Rare mammal sighting.. visiting Winter geese and an early Summer visitor.. camouflage in the Environment Centre Pond.. and a tiny, tiny new plant!
A colder than usual three months (December to February) with many frosty mornings and, especially after Christmas, several snowy ones, meant that wildwatching at St Nicks was a rather chilly business this winter.
There were only a few wet and windy Wildwatch days, and a monthly summary shows that December was relatively less cold than stormy January and icy February. The last Wildwatch of the winter was on a bitterly cold February 28th. Strong wind and heavy rain on the 24th January meant that there very few Wildwatchers – and no official records!
Winter is the change-over time for birds at St Nicks. Out go the summer visitors and in come the winter visitors! A big influx of Siskins occurred on 20th December (a flock of 30 birds, and another 20 elsewhere on the reserve), with the first sightings on 13th December. This species was subsequently recorded on seven dates in January and February. Often associating with Siskins, and feeding on the same Alder cones are Lesser Redpolls, with two seen on 7th February and three on 21st February.
A scarce fly-over winter species was Pink-footed Goose, with a skein of about 150 birds over the reserve on the 20th December. Another fly-over sighting, but not exclusively a winter visitor, was Sparrowhawk, with five sightings in January and February.
On the becks, our regular Water Rail (seen for the past few years) showed itself in the regular Bramble patches on Osbaldwick Beck on 20th December and 5th January. A Grey Wagtail, also a regular Autumn / Winter visitor was also on the beck on 3rd January.
Winter thrushes were a bit scarce this winter, with Fieldfares being recorded once – two small flocks on the 6th December. But Redwings showed well, with the first two on 20th December, one on 17th January, and a good count of eight on 14th February. These are beautiful, well-marked thrushes, with a broad creamy eye stripe and a dash of red under their wings.
Our resident birds, seen throughout the year, seem to have survived the Winter well. Bullfinches, our iconic birds, were seen regularly, with a maximum of 14 on 17th January. Greenfinches, which seemed to have declined here and nationally, seem to have recovered, with 7 on 3rd January and 8 on 10th January. Goldfinches, too, have survived the winter well, with flocks (“charms”) of 30 on 13th December and 20 on 17th and 31st January. We are not sure of the status of Great Spotted Woodpecker at St Nicks. We keep seeing / hearing them, and we recorded them on 20th December and 17th January. Will they eventually become a breeding species on the reserve? We’ve certainly got the trees for them!
Winter feeding Tit flocks are a feature of St Nicks, and they can be seen almost anywhere on the reserve. Blue, Great and Long-tailed tits feed in mixed flocks, before they break up into pairs in the breeding season. Long-tailed Tits were seen on almost every Wildwatch Wednesday, with 20 seen on 31st January and 12 on 7th February. It’s worth scanning through these feeding tit flocks for Tree Creepers, who often associate with these flocks. We recorded these mouse-like birds on the 20th December, 17th January (3) and 21st February.
Finally, a very early Summer visitor – a Blackcap, not on a Wildwatch Wednesday, but on the Residents Weekend on 27th January!
Very few insects or other invertebrates were seen on the reserve during the winter months, with only our faithful Gorse Shieldbugs Piezodorus lituratus and a few Seven-spot Coccinella 7-punctata and Harlequin Harmonia axyridis Ladybirds seen with any regularity. Gorse Shieldbugs turn up in every month of the year especially when the sun shines on the gorse bushes. In February they were even seen on snow-laden branches. The picture collage shows both upperside and underside views of this hardy creature. One other species of true bug was found – a leafhopper which on photographic appearance most closely resembles Rose Leafhopper Edwardsiana rosae – shown in the picture collage here. Occasional Tree Bumblebees Bombus hypnorum were seen from the third week of February, and Limnephilid (probably Limnephilus flavicornis) Caddis Fly larvae, with leafy and twiggy camouflage, were frequently seen in the Environment Centre pond from January onwards.
Winter and early Spring at St Nicks were a bit of a tease. Was it an early or a late Spring? How would we have known?
December predictably saw the last of the autumn flowers dying back – the very last of the Yarrow, a few slightly battered looking specimens of Wood Avens here and there, the odd Dandelion on a bright day, a small Hogweed plant trying its luck. The most surprising finds were a Red Campion sporting a couple of flowers on 6th, and a deluded Ox-Eye Daisy beside the Centre gate that managed after a fashion to open a couple of buds between the end of the month and early January. The Red Campion bided its time through January but produced another flower recorded on 7th
February, before frost and snow finished it off.
The first of the flowering trees – Hazel, Alder and Grey Alder, opened their long, dangly male catkins on cue from the beginning of January, with more than usual of the tiny red Hazel female flowers. These trees are wind pollinated, and presumably it’s an advantage to have the little grains of pollen blowing about long before there are leaves to obstruct them. We came across one Hazel with greenish-white flowers, but have so far not been able to discover whether it’s a cultivar or a naturally occurring anomaly. A plant hunt on January 3 rd also produced Red Dead-Nettle and a single Lesser Celandine in a sheltered spot – but we failed to find either again in full flower before the end of February. On 31 st we found a small Crocus, a couple of Primrose flowers and the first Snowdrops – but only the Snowdrops continued throughout February. Primrose flowers are normally fairly long-lived, so maybe somebody picked them, or the rabbits ate them. The highlight of the month was discovering a shoot of Mistletoe grown from a berry scraped on to an Apple branch several years ago, and still so tiny that it’s easier to see on a macro photograph.
The “Pussy Willow” catkins of trees in the Goat Willow group were bursting here and there in January, but February brought the welcome sight of emerging pollen stamens. We want plenty of these before the first warm Spring days. They are the most important food source on the reserve for Queen Bumblebees emerging from hibernation and in urgent need of an energy-rich meal if they are to survive and found new colonies. By the end of the month, Aspen catkins were also starting to open. A half-open Coltsfoot was recorded on 21st February, but the following week’s snow deterred the rest of the first flush.
Throughout the period, the star of the show was Gorse, its bright yellow flowers brightening even the dullest days and happily surviving a topping of snow. It should remain well worth seeing for another two months, while alongside it our old faithful White Dead-Nettle flowered continuously in its favourite spot along Osbaldwick Beck. We didn’t record it on February 28 th , but then we didn’t dig under the snow to look for it. (Spoiler: it was flowering on 7 th March as though nothing had happened to put it off.) The one thing we expected to find but didn’t was Lungwort – by the end of the recording period, later than it had been since 2011.
By the time this report appears, the Coltsfoots, Celandines and later spring bulbs should be at their best, with a sudden surge of new species in the first spell of settled weather. Have a stroll now, and then again in May, and notice the difference! Oh, and don’t miss the Cowslips, which will have come and gone before our next report.
There was a rare sighting of a Fox on the 17th January, seen near the Dragon Stones by one observer, just before the start of the regular Wildwatch walk. Grey Squirrels were seen on almost every Wednesday, but there was only a single sighting of Rabbit on the 20th December.
All photos were taken at St Nicks between the beginning of December 2017 and the end of February 2018.