The Red Admiral is the adult Butterfly most frequently seen throughout the winter in the UK. We have a handful of Butterflies which overwinter as adults in this country- The Comma, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock truly hibernate, but the Red Admiral roosts rather than hibernate, and individuals can survive the winter so long as the temperature doesn’t fall below freezing too often. This one, clearly pretty old and tattered, was feeding on our Daphne Jacqueline Postill a few days ago. You can see its long proboscis reaching deep into the flower for energy-rich nectar. As little as 20 years ago our climate meant that it was rare for the Red Admiral to survive our winters, but now they frequently do. Strong and able fliers, the beautiful Red Admiral can migrate hundreds of miles, flying south in autumn ad north in spring. Conditions: Cloudy and cool. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C
Honey Bees have been feasting on our Crocuses for the past few days. Males (drones) die off in winter- only the females (workers) and Queen Honey Bees survive, and they go into a state of torpor once temperatures drop below around 10C. If the winter is particularly cold the whole swarm can die, especially for wild swarms, though climate change may help even these survive more frequently. As the females cluster round the Queen, those in the warmer centre swapping places with those on the colder outside from time to time, a bit like huddles of Penguins in the Antarctic! Bee-keepers can supplement their hives with sugar-syrup to help survival-rates through winter. Once the temperature gets back up to around 10C, as it did for a few days last week, the workers will make forays to collect food, which is why it is so important to have early flowering plants in our gardens and wild spaces. Honey Bees usually collect either nectar or pollen on a single trip, and from one species, if there is sufficient pollen or nectar available rom that species, as it was from the pollen-laden Crocuses. They can carry half their body-weight back to the hive. Research has shown that, gathering the pollen in the pollen-sacs on their back legs, long-hairs on the legs help to hold it in place during flight. Conditions: A colder, dreary day after spring-like sunny days. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2C.
Queen Bumblebees are back in the garden, now the Crocuses are full of pollen and the temperatures are around 10C. Only the Queen Bumblebees survive winter, one of the reasons the first emerging Bumblebees surprise us with their size. Two of the earliest species to emerge are these- the biggest are he Buff-tailed Bumblebees, really dousing themselves in pollen in their eagerness to feed-up. The fairly recent UK residents, the Tree Bumblebee, also zoom in to feed. I love having Crocus in the garden, beautiful, cheap and easy to find a home for, but also the food they provide early Bumblebee Queens, and the easy opportunity they give to watch them emerge from deep in the cup of the flower, covered with bright yellow pollen. Conditions: Bright, milder, dry days. Temperature: Max 10 Min 2C.
Lapwing can be seen through these months, if you are lucky, feeding on wetlands or fields- easy to spot with their unique, round-winged, lazy flight which also gives them their name- Lapwing derives from the Old English for ‘leap with a flicker’– when in a large group, flapping their wings, the overall colour-pattern flicks from the lighter underwing to the darker upper-wing. Sadly, there are fewer chances to see the wonderful sights of large, soaring flocks , known as a ‘deceit of Lapwing’ (they were associated with treachery ) in the past) since numbers have declined drastically. First, the eggs were harvested for food until the 1926 Lapwing Act which outlawed this common practice. More recently a range of factors, including drainage of wetlands and changed farming practice have reduced them again so that they are now on the Red List. Wetland and rough grazing, favourite nesting sites, have been ‘improved’ and crops are increasingly being sown in autumn, making them too high by April for successful nesting. As for many ground-nesting birds, predation and disturbance is a problem, too. Where they are still in higher numbers they can gather together to mob predators. Their other behaviour, which (who knows?) may have led to them being associated with deceit, is the practice of adults flying off low and slow, feigning a broken wing, if a predator approaches a nest or their very vulnerable young, drawing the predator away by appearing to be an easy catch. Of course, their common name, Peewit, comes from there haunting flight-call. Beautiful in flight they are also lovely on the ground, with their long crests and iridescent backs. Conditions: A warmer, brighter, drier spell after strong winds and rain. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
One of my favourite sights, and a harbinger of spring, is a Hazel bush full of Catkins, though they first appear as tight, small sausage shapes on bare branches in October or November. By January or February these have lengthened and loosened into the familiar, dangling and pale yellow Catkins, loaded with pollen. Each Catkin is made up of 240 male flowers charged with vast quantities of pollen. They do not have the familiar form of most flowers because they do not have to attract insects for fertilisation- Hazel is a wind-pollinated plant, which is why it has to produce so many small, light pollen grains– the chances of a grain of pollen, light enough to be blown over big distances, alighting on a female flower at the right time is minute. The female flowers, which appear on each Hazel bush, are much less visible but worth looking for- they resemble small Sea-anemones, at the leaf-buds. The word Catkin comes from the Dutch word Katteken, meaning Kitten, named after their resemblance to fluffy tails, though of course we know them as Lambstails. Conditions: Milder ad brighter at last. Temperature: Max 11 Min 3C.
