This is a traditionally gloomy time of the year and, so far, January’s weather has mainly been exactly that – gloomy. Even so the natural world, including local wildlife, does its best to cheer us up. In the very depths of winter there are many signs that spring is not too far away.
In our gardens, open spaces and woodlands hazel catkins (traditionally known as lambs’ tails) dance in the breeze, alder catkins imbue distant trees with a purple haze, and honeysuckles have their first bright green leaves. Snowdrops are coming out and other bulbs are pushing through the soil. Very shortly colourful crocuses will be brightening our streets.
Whilst the trees are bare the lives of birds are easy to observe. If you live near a rookery you will see that rooks and jackdaws are busy tidying their nests, perhaps starting to roost in them, certainly re-establishing ownership and gently squabbling with their neighbours.
There are fewer heronries, but if you have one close by you will know that there is even more activity. Herons are big birds, which means early breeding to ensure that the new chicks will be fit to face next winter. In a mild winter like this one eggs will be laid very soon.
Other water birds, including geese and ducks, are in their finery just now. Colourful males are displaying and courtship and pairing up is underway. Mallards too are early breeders, although a few weeks behind the herons. In the winter sheltered inland waters attract a host of wintering species, such as shoveler, goldeneye, goosanders and mergansers. Elegant pintails can turn up almost anywhere, as can the bright and bulky shelduck, a familiar coastal bird in the summer.
Another group of animals is also stirring from its winter torpor. Frogs, toads and newts either are, or shortly will be on the move. Frogs and toads are faithful to their natal ponds, male frogs typically spending the winter in the mud at the bottom of the ponds. They will soon be joined by females, turning small ponds into spawning maelstroms. No doubt lots of volunteers will be out to shepherd toads across busy roads as they return to their breeding ponds.
It’s a shame that the nature conservation policy and funding worlds remain generally gloomy, but I suppose we can’t have everything!