Nature Notes – February 2018

Early birdsong includes my favourite, the Mistle Thrush. True to form, one was singing loudly at Dernford on New Year’s Day. These birds often sing early in the year, and famously even in periods of bad or windy weather. Listen for a very loud, far carrying, song with clear ringing notes, sounding not unlike a Blackbird but with shorter phrases. For extra impact it is usually delivered from high in a tall tree. (Several people have reminded me that there have also been Songthrushes singing, even shorter phrases each clearly repeated several times.) The Mistle Thrush breeding season is surprisingly early, with nesting commencing as early as February. I have talked before about Mistle Thrushes in winter defending berries, in particular on Holly trees, but also on Mistletoe. I saw this for the first time in Benhall, along Mitford Road where there are many large clumps of Mistletoe high up in the trees. A Mistle Thrush was fiercely engaged in driving off another bird (another Mistle Thrush in fact, but they chase off all the thrushes, and indeed any other bird trying to eat the berries in their territory). You can see conspicuous Mistletoe clumps in a number of other places – Friday Street and the surroundings of Ipswich Hospital come to mind. It is commonest on Lime trees, or Poplar as in a few trees in Sweffling, as well as being well known on Apple trees in some older orchards.

The Tawny Owl is probably the commonest owl in the valley, and can be heard at night all through the year. Despite the fact that one sometimes calls from the big oak tree close to our house, I find that I very seldom see them. We did see one from the car at night, in early January along the Glemham Road. Although the Tawny’s underparts are streaked dark brown, lit up by the car’s headlights they can sometimes look quite pale, as this one did, making it possible to confuse with a Barn Owl. Barn Owls are seen more frequently along the roadside, as this is one of their hunting grounds, and they start to hunt earlier in the evening. They are even whiter, with much longer wings than the Tawny.

We have been looking out for Redpolls on the bird feeders, and by the middle of January two of these tiny finches were once again here. There are still only three so far, but in some years they have built up in numbers later in the winter. They are almost always on the feeder supplied with the small, black Niger seed, which is so attractive to Goldfinches. At the moment they are brown, with just a small patch of brilliant crimson on the forehead, but as spring brings on their breeding colours, the breasts of the males will become increasingly pink.

In winter I have often referred to the catkins of Hazel, the familiar ‘Lambs’ Tails’ as a sign of spring to look out for. This year I am too late – the dangling, bright yellow catkins have been showing since early January, presumably for reasons of weather. Hazel is common in the hedges in our area, but trimming may reduce the show so that it is less conspicuous. The problem with early flowering is that the pollen from the catkins, blown by wind, needs to find the minute red stars which are the female flowers (and from which the Hazelnuts develop). I haven’t seen any of these yet, but they are extremely difficult to spot. Compare other catkins, those of the Alder trees along the river, which are larger and redder than the Hazel and which develop a little later. Their pollen fertilises tiny fruits which develop into the pinecone-like structures so distinctive of Alder, and whose seeds are so important as natural food for Redpolls, Goldfinches and Siskins about now. 

Geoffrey Abbott