Ants and Snowdrops- what wonderful bit of evolution connects them? I have covered this before on my blog but a reminder probably won’t go amiss and I have done an illustrative drawing since. This is really a reminder not to cut back your Snowdrops before heir seeds have properly matured, if you want to help them to spread. Of course, splitting them into small tots and planting them in new areas is also a great way of spreading these winer gems about, after they have flowered but before they die down, since buying or splitting them ‘in the green’ is far more successful than just as bulbs later in the season. Anyway, the link with Ants is this- Ants collect some of the seeds of Snowdrops and carry them into their underground chambers, laying their eggs nearby. When the larvae hatch they eat the outer coating of the seeds, leaving the seeds themselves undamaged to grow into new plants. Conditions: Sun and cloud, following snow and rain. Temperature: Max 8 Min 4C.
More winter-flowering shrubs. Wintersweet and and Daphne Jacqueline Postill will support wildlife and give off a lovely perfume. Daphne Jacqueline Postill is expensive to buy but it will give you decades of flower from late December well into February and the most gorgeous scent which fills the air– we can smell it every time we walk up and down our front path. It also provides pollen and nectar for over-wintering insects. It and its close cultivars are more floriferous and longer lived than the better known Daphne Mezereum. Wintersweet, another evergreen which has glossy green leaves with less significant flowers also has a beautiful scent and the black berries are attractive to birds. If you are looking for a small tree, the Autumn-flowering Cherry, which actually flowers for months in winter, on bare branches, doesn’t have a scent but provides pollen and nectar in the otherwise less food-rich months of winter. Conditions: Cold and blue-skied. Temperature: Max 4 Min -C.
I have just walked round the garden and taken in the winter flowering plants that lift my spirits and also help wildlife so thought I would cover a few over the coming days. One is a shrub that gets a bit spronky but can be kept in check with a prune after it has finished flowering. It has had flowers for some weeks already and will go on producing them for weeks to come, has a lovely citrusy scent and as you can see, is loaded with pollen. Nectar is also secreted away in the little trumpets of its flowers.– the Winter-flowering Honeysuckle. Blue Tits love the nectar and over-wintering butterflies and bees will emerge to feed on it in those winter periods where the temperature rises over about 10 degrees C. Too cold where I am right now, in Sheffield, but in a warmer spell the Buff-tailed Bumblebee, among others, will take advantage of this winter food-store. Meanwhile, it is lovely to see and smell. Conditions: Frosts and clear, bright days after heavy rain and floods in some parts but luckily not in this area. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
Male Great Spotted Woodpecker- while males will sometimes tolerate feeding beside each other, as in one of the photos, they are fiercely territorial all year round and at this time of year you may see or hear them squabbling to try to take over or hold a territory, which is usually about 5 hectares (12 acres). These two were doing so (in low light) in our garden yesterday. This behaviour also attracts females, as does the drumming on tree-trunks or even telegraph poles, which will start before long. Great Spotted Woodpeckers are monogamous during a season but they may mate in a different pair the following season, hence females need to be attracted and territories held anew each year. Records show that Great Spotted Woodpeckers are doing quite well at the moment and are frequent visitors to garden feeders, especially on fat or peanuts in winter. Conditions: Cloudy with heavy rain due over the next couple of days. Temperature: Max 11 Min 10 C.
Most birds struggle in these cold spells, even if you don’t have snow like us in Sheffield, and none more so than the Robin which has to multi-task. Even when it snatches food (in fading light, apologies for the photos) it is constantly looking out for other Robins which might compete for its territory. Robins try to hold territories all year round, unlike many birds. At present, due to the cold weather, we have a least four Robins in the garden, and if not the one defending the territory bobbing, and flicking its wings and tail, and flying towards other Robins, sometimes fiercely fighting them, they are the ones being chased off and need constant vigilance as they feed, stopping and looking round all the time. And that is without contending with predators like Sparrowhawks. Fluffing up to survive the cold they are also trying to stand on one leg to preserve some warmth. They will sing to proclaim and hold a territory but only if the have enough energy left after all this to sing. Conditions: Snow hanging on from yesterday’s two inches. Temperature: Max 0 Min 0C.