The value of dead leaves- Leaving leaves to be decomposed by frost and other weather action, and by worms, bacteria etc means that many valuable nutrients get recycled into the soil. Leaves also protect some insects from getting frosted, and thereby help insect-eaters like Wrens survive the coldest winter months. Their structure is also beautiful in frosty conditions like today. Conditions: Blue-skied and sunny after days of grey, wet and windy weather. Temperature: Max 3- Min -3C.
Bringing Holly into the house in winter dates back beyond written records. At summer solstice, the Holly, King of the winter trees, was believed to win the fight with the Oak, King of the summer, and mummers, and wassailers took the Holly with them to signify its power. Gawain and the Green Knight reflects this battle. While Holly stems were used in the 18th Century in their hundreds of thousands, to make whips for riding, and Holly branches were nutritious food for livestock in winter, to cut a Holly tree down completely rather than merely coppicing it, was regarded as very unlucky. They were planted beside houses, as Holly was thought to protect against malevolent faeries, and in the house, to mediate between fairy and human. The Duke of Argyll, in the18th century, diverted the course of a road to avoid cutting an old Holly. I
n hedgerows, the highways of witches, they were left to impede witches in their travels. Conditions: Dull and drizzly. Temperature: Max 10- Min 9C.
Yesterday, the Winter Solstice, is officially our shortest day, on average in the UK lasting 7 hours, 49 minutes 41 seconds! However the shortest day varies throughout the UK and not just by latitude. And it keeps getting darker in the mornings until early in the New Year, while our earliest sunset was about a week ago. Nor does daylight increase at an even rate through until the longest day, Summer Solstice, on 21st June. Daylight begins getting longer very slowly and it is all immensely complicated! Also, only about 4 solar days a year last 24 hours, and none in December– but our watches would be in chaos if we didn’t assume our days were 24 hours long. Here’s a sunrise and sunset, to ease our aching brains! Temperature : Max 10- Min 9C.
Kittiwakes, the beautiful gull named after the haunting sound of its call, are our most numerous breeding gulls but their decline is shocking: the 2014 survey puts populations at 28% of their numbers in 1986 and this year’s figures are worse. This medium-sized gull, with black legs, yellow bill and wings described as looking as though they have been ‘dipped in ink’ spends nearly half its year out at sea but nests on sea-cliffs and recently, as in Newcastle-Gateshead, on buildings and bridges that resemble cliffs. Like Puffins, also in decline, it feeds on shoals of sand eels and small fish, particularly over-fished and reducing off
our Eastern coasts. Conditions: Clear and sunny. Temperature: Max 6- Min 1C.
Some insect and extinction facts to fascinate and depress: Insects have been on earth 1,000 times longer than humans. In the first week of November this year 95 new species of beetle were identified in Madagascar alone. In what is being called the ‘sixth extinction’ many will become extinct before even identified, and at a precipitous rate. As well as extinction, there is devastating reduction in populations: recent studies in European nature reserves recorded a 75% decline in insects. Insects are crucial in all food chains, in pollination, in ‘cleaning up’ dead plants and animals- in many more ways. They have been overlooked in all conservation projects, in favour of more ‘cuddly’ creatures further up the food chain. Here are a few local, overlooked insects
. Conditions: Wet and dreary, to match the blog!. Temperature: Max 4- Min 1C.
Our Siskin population is boosted by migrants during the winter months. The migrants, and the native populations can be seen feeding on their favourite conifer, Alder and Birch seeds but are increasingly taking to peanuts and seeds from feeders in gardens, like these in Pitsmoor today. Siskins are predominantly olive green and citrus yellow, and are smaller, and more streakily marked than the two finches you could, at first glance, confuse them with – Greenfinch and Goldfinch. Conditions: Icy and blue-skied following the coldest night of the year so far. Temperature: Max 2- Min tonight, 1C.
Hawfinch– if, like me, you have never seen our rarest finch (hence the need to draw it- no photo’s) then this winter may be your best chance. Our small, native population has been boosted by 1,000’s rather than the usual 100’s of winter migrants from their main over-wintering areas of Romania and Germany, which have a bad harvest of their favoured fruits and seeds, while we have an unusually high harvest this year. Shy birds, they particularly favour Hornbeam and Yew but you may even see them in your garden. Conditions: Forecast snow beginning to fall- I’ve just put some water out for the birds- crucial during icy spells. Temperature: Max 1 Min -2C.
Chaffinches from Scandinavia begin to double our native populations now. As usual, we have more female than male, which is due to differential migration. The 18th Century naturalist, Linnaeus, noticed this when he gave them their scientific name, Fringilla Coelebs. Coelebs means ‘unmarried’ and in his home Scandinavia he noted more males than females over winter, assuming they were bachelors. Males are more dominant in winter, and can forage for food better in colder areas, so females are more likely to migrate West to find enough food. However, female Chaffinches dominate in summer. Conditions: Mild and cloudy with heavy rain and strong winds moving in tonight. Temperature: Max 10- Min 8C.
This healthy, (ringed) female Sparrowhawk, flying in yesterday, at first scared all the other birds away. After a couple of minutes, a Magpie landed in the same tree and started to approach. They eyeballed each other but it wasn’t until a second Magpie arrived that the first dared to get really close and scare the Sparrowhawk off. Meanwhile, the little birds quickly pick up, from body language, whether the Hawk is in hunting mode– after 3 or 4 minutes, six Blue Tits had reappeared in the tree and happily fed a few feet from her. Conditions: Cold and bright. Temperature: Max 5- Min 3C.