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February 2014

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Sheila Sims
Primroses, Sheila Sims

Just as every month has a birthstone there are also birth flowers, and if you were born in February the Primrose is yours. Alternates are Violet and Iris but the Primrose seems to be the favourite. These beautiful little flowers start to come into bloom at the end of this month telling us that spring is on the way. There is something very cheerful about these plants and when we come across them we always have to stop and look.

Although this is usually a cold month we do sometimes get the odd sunny day and then the queen bumble bee will emerge from hibernation and start hunting for a nest site. She will be looking for a hole in the ground and will often take over a disused mouse burrow where she will make little pots from wax created by her own body. These will be storage places for nectar that will feed her during cold weather. She then moulds pollen into a ball on to which she lays her eggs; she has carried these through the winter after mating the previous summer. She keeps them warm by brooding them with her body in the same way as a bird. The first clutch will all hatch as female workers and their job is to provide the queen with food while she is busy raising more young. At the peak of summer these will be males and new queens which mate and then, as the year wears on, the workers and the males will die and the new queens will hibernate to start the cycle all over again.

Hedgehogs may also be awakened by warm days and this can be a dangerous time for them if it should suddenly turn cold again. There will be no food and many may starve, so if you see one wandering about, treat it to a plate of ‘Spike’s Dinner,’ a commercially produced food specially formulated for hedgehogs; tinned dog or cat food will do in emergencies. If your hog is wobbly and appears ill or underweight, it is best to take it to an animal rescue sanctuary where it will be looked after until it is well enough to be released.

Sheila Sims
Mallards, Sheila Sims

Male ducks, that have mostly been quite drab during the winter, will be coming into their breeding plumage and will be trying to impress the ladies on our broads, rivers and salt marshes. Avocet numbers are building up in readiness for the nesting season and they will be staking their claims for sites on sandbanks or grassy tussocks.

Robins have been singing for most of the winter and they will be increasing the length and volume of their songs, now, as they are already establishing their breeding territories. They can be very aggressive about this and will often attack rivals in quite a brutal way.

Look out for early moths in your garden; some of the first to emerge are the Orthosias. They have wonderful names – Clouded Drab, Hebrew Character and Common Quaker. When they pupated at the end of last summer, they immediately turned into adult moths but remained inside their chrysalises until a hint of warmth tells them it is time to fly. They will be looking for food and often feed on willow catkins to build up their energy, and then they will search for a mate.

If you are starting to tidy up your garden after the winter, try not to be too fussy. Leave some dead wood for wood-boring beetles and their larvae, and other insects, such as woodlice and earwigs which like to rest under the bark. Piles of stones or old roof tiles make ideal shelters for frogs, toads and newts if they are sited in cool, moist places. Solitary bees like sunny spots and a bundle of hollow stems tied together will provide good places for them to lay their eggs. They will repay you by helping to pollinate your flowers and vegetables.

A little warmth in the air will bring frogs out of hibernation and like everything else at this time of year, they will have one thing on their mind – reproduction. If possible they will head for the place where they themselves were born and go courting, which makes me wonder whether this results in a lot of interbreeding as they will meet up with their brothers and sisters who will be about the same task.

Common frog 
Joan Dixon
Common frog, Joan Dixon

Although the one you are most likely to see is called the Common Frog, it is definitely not as common as it used to be. There is a virus known as ‘Red Leg,’ because affected animals’ legs become reddish in colour, which results in death. Also many natural ponds have been filled in and ditches removed, meaning a loss of breeding sites, and the increasing use of insecticides in agriculture and gardens means that froggy food is not as plentiful as before. This makes your wildlife pond and insect homes more valuable than ever so that these animals, and many more, can continue to survive.

With the start of the breeding season the male frog begins to croak to attract a mate and declare territorial rights. The male has slightly larger feet than the female, with rough pads on his thumbs, to help him hold tightly on to his mate which he may do for days or even weeks. Once she has laid her eggs, possibly up to 2000, he will immediately fertilise them and the jelly surrounding them will swell and rise to the surface. This is when we see the familiar frogspawn and we can observe the little tadpoles as they develop, the jelly providing their nutrition. After two to four weeks the tadpoles hatch out and at this stage, like fish, they obtain their oxygen from the water through gills, one on either side of the body just behind the head. Speaking of which, if you have fish in your pond your tadpoles will soon disappear! They now feed on tiny water plants and at about seven weeks old the hind legs start to appear but the front ones, although formed, will stay covered in skin. These will emerge in another three weeks and the tail will start to be adsorbed into the body. The gills disappear, lungs develop and your tadpoles become tiny froglets which then leave the water and start to feed on insects, little worms and slugs. Frogs are also able to breathe through their skin which enables them to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of your pond when winter arrives.

The only other native species of frog is the Pool Frog which was only found in Norfolk. It was thought to be extinct in Britain but reintroduction projects are under way. There are also some foreign species that have established themselves in this country.

Oh, and .. er .. that thing about him turning into a handsome prince if you kiss him, well … erm … it doesn’t work.
Activities this month include:-
• Talk on reptiles & amphibians – Dereham.
• Guided walks – Thorpe Marshes.
• Talk on Norfolk’s Bumble Bees – Ingham Village Hall.
• Raptors coming in to roost – Stubb Mill, Hickling.
For details contact or call 01603 625540.

© Sheila Sims 2014