No doubt, like many of you, the recent cold snap has come as a bit of a shock to the system, (forcing me to go back to my heavier duvet!), but it’s also a healthy reminder that winter is still very much with us.
Despite the relatively mild seasonal conditions so far, we should never underestimate the unpredictable power or potential severity of Mother Nature – just look at the horrendously low temperatures currently being experienced in eastern and continental Europe at the moment.
The efficiency of our duvets/continental quilts is calculated on a TOG-rating and sometimes I think bird boxes should be too. Recently, I came across a quirky little book, entitled ‘Bird, Bee and Bug Houses’ by Derek Jones, which explains everything you’d ever need or want to know about this specialised subject e.g. materials required, suitable locations and appropriate designs, etc.
It would appear that experienced builders of nest or ‘nestling’ boxes know that the birds seem to prefer ones made out of thick, old pieces of wood. However, it’s not so much the age of the wood that’s key – more its actual thickness. Birds are very sensitive to temperature changes and if they happen to get too cold when roosting, they burn/use up their precious fat reserves and resources – which sadly, can ultimately prove fatal.
Because female wrens, tits and other hole-nesting species often choose to roost in boxes at night, over the autumn and winter, they have an ideal chance/opportunity of determining whether their potential spring and summer home will be well enough insulated. Scientific surveys and studies (over the last 20 years or so) have consistently shown plywood and plastic structures are often spurned in favour of old-fashioned wooden boxes, while special composition wood and concrete constructions seem to be particularly cosy!
In the past, many visiting wildfowl were able to find the bulk of their winter food from farmers’ fields but as we all know, agricultural times and practices have changed dramatically. Stubble fields were once common-place around the Basin, and used to be a favourite haunt but there have been fewer and fewer in recent decades, as autumn sowing has become almost universal now. Also, harvesting methods have improved so dramatically and new crop varieties tend to shed very little grain - something needs to have gone badly wrong with the harvest in order for stubble to provide the rich pickings that used to be common-place/available.
Very badly laid (windblown) crops and fields that have been affected by flooding are the most fruitful and useful for lots of our local wildfowl. Therefore, many different species tend to feed on our surrounding, low-lying farmland – wigeon being typical. This beautiful duck (drakes have superb plumage at the moment – with chestnut-coloured cheeks and a golden yellow strip that runs from their beaks, over the crown and down to the neck) come to western Europe over the winter months from their annual breeding grounds over northern Europe and well into Asia.
February/late winter is a fantastic time to visit the SWT visitor centre or an easily accessible, out-lying hide to view these magnificent birds. Both sexes can also be readily recognised and identified when flying or feeding in the dark too, by their characteristic ‘liquid’ whistles and distinctive high-pitched calls.
Finally, please remember, just as winter is at its coldest, most depressing and dreariest, up pop flowers and plants to renew hope that spring is on the way (Some never even really died off!). For example, the ‘yellow on the broom’ and white dead-nettle which are both important nectar sources for late or early insects. In some years, if it’s mild enough, it’s not unknown for robin, blackbird and song thrush to lay eggs by the end this month either. February is also a great month to listen out for great spotted woodpeckers drumming away in local woodland and to witness the wonderful dance of great crested grebes, when displaying to one another, in their wonderfully, unique courtship displays. Plus lots, lots more.