Parish Nature Notes for February 2013 - John Wright

Although February is the last official month of winter, increasing day length and also the mild spell in the middle of the month produced a noticeable increase in bird song as some of the common resident species claimed their territories and prepared for breeding. However, on the 2nd my regular walk through Wareham Forest and Morden Bog in cold but sunny conditions produced evidence of cold weather movements by some birds. As I crossed Great Ovens Heath I noticed a couple of snipe but three other birdwatchers said they had seen a flock of around 50 earlier on. To the north a flock of 40 lapwing passed by and at Morden Park Lake I saw 9 Pochard, the first for over a year. This diving duck used to be a regular sight each month between October and March.


Male Pochard


Male Pochard

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Subsequent short walks over the next three days produced three crossbills flying overhead as I walked down the road to collect the Sunday paper, a small winter flock of four brightly coloured male yellowhammers on Great Ovens Heath and some hazel catkins (the male flowers) lengthening in preparation for the release of their pollen. Much less obvious are the very small red female flowers which, if fertilised, produce hazelnuts in autumn. However, the nuts do tend to be consumed by grey squirrels before they are fully ripe!


Female Flower of the hazel



Female flower of the hazel

Photograph: John Wright

Although it was drizzling with rain on the 9th, it was quite mild and there was no wind, so I tolerated the damp conditions. Just west of Sherford Bridge, I had walked close to the river and a pair of mallard suddenly took off. I then realised that a male peregrine was flying perhaps 10 metres behind them and although it followed them in a half-hearted manner for a second or two it soon broke off, climbed higher and disappeared in the direction of Poole Harbour. I was also rewarded with the sound of a couple of great spotted woodpeckers drumming - the first I had heard this year. Incidentally, both sexes drum on rotten or hollow branches of trees and choose the best strike rate to achieve resonance. The male (shown below) has a small red patch at the back of the head but this is lacking in the female.


Great Spotted Woodpecker

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Over the next couple of days I heard the first blackbirds come into song within Sandford, along with song thrushes, dunnocks and robins, all of which had been singing for some time. Robins are unusual in that through the winter both male and female birds sing in order to defend the feeding territories which can be critical to their survival. Depending on weather conditions, I imagine that by late February/early March paired birds are preparing to breed.




Robin

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

There was a welcome improvement in the weather on 14th February with mild and sunny conditions. I took the opportunity to walk around Holton Lee and was pleased to see an impressive flock of around 250 Lapwing heading west from Lytchett Bay in an ever-changing formation. As I watched, the most easterly end of the flock changed direction again and over time the entire flock was seemingly pulled like elastic into an ever-expanding line until eventually I imagine that the flock returned to feed once again in Lytchett Bay. The reed beds were also full of the piping of teal, occasional squeals from water rail and I saw a herd of perhaps 50 sika, including a couple of cream-coloured hinds.




Lapwing

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Unfortunately, we don't have a garden pond but I am reliably informed that common frogs have been breeding this month and no doubt the mid-month milder conditions will have encouraged spawning. My only observation was of a squashed frog in Miles Avenue earlier in the month, presumably on its way to a spawning pond. (Common toads breed somewhat later than frogs and my same source suggests that they will probably delay breeding until early March given the late February cold snap).


Common Frog

Common Frog

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

Two days later on my regular Wareham Forest/Morden Bog walk, the sun shone after a foggy start and the signs of spring became obvious. I encountered seven dartford warblers, including some in song and also heard no fewer than eight song thrushes announcing their territories. This is one of the few species which was favoured by the wet summer of 2012, when snails, a favourite food of the song thrush had ideal conditions. In addition, goldcrests, which are easily missed in midwinter as they work their way through conifers and only communicate with high pitched calls, came into song with nine different individuals heard during my walk. Their song is a rapid and repetitive 'dee-dee-dee' with the emphasis on the first 'dee'. I always imagine it as the sound of a minute and very high-pitched sewing machine!




Goldcrest

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

In addition, great spotted woodpeckers were drumming, several skylarks were in full song and I saw my first bumblebee of the year. At Morden Park Lake, a newly-arrived great crested grebe was making itself very obvious to any potential mate flying overhead by positioning itself in the middle of the lake and a pair of grey wagtails were actively picking up insects amongst the broken stems of common club-rush just above the water surface. Finally, two woodlarks were singing north of the Old Decoy Pond in Morden Bog and I also came across a small party of three birds further south within the Bog.




Bumblebee

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

By the 19th, it was still sunny but getting colder once again although there was little wind. Wood ants on Sandford Heath took advantage of the heat from the rays of the sun and gathered in seething masses on the sunny side of their nests to absorb some heat. They were then able to retreat into their nests once again and maintain a higher nest temperature as nest activities accelerate once again.


Wood ants

Wood ants

Photograph: John Wright

Over the next few days cold and windy conditions returned, much of the bird song was restricted and the range of birds visiting our garden increased. A song thrush, a male yellowhammer, a very smart male pied wagtail together with siskins and goldfinches put in an appearance. Over Fileul road I heard another two crossbills yet curiously I haven't encountered any since Christmas within Wareham Forest itself. Clearly food is scarce at present for siskins - hence their reappearance in our garden. What I have also noticed in Sandford are groups of highly vocal siskins that occupy the tops of particular trees (of different species) and have remained in these locations by day over a series of weeks. I rather imagine that near to each of these trees are gardens where the owners have well stocked bird-feeders which make their stay worthwhile.


Male Siskin

Male Siskin

Photograph: Ken Dolbear

By the end of the month, I could see that some diminutive roadside specimens of common whitlow grass which were less than a centimetre in height and showing pure white flower buds at the begining of February had still not grown and come into flower by the 28th February. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that in two to three weeks time southern England should be invaded by huge numbers of chiffchaffs which will herald another important milestone in the coming of spring!