider mentioned above, plus assorted slugs and snails which one of our team is attempting to identify. One of the photos shows a striking size comparison between the abundant Common Shiny Woodlouse Oniscus asellus and its less-frequent cousin the Pygmy Woodlouse Trichoniscus pusillus.
Above ground, regular readers of the blog will not need reminding of our hardy Gorse Shieldbugs Piezodorus lituratus which appear in every month of the year. We have missed seeing them in only one month during the last five years, and they were found on the gorse bushes most weeks this winter, especially when the sun shone. Three other true bug species appeared with fair regularity during the winter months: Bramble Ribautiana tenerrima, Rose Edwardsiana rosae and Sage Eupteryx melissae leafhoppers.
In addition to the ground beetles mentioned above, other beetle species we found included many Seven-spot Ladybirds, one or two Harlequin Ladybirds, and every week Rosemary Beetles Chrysolina americana could be seen on or around the Rosemary plant in the Environment Centre compound, including one very early (or perhaps very late) larva.
A few flies were emerging on the reserve in February, among them Bluebottles and Greenbottles and one or two early hoverflies of the Eristalis type. Also from February we began to see prospecting queen bumblebees, and identified Tree Bombus hypnorum and Buff–tailed B.terrestris species.
Winter might seem to be a boring time for plant-lovers. But there was always something of interest to see on this season’s Wildwatch walks. If nothing else, there was the stark sculptural beauty of leafless trees against winter skies to be awestruck by. Despite this winter’s mildness, there were a few hoar-frosted mornings when even dead Hogweed looked pretty. And a recent blog shows us that, with a bit of practice, it is possible to identify most trees by their winter twigs.
“When Gorse is in blossom, kissing’s in season” goes one version of an old saying. St. Nicks’s gorse bushes were, as usual for this species, in flower throughout the winter, as they are in all other seasons. (This weird behaviour has long intrigued botanists, and is still poorly understood: it might be a way of avoiding voraciously gorse-seed-eating weevils that don’t like the cold).
White Dead-Nettle was observed to be in flower on most weeks this winter, as was the small patch of Mock Strawberry south of Osbaldwick Beck (a garden-escape, Duchesnea indica, this originates from India, and clearly just doesn’t get the British climate).
December’s Wildwatch sessions saw the last of the year’s summer flowers hanging on, in a scruffy sort of way – notably some Field Scabious near the Dragonstones. Ivy was also in flower, providing, as it always does, a vital source of food for the few insects that are active during early winter.
On the first Wildwatch walk of 2019, on 9 January, we saw several of the usual early-flowering plants. Hazel and Alder put on their showy male catkins, as well as their inconspicuous female flowers. The Rosemary in the garden was in full flower. Red Dead-Nettle was seen, as were the easily overlooked little green flowers of Petty Spurge. And the first Snowdrops appeared: in the following weeks these put on a daintily spectacular display all over St Nicks.
On 23 January we noted several unseasonable Hogweed flowers near the Sustrans cycle-track , as well as a single Hawkweed (there are over 400 very similar UK microspecies of this plant, so forgive the vagueness about the ID on this one). Some frosty nights shortly thereafter killed off most of the too-early flowers like this.
The 30 January session brought us our first “Pussy Willows”, the lovely male flowers of Goat Willow and Grey Willow. Some unusually early Cherry Plum blossom welcomed visitors to St Nicks at the Bull Lane entrance.
Winter Aconite was, arguably, the star-of-the-show in February. It seemed to be popping up everywhere – all thanks to the dedicated bulb-planting work of St Nicks volunteers over the years. Whiffy Wild Garlic and other planted woodland species also seem to be doing well. Common Field-Speedwell was also in flower during this month. Late February saw the expected, but no less gorgeous, first appearance of Coltsfoot and Lesser Celandine.
Finally, ferns. There’s not many of these at St Nicks, are there? Apparently, this is perfectly normal for a newish nature reserve. There are some clumps of Hart’s-Tongue fern , a native UK species, that have obviously been dumped here from someone’s garden. We have also recently noticed a few young “shuttlecock” ferns, possibly Lady-Fern, that have colonized St Nicks without human help. All rather exciting, pteridologically.
There’s a subtle pleasure to be gained from being with plants in winter. But there’s so much more to enjoy now that it’s Spring. Like all the pollinator insects that depend on them, let’s indulge ourselves with all the flowers that will appear during the upcoming months at blooming St Nicks.
Squirrels or rabbits, occasionally both, were seen on most of the Wildwatch winter sessions.
All photos were taken at St Nicks by volunteers during the given period, including the bird photos taken by Lewis Outing. Text was written by St Nicks Wildwatch members who meet every Wednesday to record wildlife in the nature reserve.