February brings welcome signs of spring with primroses, snowdrops and daffodils, the sounds of birds singing and cock pheasants sparring.
The pheasants started their performances some weeks ago with loud crowing and whirring wings as they size each other up and vie for territory and females.
Woodpeckers will soon start drumming on trees with their beaks to claim their territories; some have been known to do it on metal posts which makes quite a racket! It is very powerful and fast but the birds avoid getting concussed by having specially adapted throat bones and muscles, also thick, spongy skulls which act as shock absorbers.
This rapid drumming is different from the sound made when they are feeding which is a series of taps as they peck at the bark in search of insects. We have three kinds of woodpeckers in Britain, all occurring in Norfolk; the Great spotted, the Lesser spotted and the Green. The Great spotted is the most common and, although essentially a woodland bird, can be seen in parks and orchards and will visit garden feeders. Both sexes have stunning black and white plumage with red bottoms but the male has a red nape which is absent on the female; a juvenile bird will have a completely red crown which disappears as it matures. The Lesser spotted is not very common but has been recorded in Norfolk at several places, including Holkam Hall Park and Thetford Forest. This is a much smaller bird than his cousin, about the size of a sparrow and has similar plumage but lacks the red bottom, having a completely white underside and the male has a red crown.
The Green woodpecker is an entirely different looking bird, pigeon sized with olive green plumage, a red crown and will show a yellow rump when flying. The male has a red moustache stripe while the female’s is black and juveniles have spotted undersides. Greens eat insects and can often be seen on the ground searching for their favourite food, ants and their larvae. They don’t do as much drumming as the other two but use their laughing voice to advertise their presence. The Great spotted also hunts insects but eats seeds and fruit as well and will sometimes take the nestlings of small birds. The Lesser spotted is mainly insectivorous but will also eat seeds, especially in the winter. Woodpeckers have very long tongues which curl back under the skin of their heads and over the skull when not in use for exploring insect tunnels in ant hills and tree trunks. All three birds nest in holes in trees and they will either create these from scratch or use existing ones which they will enlarge, if necessary, with their very sharp beaks. Their tail feathers are stiff and pointed and act as props and stabilisers when climbing up trees.
Many birds like to line their nests with soft material so that the young will be warm and comfortable and one that is often used is moss. Mosses grow everywhere in all sorts of conditions and there are hundreds of species but we often overlook them because, although tall ones do exist in the world, in Britain they are mainly low growing plants. Yes, they are plants even though they don’t conform to our general idea of what plants look like and they provide habitats for new seedlings, a great variety of invertebrates including snails and slugs, mites and spiders and the larvae of flies. When conditions are wet moss will soak up water like a sponge and many tiny aquatic-loving creatures make their homes there.
Some mosses cannot reproduce without water because the sperm from a male plant can only reach a female by swimming. Once fertilised the female moss will produce spores, as with ferns and fungi, and these are often contained in little capsules on the end of hair-like stalks which you may notice growing out of a cushion of moss. When they have matured the spores will be released and carried by the wind to new growing places; some types of moss attract insects and other invertebrates to help them with reproduction. They are fascinating plants and some botanists become obsessed with them. I met a man in Costa Rica who was a moss specialist for a museum and he was collecting samples in a very enthusiastic way. His wife told me that, when travelling, they always had to leave things behind for the homeward journey to make room in their baggage for all the moss! He must have had a special licence as customs officers are not very happy about alien plants coming into the country.
Try not to be too tidy when preparing your garden for the spring. Log piles and rotting wood provide homes for all sorts of wildlife including newts, toads, hedgehogs, beetles and many other invertebrates. Birds are getting ready to breed and they will appreciate it if you leave some dead leaves and twigs which they will use as nesting material and after grooming your hairy dog put the combed out fur in your garden; as with moss it will be used to line the bottom of the nest. Be careful with long hair, though, as this can sometimes get caught around the chicks’ legs, although many birds do use wool from sheep, which often has long fibres, so we must assume they know what they are doing.
In last month’s diary I mentioned the fact that deer change colour for the winter, which prompted Diane, from Dereham, to email me to say that she has seen photos of stoats in the highlands of Scotland that become white during the colder months and recently a white pheasant has been visiting her garden to pick up seeds that drop from her bird feeders. She is wondering if this bird has also changed for the winter and asks if it will revert to normal colouration when the spring comes. In fact, white pheasants are born without colour and will stay white for all their lives. This is due to a genetic mutation and they will either be albino or leucistic, more likely the latter as this is much more common. A true albino is completely white with red eyes, whereas a leucistic animal has dark eyes and varies from being a paler version of the normal colour to all white. One British bird that does turn white for the winter is the Ptarmigan, a grouse type bird that lives in a northerly habitat where there are heavy snowfalls. Like the Scottish stoat and the mountain hare, which also changes to white in the winter, it is a product of natural selection. In the past those that turned white in snowy conditions stood a much better chance of survival, either as hunters or the hunted, as they would have been more camouflaged than those that retained their summer colouration. They would have lived to breed and pass on the ability to change their colour to their offspring, ensuring survival of the fittest. Diane’s pheasant, unfortunately, probably will not have a long life as its white plumage will make it an easy target for a predator. I have never seen a white stoat, called ermine when in its winter coat, but I have seen a leucistic one in Norfolk. This was grey rather than the usual chestnut red and had the characteristic black tip to the tail. I have not found any record of similar colouration in stoats and would love to hear from you if you know of another example.
Activities this month include:
Goshawk & other Breckland specialities
(including the Lesser spotted woodpecker.)
wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
Visit to Ouse Washes RSPB reserve – Robin Parker 01328 864399.
Natural selection & a coastal stroll – Cley Marshes
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2016. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org