Oaks in winter- mum loved the ‘black lace’ of our Sussex Wealden Oaks in winter but it is fascinating to think how they prepare for and survive our cold, dark months. Having gathered nutrients from the breakdown of their leaves in autumn, and shed those leaves, (not triggered by cold but by a chemical pigment which detects the lowering
Oak bark in winter
Catsfield Oaks in winter
Catsfield Oaks in winter- Broomham Lane
Catsfield (Sussex) Oaks in winter
of infra-red light levels), they still have to survive freezing temperatures which could destroy their trunks and branches. The bark acts as a blanket, while the Oak withdraws fluid from the trunk, thus dehydrating itself and leaving only highly concentrated sugars which act as an anti-freeze. It stores much of its nutrients in its roots, which also draw in minerals from the miles of mycorrhizal filaments of fungi in the soil. The Oak slows its use of energy right down until light levels increase, and it can restore itself ready for spring. Conditions: Very grey buy welcome dry days in Sussex. Temperature: Max 10 Min 7C.
Winter Solstice: On this shortest day of the year, this is just a reminder that our smallest birds, the Wren, Goldcrest and Firecrest, unlike others of our birds that can switch to seeds and fruits when insects are in short supply through the colder months, rely on insects so the more untidy we are in our gardens and countryside, the better off they are. Insects will stay in the microclimate under leaves, in shrubs, conifers and dense foliage and in hollow stems and uncut grasses and flowering plants. In really freezing winters these small birds (you are more likely to see Wrens and Goldcrests in your gardens- I’ve only seen a Firecrest once and that wasn’t in my garden!) Somewhere they can roost, like bird boxes and hedges, also help. No wonder, with the loss of so many hedges our birds are under threat. Conditions: Mild with some sun after heavy rain. Floods and waterlogged land in the south and east. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5C.
Kestrels: Once our most numerous bird of prey, Kestrels have declined and Buzzards have increased and are now number one! Yesterday when, taking our van out for a run, it broke down (sorted by rescue). We were therefore delighted when this one flew in near the lane we parked up on. Kestrels use high perches to hunt from, especially in winter when they need to preserve energy, as their characteristic hovering uses far more energy. This one didn’t stay long, so we occupied ourselves waiting for roadside rescue by playing scrabble we had in the van, but it was lovely to watch this one, probably looking out for a small rodent, like a vole, by far their most frequent food source, though they will eat earthworms, large insects, even sparrows in cities. Kestrels were
Beady eyed Kestrel
reserved for the lower status Knaves in medieval falconry, larger hawks being reserved for Knights. Hieararchies have been around for a very long time! Conditions: Another frosty, bright, dray day. Temperature: Max 2 Min 0C.
This wet weather is benefitting the fungi, if not much else. Fly Agaric, surely the one toadstool that everyone recognises, if not from nature, then from children’s books, was always described to us as kids as highly dangerous. Though there are few records of it being fatal, it is probably best to view it as toxic. It was used for centuries in different cultures, especially in the East, as an hallucinogenic drug, by shamans and
Fly Agaric, showing its gills and ring (it had been knocked over by an animal, not me!)
others- whether ‘Fly’ comes from that or, as most people think, from its use in the past as an insecticide, a piece left in a saucer of milk, it is best to enjoy looking at its beauty than to meddle with its dangers. It is at least unmistakable, unlike many fungi. Conditions: Rain arriving, heavier to come. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.
Treecreeper- this is usually a solitary and elusive bird, so well camouflaged on the bark of trees and among the leaves that it is hard to get a good look at one. I was really lucky to have this one briefly come down to the edge of a friend’s pond last week. Though its body is no longer than that of a Wren, its long, down-curved, slim bill and its long, stiff tail, which helps it balance while climbing up tree trunks, make it look bigger. The bill has evolved to prise insects, grubs and spiders out of crevices in tree-trunks, where it feeds. This photo shows the very long toes and claws which help it grip as it busily travels, always upwards and often in a spiral, round a tree before flying off to feed elsewhere
. Conditions: Heavy showers and some bright spells. Temperature: Max 16 Min 12C.
Chiffchaff- these birds are very similar in appearance to their close cousins, the Willow Warbler. Both migrate here from Africa and both are small, olive-green warblers with a yellow eye-stripe. In spring and early summer they are easy to tell apart by their calls- the Willow Warbler has a lovely long trill while the Chiffchaff is named after its two-note call. At this time of year, as they feed-up on insects, spiders and some berries, ready for their long migration back to Africa, you have to get a good view. It has taken me years to get a photo of Chiffchaffs but this pair were flitting up in a tree yesterday, and on a Cotoneaster bush, and you can see their distinguishing dark legs (The Willow Warbler has pale pink
ish legs). Conditions: Sun, cloud and a cool breeze. Temperature: Max 16 Min 7C.
House Sparrows– The (mixed) results from the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch are in and ,sadly, small birds have had a bad season, probably due to the exceptionally cold spell in winter. Some would also say sadly, Wood Pigeon numbers are growing in gardens and we are certainly part of that trend. House Sparrows, however, are at last making a bit of a come-back after a big slump in numbers nationwide. We only get them
House Sparrow, showing striated back
occasionally in our garden, but many places in Sheffield and the Peak District have good numbers, as you will see from these recent photo’s from a local friend’s garden. I always remember the House Sparrow identification by the male’s grey head being the colour of a slate roof (artistic licence there!) Conditions: Drier and milder. Temperature: Max 12 Min 4C.