by Heather Elvidge
One storm after another – that’s how it’s been for weeks. Our weather is stuck in a rut, and so are we. But the days are lengthening, so change is on the way.
In the recent cold and wet, birds’ courtship has been a stop-start affair. Traditionally, they choose their mates on Valentine’s Day and some would be building nests now, if the weather were kinder. But they are making plans.
Blackbirds are in couples, although the male is still making a token effort to stop the female from foraging on his patch. Sensibly, she takes no notice. He’s also kept busy driving away the unattached blackbirds that keep muscling in on his territory. His soft, fluting song can be heard at dawn and dusk, if it’s not too windy.
With the famous exception of the mistle thrush – also known as the storm cock – our birds don’t sing in high winds. There’s no point when your message is going to be blown away; only the mistle thrush seems to relish the challenge. This bold, pale thrush with black-spotted chest and belly can be seen in woods, parks and gardens.
Where are our song thrushes? While there’s been a big drop in numbers, these shy thrushes are still about. In February the male song thrush abandons his cautious ways to sing from a high branch. His melodious song is a bit like a blackbird’s, except that the thrush repeats each phrase three times. Thrushes benefit from wet ground, which makes it easier for them to pull up earthworms.
While they journey around searching for food, parties of long-tailed tits are keeping an eye out for prospective building sites. They favour a thick hedge or gorse bush – the location has to be right because a great deal of work goes into their domed nest.
Construction can take a whole month, using moss and lichen held together by spiders’ webs. Then the two little birds have to find hundreds of downy feathers to line it, so the female can lay her eggs towards the end of March.
Snowdrops are in full flower now. Nothing deters these tough, little plants – their leaves are capable of spearing through frost-hardened ground.
Winter aconites are often seen near snowdrops and their yellow flowers, set off by a green ruff, are the first really bright blooms of the year. But the flowers refuse to open until the temperature tops 10C (50F), so don’t expect to see them yet except in sheltered suntraps.
According to old lore, the sap begins to rise in the trees on St Matthias’ Day, February 24. So far most trees are barely stirring, although elders are sporting unruly little tufts and the hazels have dangling catkins.
After weeks of rain, driven by gusty winds that have sometimes reached hurricane-force, we look forward with trepidation. The end of February is often wild, even in years less notable for storms than this one.
However, there is hope. The Met Office says there are signs of a less relentless onslaught. It will be cold and there will be spells of rain, but with longer spells of settled weather in between.