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 their pointers, updated for 2016, on what else to look out for this month.
It’s hard to imagine snow and ice during a mild winter, despite a recent cold spell, this winter is breaking all records for higher temperatures. A reporter from Kent recorded 18° on 24 January 2016! When temperatures stay high it’s bad for some birds but good for others as more resident birds are able to survive the winter. Kingfishers and barn owls are particularly susceptible to very cold weather. If you want to see kingfishers in North Yorkshire try the rock pools at Scalby near the SEA LIFE Sanctuary.
February is the first month of the breeding year for barn owls. Look out for their pellets which are typically 30-70 mm long, round or cylindrical, blunt at both ends and densely compressed. They are smooth and glossy black when fresh fading to a dark grey, often covered in a thick black crust, and can be found at roost sites such as old buildings, nest boxes, bird hides, and holes between hay bales or trees which offer sufficient shelter.
In order to avoid unnecessary disturbance it is however best to avoid approaching roost sites unless you know the bird is not present, and even then to stay the shortest time possible. Remember that it is illegal to disturb nesting barn owls.
When a barn owl drops onto prey, often it’s a field vole but many other small prey items are taken such as common shrews. A shrew's size shrinks in winter including the brain and the skull. This is a great survival strategy requiring less food to live through the toughest time of year. Another fantastic adaptation is a gland secreting a foul smell from the skin which deters predators such as cats or owls. Their secretive behaviour means it’s often difficult to see them, even more amazing when you consider they are Britain’s second most common mammal.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when you were as likely to see a goldfinch caged in a parlour as flying freely round the countryside. Such was the case however in the late 1800s, when the European fashion for keeping songbirds was at its height. But owning a living musical box was not enough: the birds were taught to be circus performers too, amusing their jailers by hauling up their own drinking water by a thread attached to a tiny bucket.
Such indulgences had a serious impact on numbers of goldfinches in the countryside, just as some species of parrot are endangered by the caged bird trade today. Happily goldfinches no longer have to suffer these restraints and flocks feeding on weed seeds, which their sharply-pointed bills are adapted to pick out, are a common sight. The goldfinch is so frequently seen on thistles that the Anglo-Saxons knew it as the Thisteltuige, ‘thistle-tweaker’. A flock of goldfinches, calling in unison with silvery voices, is still known as a ‘charm’ from the old word for a chanted spell.
Goldfinches can be seen in our gardens but for the next finch to look out for in February we have to go deep into the forests! The common crossbill belongs to a unique family of song birds with specially designed bills for extracting pine seeds. But the story of this amazing bird doesn't stop at its bill. They are highly adaptive to a changing environment. They have the ability to breed at any time of year when food availability, weather, competition or predation, favours reproduction. Good places to look out for crossbills are the forests in the North York Moors National Park, and mixed woodlands with lots of pine and/or spruce such as Skipwith or Allerthorpe Common near York.
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