Nature Notes: Dare we start to contemplate spring?

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So, that’s the first month of 2014 out of the way then. The first two months are generally our most foul, weather-wise. In the event we experienced mostly wet westerlies again.

The pestilence of floods continues for many people.

Dare we begin to think about spring – why not? Locally we already have fine examples of those tiny gems, snowdrop and aconite in bloom. What treasures they are. Cultivars now adorn many of our gardens.

Snowdrops seem to be of many varieties, tiny and not so tiny. There is little to compare with naturalised drifts of white and gold.

A local large garden is especially blessed. Our own handfuls of commercially bought bulbs/corms are preciously contained in pots. Various rodents are partial to such nibbles.

Woodlands may be already showing dog’s mercury with its inconspicuous but pretty flowers which are borne on gender-separate plants.

By the end of this month we can hope to see cheery spikes of coltsfoot, notable for producing flowers before leaves.

I have noticed in recent years that these are flowering earlier than in my far-off childhood. And of course various winter flowering cherries will have been showing for some time.

These sights remind us that even in the worst of winter there are hopeful signs.

By mid-February some of our native trees will be showing signs of revival. Alder, willow and hazel all produce early inflorensces of dangling flowers. The term “flower” often seems an exaggeration.

Many a school Nature Table where such quaint features still exist will no doubt have a few sprigs of “catkins” shedding pollen from a jam jar. Is it just me or do they always look nicer in a jam jar than a vase?

In the avian world there will be more indications to look and listen for. You may not be familiar with the term “stormcock”. Old English names are so delightfully descriptive.

With lengthening daylight the lovely mistle thrush will be earning his folksy moniker by singing his slightly mournful song from treetops. These birds take pleasure in challenging rain and wind.

Warbling defiantly male stormcocks herald the beginning of the end of winter. It will be some time until their cousins song thrushes start to sing a much more tuneful song.

Mistle thrushes are rather larger than song thrushes whose numbers have crashed in recent years. They are larger and greyer than their more tuneful cousins.

This brings us nicely to that species I privately call “chocolate bonce”. Black-headed gulls (actually dark brown) are early breeders and always keen to show off their breeding plumage.

For me it’s an eagerly awaited sign. They are equally at home on marsh and beach where their raucous calls can sound somewhat unpleasant.

As with many gull species numbers have increased dramatically over the last 50 years. With red bill and red legs it is a rather smart bird. Birds not quite in breeding plumage will show a black smudge behind each eye resembling ears.

And so to the last of this early bird trio, the cormorant. Any anglers reading this might have a less than favourable view of cormorants.

I’m bound to say that I believe their piscatorial predations have little overall impact upon fish stocks. I’m fairly sure that all serious studies by RSPB and such like confirm this.

What draws my eye however is that lovely white patch which can be seen when these pre-historic-looking birds flash their thighs. There are plenty of cormorants to observe but you may have to look carefully to see these breeding colours.

Binoculars to follow these birds in flight should reveal this feature, it’s worth making the effort.

Britain is sometimes host to many wintering cormorants so some may depart by March to European haunts.

Cormorants are quite likely to be encountered well inland, rivers and lakes are as equally favoured as coastlines. They are often seen drying their wings rather heraldically, their plumage perhaps being less than waterproof.

They may gather in groups especially as spring really gets underway. Nests may be found in trees, pylons or other structures where they do look rather awkward when compared to rocky shoreline nest sites.

Just as I was finishing this bulletin a friend phoned to report a short-eared owl on Terrington Marsh. Not uncommon in winter but if a mate should turn up a pair might well stay to breed. Short-eared owls are diurnal flyers and with a lovely buoyant flight are easily identified.

By mid-February many birds will be paired. Folklore tells us this coincides with St Valentine’s Day. Being the hopeless romantic that I am I’m not going to argue with that.