Winter brings many visiting birds to Britain and one that we may see on our feeders and in beech woods, where they feed on the mast, is the Bramble finch, also called the Brambling. Most of the birds are from Scandinavia but some may come from as far away as Siberia. They often flock with Chaffinches and in some ways look rather similar but a close look will tell you the difference. Although they are about the same size, the breast of the Bramble finch is orange, the beak yellow and he has a white rump which is very obvious in flight. The male Chaffinch has a pinkish breast, a blue-grey head and a darker beak; the female is much drabber. Another finch that may come to our feeders is the Siskin. This can be confused with the Greenfinch but is smaller and has beautiful green, yellow and black plumage. During the winter numbers are boosted by birds from the continent.
Visiting thrushes, Fieldfares, Redwings and Mistle thrushes, also arrive in the winter to feed on berries and fruit and they will join the Blackbirds to feast on your windfall apples – if they’re allowed to, that is, Blackbirds can be quite aggressive.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which monitors water birds that over-winter in Britain, has reported a decline in Bewick’s swans. Many of these beautiful birds spend the winter in our Norfolk Broads and marshes but since 1995, when around 29,000 arrived in the U.K., there has been a dramatic reduction in numbers, down to as little as 18,000; as always, there could be several reasons for this. Deaths along their migration route, from the breeding ground in Arctic Russia, result from illegal hunting, collision with wind farms and power lines and possible lead poisoning from eating shot gun pellets and fishing weights which the swans mistake for food. Also, fewer young are being produced, which maybe down to climate change; studies are ongoing.
Another creature which is in the air this month is the Winter moth. It is attracted to the light from your windows and you will see it in the headlights while driving at night; this is the male, the female is virtually wingless and cannot fly. Both sexes start to emerge from the soil in late November and continue to do so throughout December. The female will head to the base of a tree and start to climb; she then releases pheromones to attract the male. After they have mated she will deposit her eggs on the trunk and the branches of the tree, under lichen or in the bark crevices; oak, maple and apple are often the hosts but she will use many different trees. The tiny green caterpillars hatch from March onwards, depending upon which tree the eggs were laid; they seem to be able to time their emergence to coincide with bud-swell, when they can easily gain access to the developing leaves. They also have a quick and effortless way to find higher branches and other trees, and they achieve this by a process known as ballooning. The caterpillar will suspend itself from a single silken thread and be carried on air currents to new feeding places. Clever! But Great tits and Blue tits are also clever, because they time the hatching of their own eggs to coincide with the emergence of these, and other green caterpillars, which are the main source of food for the new chicks. In late May, or early June, the Winter moth caterpillar will drop to the ground, spin a cocoon and pupate in the soil to await the winter when the cycle will start all over again. These insects are certainly pests for fruit growers as they can cause a great deal of damage to the trees but I like to see them flying on a December night, a reminder that whatever the weather life goes on.
There may be good news for other trees which have sustained damage by disease. Oaks, Ashes and Horse Chestnuts have responded to trials being carried out with allicin, a substance found in garlic. A concentrated solution has been injected into the circulatory sap system of infected trees with hopeful results, and although, at the moment, it is too expensive and impractical to treat entire woodlands, it may be possible to save individual ancient trees and valued specimens. Another experiment involving a tree is one being studied at Cambridge University. Clippings from Yew hedges are being used to develop a drug to help fight leukaemia and other cancers.
Trees will be on our minds towards the end of this month when we head to the garden centre to buy our Christmas trees. But oh, those needles! Clogging up the vacuum cleaner, sticking in the dog’s coat and still turning up in corners in August! Things will not be as bad if you select a pine or fir, which do not shed their needles nearly as quickly as the traditional Norway spruce. Although Queen Charlotte, wife of George lll, liked to have a tree at Christmas, which was the custom in her native Germany, the practice did not take off in this country until Victorian times. The Queen’s husband Albert, also from Germany, imported a tree and a picture of the family around it, on the front of ‘The London Illustrated News’, sparked the British tradition. When I’m decorating our tree I always think of a little cat we used to have called Monty. He loved to help; all those dangly, spangly things were irresistible!
Along with the tree and the holly, another plant that we bring into our homes at Christmas is Mistletoe. This is an interesting plant because it is parasitic on others. The type that occurs in Britain is only partly so because, although it needs trees to survive, and sends roots into the branch to extract water and nutrients, it is capable of photosynthesis and therefore provides some of its own energy. It tends to favour trees in an open situation that have plenty of light, rather than those in thick woodland or forest. Apple trees in orchards or gardens, roadside Poplars, Limes and Hawthorns often play host to Mistletoe. How does it get up there? The white berries are very attractive to some birds and when feeding their beaks get coated with the sticky substance that surrounds the seeds. The bird will try to get rid of this by wiping its beak on a branch and in the process deposits the seeds which take root in a crevice and proceed to grow; some pass through the bird and are excreted on to the tree. Mistletoe, as we all know, is associated with love and this is said to have originated in ancient Scandinavia. If you encountered an enemy, while under a tree bearing the plant, it was the custom to lay down your weapons until the next day; another myth concerns the Norse goddess, Frigga. When her son Baldur was born she made every object, animal and plant swear never to harm him but, for some reason, she overlooked Mistletoe. A baddy God arranged for Baldur to be killed with a spear made from Mistletoe and the white berries, we’re told, represent Frigga’s tears. After this it was decreed that the plant should bring no more sadness but represent love instead, so two people passing underneath must exchange kisses. How lovely! (Well, not for Baldur!)
Here is my Christmas card to you; I’m rather relieved that these do not crop up in Norfolk! Michael took the photo in the Arctic, where we went in September.
Activities for this month include:-
• Guided walks at Cley & Thorpe marshes.
• Flock following at Abbey Farm.
• Visit to Holme Dune Reserve.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Pink footed geese at Snettisham. firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 542689.
• Fabulous wildlife at Titchwell. email@example.com or 01485 210779.
© Sheila Sims 2014