Winter may still be holding its grip, but it's time to start looking for those first signs of spring.
Badger setts become a hive of activity in February. As you wonder through woodlands or near hedgerows, you may spot old bedding including straw, bracken and leaves appearing outside their burrows as badgers carry out some spring cleaning and gather new bedding in readiness for the birth of cubs, which are due anytime now. The cubs will remain underground until April or May.
Snowdrops line roadside verges, hedge bottoms, woodland tracks and gardens of great houses between January and March. They're a welcome sign that winter is nearing its end. Enjoy the brief but spectacular displays of these delicate nodding white flowers at Mount Grace Priory, Castle Howard and Burton Agnes Hall near Driffield.
Also look out for:
- Wild primroses making their first appearance. Lovely clumps of cheery yellow flowers, clustered on roadside verges and woodland banks. Farndale and Rosedale are good places to see them.
- Roe deer, as the vegetation has died down it's easier to see them at this time of year. Roe deer are relatively small, have a reddish, grey body with a grey face, and short antlers. You'll see them in most of the forests across the North York Moors, including Cropton and Dalby, picking their way through the mature trees or, on a bright and sunny morning, feeding amongst replanted young trees.
- While you're there, take the time to stop and listen too as there's a good chance you'll hear a great spotted woodpecker at work, the most common of our three native species. Listen for it drumming on dead wood – it's quite loud and has a hollow sound that carries through the woodland. With black and white plumage, and a deep red rump, the head of the male has a distinct black crown and red nape too.
Walk of the month
Head to Howdale Moor and Brow Moor, where short-eared owls feed along the coasts over winter and are commonly seen hunting during the day. You'll not forget your first encounter with one as it works low over the fields in the late winter sun. Where there are grassy areas, keep an eye out for finger-size grey owl pellets regurgitated and full of bones of their prey.
Yorkshire Coast Nature tips
The experts at Yorkshire Coast Nature are our eyes on the ground, here's Richard Baines' pointers on what else to look out for this month.
As we approach February our spirits are raised by the longer days and the thought that the worst of the winter is over… But for many animals this can be the toughest time of year.
With freezing conditions on the continent and depleted food supplies, many birds are forced to move or face starvation. With enough fat reserves and good weather however, flying across the North Sea is not as tough as we may think, especially for powerful birds such as migrating geese. Look out for skeins of geese flying in a tight ‘V’ formation to save energy, this is a great sign they are truly wild birds. Feral resident species such as Greylag Goose and Canada Geese tend to fly in looser flocks having far less need to save energy during shorter flights.
In the first half of January 2018, the first small flocks of White-fronted Geese to be seen this winter in our area made landfall on our coastline. These birds are easily recognised from other small grey geese by the distinctive white colouration around the base of the bill and in adults the black bars running across the belly. They breed in European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia with large numbers wintering in the Netherlands and Belgium.
As these birds travel from harder conditions in the east to milder western parts of Europe such as the UK they often mingle with other wild geese. In the vale of Pickering recently we have been blessed with small groups of three species of wild geese; Pink-footed Geese breeding in Iceland and Spitsbergen, Tundra Bean Goose breeding in Arctic Russia and the White-fronted Geese mentioned above. Look out for any of these species in arable or pasture fields almost anywhere in East or North Yorkshire but especially in the Vale of Pickering.
The Weasel and the Wheatear
On a recent trip to Whitby, whilst I was leading a wildlife tour, one of my group noticed movement within a stone wall not far from the Abbey. Out popped a weasel just a few meters away, to the delight of our group.
These beautiful animals can be equally as active during the day and night especially in the winter. A thin layer of body fat means they easily lose heat in colder temperatures.
In February weasels will be working extra hard to keep this layer of body fat sufficient to achieve a healthy breeding condition in the spring.
Look out for them along the edges of grass meadows, hedges and gardens, anywhere that small mammals can be found. This is their favourite prey. The Whitby weasel was no doubt searching for mice in the holes of the stone wall.
The subject of our trip to Whitby that day was a very smart Desert Wheatear. These birds are rare in the UK. The nearest breeding population to the south of us is in Morocco and in the east Kazakhstan. Unfortunately after bringing pleasure to hundreds of visiting birders and photographers, the Desert Wheatear at Whitby Abbey vanished and in its usual place only tail feathers could be found this week, maybe it was snatched by a predator, maybe even the weasel we were watching!
Rare and scarce wildlife to look out for
In the third week of January birdwatchers are still enjoying the Hawfinches in both Brompton church yard and around Dog Kennel Lane in Thornton le Dale. Hopefully they will still be present during February.
A small influx of Bohemian Waxwings arrived in Scarborough during January so look out for them in towns or villages throughout East and North Yorkshire in the coming weeks.
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