Strange but then Butcher’s Broom is itself a strange plant – it has no true leaves, but flattened stems called ‘cladodes’, evolved to function like leaves, along its tough, ridged stems, which give it the appearance of being evergreen. We seem to have fallen out of the tradition of cutting Butcher’s Broom stems and bringing them indoors at this time of year, when the beautiful red berries show bright against the dark ‘leaves’. We favour Holly instead. As you can see from the photos, the flowers and then berries grow from the centre of these ‘leaves’ and as you may guess from the name, they were traditionally cut and tied in bunches, when their stiffness made them a good brush for sweeping off butcher’s blocks. Related to the Asparagus, these low shrubs with their sharp flattened stems are easier to spot in winter. Conditions: Grey, mild days. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
Pheasants are controversial imports, though no one can deny their beauty and there are few places in the UK now where they can’t be seen. They are the species most likely to be killed on our roads. They don’t fly very well, but changes in the way they are bred may also add to their lack of ‘road-sense’. In the 1960’s, Pheasants were wild-bred for shooting but now a staggering 35 million are bred each year, as ‘Shoots’ have become ever more popular, and these are predominantly captive bred, and released around October, ready for the shooting season. The conditions under which they are bred are sometimes worse than those for battery chicken. Their high density may
also be putting pressure on our native species, by competition for food and by spreading disease, because the amount actually shot each year is a low percentage of those bred. Conditions: Bright, showery, mild days. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5C.
All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
I love watching the Heron skulking in the reeds, or taking off on the unique, lazy, m-shaped flight which you might watch on any wetland, estuary, or on the lake in your town park, transforming from a static shadowy, hunched form, unfolding
to an elegant, airborne giant in seconds. In Greek mythology Herons were thought of as bringers of bad luck. Heron’s feed in shallow water, and the Greeks realised this meant their presence would reveal, to enemies, the shallow crossing places they could use to invade. Herons used to appear on upper-class menus, as this recipe from the 1400’s shows: “Take a heron…serve him…scalding and drawing and kuttyng the bone of the nekke away, and let the skyn be on…roste….his sause is to be mynced with pouder of ginger, vynegre and mustard”. Thankfully, they (and we) are now protected from this practice! Conditions: A bright morning becoming grey and very wet. Temperature: Max 9 Min 7C.
House Sparrows, the RSPB has announced, were the most frequent bird in last January’s 420,489 garden bird surveys, but these once ubiquitous, gregarious birds which have a varied diet, have nevertheless not recovered from their 71% decline between 1977 and 2008. We hardly see them in our Pitsmoor (North Sheffield) garden,
though a recent piece of research by the BTO found that suburban and urban gardens and allotment areas really help House Sparrows survive in numbers, while farmland is still a place of population loss. I was glad to be able to watch and listen to these noisy birds, fluffed up against the cold, recently. If you have a job telling House Sparrows from others, winter plumage isn’t the easiest time but the males have a grey cap and black bib, which becomes more pronounced in spring. I always thought of them as having a grey ‘roof’ which helped! Conditions: A beautiful frosty and bright day. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2c.
I was delighted recently to be able to photograph Starlings in their winter plumage (bills no longer yellow, pale spots on body, feathers less iridescent) but this is a sad reflection on just how much their populations have plummeted, with 40 million birds lost from the European population since 1980. Even over winter, when our populations are boosted from central Europe, this once common bird has suffered what Michael McCarthy, in his great book “The Moth Snowstorm” terms a ‘great thinning’ suffered by so many of our species. The noisy, social Starling is, shockingly, now on the red (endangered) list and since 2012 the RSPB has been carrying out research to ascertain why. It may be due to loss of invertebrates which it feeds on (especially Crane Fly larvae, known as Leatherjackets), or nesting sites- they don’t yet know. Conditions: Grey, mild and wet weather continues. Temperature: Max 11 Min 9C.