December should be a wintery month but the last couple of years have brought some unseasonably mild weather; it’s nice to have a little snow, just to make it feel like a proper winter. If you get a chance and you’ve never looked closely at snow, have a look at it with a magnifying glass. You will see that it is composed of lots of beautiful, tiny crystals – some are visible with the naked eye – and it is thought that no two are identical. (It would take several lifetimes to prove otherwise – there are billions!) A snow crystal starts off high in the sky as a minuscule grain of pollen or dust to which water sticks and freezes. As it falls through the clouds it passes through different levels of temperature and humidity which add branches and shapes to the ice. Because the crystals fall separately and at varied rates they all acquire distinct forms which are basically hexagonal due to the shape of water molecules.
They finally clump together and fall to earth as flakes of snow. An anthropologist, Franz Boas, who spent time living with and studying Eskimos, wrote that they have fifty words to describe different types of snow, so maybe that railway executive who blamed the disruption of trains on ‘the wrong kind of snow’ knew what he was talking about!
Frost is also composed of ice crystals and is formed on the ground, trees or objects when the temperature falls below the freezing point of water; it usually occurs on clear, still nights.
There are different types, such as ground frost and air frost, and if, like me, you were brought up in a house without central heating or double glazing, you may well remember window frost. This happens when the temperature outside is below freezing and the condensation on the inside of the window freezes into beautiful, fern-like patterns. Even though those mornings were bitterly cold, I loved this ‘window art’ when I was a child.
If there is one bird everyone in England knows it is the Robin – and the Budgie, of course, but he doesn’t belong in this diary. Robins are very much associated with winter and appear on numerous Christmas cards. They are often depicted with letters in their beaks which started in Victorian times because postmen used to wear red coats and became known as ‘Robins.’
In spite of its cute appearance the robin is a very aggressive bird and will defend its territory against any other robin unless it is its mate; if you see two robins tolerating each other in the same territory they will definitely be a pair. A young robin’s breast is not red but brown and speckled and, although this colouration will make it less visible to predators, it also stops it being attacked by the reigning adult because red means interloper; even a bunch of red feathers tied to a branch will be enough to promote an attack. (Not fair to do this, though). The Robin sings throughout the year, although it tends to be less in late summer when it is moulting. The singing is all about declaring territory and will be louder early in the year when it is trying to attract a mate.
Unlike many of our birds the British population of robins seems to remain stable, probably because, although they were originally woodland birds, they have been able to adapt to live in other green places, parks and gardens where they can find plenty of invertebrate food and, of course, visit bird tables. Some, however, migrate to warmer countries for the winter and some come to us from colder countries.
When courting the female the male will bring her food which she will beg for, imitating a young bird, opening her mouth and fluttering her wings; this behaviour reinforces the bond. The natural place for a robin to build a nest is in a hedge or a low growing shrub, often close to the ground but they do seem to like unnatural places as well. Plant pots and ledges in sheds, old kettles and even working tractors have all been used and nests have been found in jacket pockets. (Not while they are being worn, of course)! They will sometimes have 2 or 3 clutches a year, each with 5 to 7 eggs, off white with reddish-brown spots and streaks. (If you’ve seen ‘Robin’s Egg Blue’ on a paint chart, this refers to the American Robin which is not the same bird). The eggs are incubated by the female but both parents will feed the young. Robins are quite tame, especially when you are digging in the garden. They will watch as you work the soil and quickly pick up any grubs or worms you may turn up. This, I have to say, does not happen in certain other European countries where robins have learnt to be more reticent because, along with other small birds, they are shot for food. I wouldn’t say there is much meat on a robin so I suppose these people must have very poor appetites.
Another bird with red plumage that visits us in the winter is the Redwing. This thrush spends the summer months in Northern Europe and Asia, Iceland and some in the far north of Scotland. They often migrate at night in the company of other thrushes and you may be able to hear them when it’s quiet as they fly over making ‘peeping’ contact calls. The Redwing is our smallest thrush and is easily recognised by the orangey-red flanks and underwings and the creamy stripe over each eye. It often flocks with the larger thrushes, Fieldfares, and will visit gardens to help the blackbirds clear up all the windfall apples and strip the trees of berries; they also eat grubs, earthworms and insects. Although Redwings nest mainly in their summer quarters some do breed in northern Scotland, but the numbers vary from year to year; they favour conifer and birch forests and sometimes nest on the ground. A welcome winter visitor but they, along with other types of thrushes, do nick all those holly berries you were saving for Christmas!
If you can’t think of what to give someone for Christmas, why not a tree? I don’t mean hire a lorry to transport a mature oak to the front door of your chosen recipient, that probably wouldn’t go down very well. I was thinking more about the Woodland Trust who will plant a tree in the name of your friend or relative in one of their woods, chosen by yourself from their chart, and send a certificate with your message. If they visit the wood they will be guided to the area where their tree is planted. As I’ve written before, much of our ancient woodland has disappeared and by doing this you can help to replace those lost trees. Go to www.woodlandtrustshop.com or 0330 333 5310.
Here’s my Christmas card to you. This is Jasper, one of our pet sheep; he was hand reared as a lamb and bottle fed, so he thinks he is a person!
Things to do during December:
• Decorative winter wreaths – Winter wildfowl & waders – Boxing Day stroll – all at Cley Marshes.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Pink footed geese & breakfast – Snettisham. email@example.com or 01485 210779.
• Winter Robin Fun Run – Whitlingham Broad. firstname.lastname@example.org 01603 715191.
© Sheila Sims 2016