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.
In Search of Tawny Owls
I will never forget my first experience of showing a group a roosting tawny owl. I was 18 and working as a Countryside Ranger at a country park near Sedgefield in County Durham. I was a keen birder so I knew to listen for the aggressive sound of songbirds as they mob a roosting owl. I could hear blackbirds, chaffinches, blue tits and great tits chattering away in an old ivy-covered tree. I quietly ushered the group over as I scoured the branches for any sign of a plump brown owl. The sounds led me to the owl and sure enough there it was peering down at us. I was complimented with many great reviews from the visitors, I felt like a magician!
Tawny owls are our commonest owl. The UK population is estimated at around 50,000 pairs. However, they are also the only owl in the UK which hunts exclusively at night, making them one of the most difficult to see.
If you were a tawny owl looking for a safe and peaceful daytime roost, a place to hide from marauding songbirds you would seek out a dark corner hidden from view. That’s why ivy-covered old trees are a great place to look.
If you can’t find a warm and dark corner or ivy clad trees, it’s all about camo for tawnies. Look-out for them pressed up close to a tree trunk where they can blend with the colour of the bark.
We are used to British tawny owls being a rich warm brown, but in other parts of Europe the grey form is often dominant. Researchers in Finland found that as their winters become warmer with less snowfall, the brown form is becoming the dominant colour. Blending in with your surroundings may be the key here, the better your camouflage, the less likely you are to be predated by larger and more powerful birds of prey.
February is a key month in the life of a tawny owl. Their breeding season starts early; courtship is in full swing, the nest is built, and at the end of the month or in March, it’s time for the eggs to be laid. Tawny owls are monogamous and try to stay within their breeding territory for their entire life, but the average bird only lives for four years.
So, if you are keen to find a tawny owl, this is a great month to start looking, with no leaves on the trees the task may be easier. Listen out for the angry calls of small birds and carefully follow their sound trail. If you are really lucky you may even find the nest!
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