Enjoy a winter walk this month
As we welcome in the New Year, why not walk off a few pounds and enjoy Dorset in winter?
Although the worst of the winter weather may still lie ahead, we have passed the shortest day and many plants and animals are responding to increasing day length.
Listen out for great & blue tits
Already, some of our resident birds are pairing up and starting to sing. For example, in deciduous woodland, you should hear the familiar and strident 'teacher teacher' of the great tit although it can confuse us by producing unfamiliar sounds and imitating other species!
Blue tits, having abandoned their communal flocks, are feeding in pairs and chasing each other through the woodland canopy.
Any song thrushes in your garden?
The song thrush also starts to sing in January and by the middle of the month its attractive song consisting of short repeated phrases can be heard in urban gardens and the wider countryside. The fact that song thrushes eat snails makes them particularly popular with gardeners.
The early nesters
Some of our larger birds which exploit a wide range of winter foods are even further advanced in their breeding cycle. Both the grey heron and the raven will be repairing their traditional nests and laying eggs later this month or in February.
Heart shaped leaves & lilac flowers
Although few plants are in flower as yet, the winter heliotrope, a garden escape, is a notable exception. This invasive species is found in patches on roadside verges throughout Dorset where it prefers to grow under the shade and protection of roadside trees and bushes. Look out for heads of pale lilac flowers and the accompanying heart-shaped leaves.
The welcome snowdrop
Another introduced plant which flowers in late January and February is the snowdrop, although some believe that it may be a native species in the Welsh Borders. Here in Dorset it is well established beyond the confines of our gardens and provides spectacular displays by streams and in woods and waysides.
Plenty of visiting birds still to see
Of course, these welcome signs of the renewal of life should not blind us to the fact that we are still in the middle of winter and that there are plenty of spectacular winter visitors from northern Europe to enjoy on a bright sunny winter's day.
A visit to coastal waters such as Poole or Portland Harbour, the Fleet or Radipole should reward you with good views of some of our diving ducks and sawbills.
Some tufted duck and pochard breed in Britain, but in winter their numbers increase substantially as they are joined by migrants from Europe and Russia. Whereas Tufted Duck are deep (3 metre) divers and take animal food, Pochard take shallow dives (1 m) and live on plant material.
More handsome is the goldeneye, which also lives on animal food. Some breed in Scotland where they nest in tree-holes, but in winter many of the birds we see in Dorset arrive from Scandinavia and Russia.
Our overwintering population of red-breasted mergansers is nationally important and this fish-eating sawbill breeds not only in northern Britain and Ireland but also joins us from Iceland and Scandanavia.
You might find a croaking frog
Finally, if you have a garden pond, listen out for the croaking of male common frogs this month. At temperatures above about 4º C frogs come out of hibernation and suburban ponds have become very important for the successful breeding of this familiar amphibian.
If you find frog spawn in your pond, remember that in a few months time the adults and their offspring will be helping to control the slugs and snails in your garden!
Written by John Wright
Dorset Wildlife Trust Member & Volunteer