Listen for the 'dzurr' of the Dartford warbler
If you venture onto heathland this month keep an eye open for this lively long-tailed resident and listen for that characteristic nasal ‘dzurr’ call.
What's that drumming?
Have you seen a great spotted woodpecker taking peanuts or suet at your feeders in the last month or two? This species is common in both deciduous and coniferous woodland but has also benefitted from the additional food supplies we offer in our gardens.
Both male and female birds are now choosing rotten or hollow tree branches to produce the characteristic ‘drumming’ that reminds us that spring is not far away. A pad of shock-absorbent tissue between the base of the bill and the skull prevents damage to the brain and recently I was reminded of how effective this must be when I heard one individual repeatedly drumming on a metal strut near the top of a wooden pole!
The singing begins
As the days get longer, many of our resident birds are using more conventional methods of staking out their territories and attracting a mate. Chaffinches are starting to sing and skylarks, yellowhammers and blackbirds should be joining in before the end of the month.
A favourite of mine, the woodlark, can start singing on local heathlands in January and if we get some bright sunny days in February I hope to hear its exotic flute-like falling cascade of notes which, dare I say it, makes the skylark sound a bit ordinary.
A few flowers appearing
Although few plants are flowering in the countryside as yet, one garden escapee, the winter heliotrope, is in full bloom along some roadside verges and snowdrops, normally planted or escapees from cultivation, are flowering throughout the county.
In woodland and along hedgerow, the fresh green leaves of wild arum (lords-and-ladies) are pushing aside last autumn’s leaves to find the light. Similarly, the heart-shaped leaves of sweet violets are taking in energy from the sun and one plant I saw recently in a favoured position has started to produce its deep purple flowers.
With male hazel catkins lengthening in preparation to release their pollen, and alexanders and even cow parsley starting to show fresh growth, we can look forward to seeing pussy willow, primroses and lesser celandine before the end of the month.
A small garden weed which often starts flowering in February, hairy bittercress, is rarely welcomed by gardeners, but another diminutive member of the cabbage family, common whitlowgrass, also starts flowering this month by dry paths, pavements and on walls and cliffs. Often less than two inches high, the branched stems produce small white flowers and then semi-transparent seed-pods rather like miniscule versions of those produced by Honesty.
Look out for frogs
With mild temperatures, look out for common frogs returning to garden ponds to breed. Their moist skin, olive-green colour, a dark brown patch behind the eye and long powerful back legs for jumping makes them easy to distinguish from common toads. Whereas common frogs produce a large clump of spawn, toads produce strings of spawn.
Listen closely at your window
And finally, now is a good time to try your hand at distinguishing the songs of three common garden birds. We all recognise the robin by sight, so listen to it in song when it is in full view and try to describe it. To me it is a soft almost dribbling warble which can be heard at any time during the day, and even into the night.
The dunnock is also a common garden bird but has a much brighter crisp song which can be quite loud, and should not be confused with the diminutive wren whose forceful and high-pitched song includes an obvious trill in the middle.
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer