January is the very core of winter; short cold days that all too often seem dreary and grey, punctuated with icy freezes. Despite the apparent bleakness of the month, the workings of spring are gradually gaining momentum, mostly under the surface. Above ground there is plenty to enjoy as well, if you know where to look.
Winter is all about survival for most wildlife, but some creatures will have sensed the lengthening days (it might not seem like they are getting longer yet but they are I promise!) and their minds are turning to other matters; chiefly, setting up territories, and courtship. It might seem crazy to be thinking about breeding when the conditions are still so harsh, but spring is fickle and summer short, so for some birds and animals it pays to get a head-start on the competition. Spend a few minutes in a garden on a fine sunny morning, or take a lunch-break stroll in a local park. You might be surprised by how much activity you can see and hear.
Robins may start singing even before Christmas, and as both male and female birds will sing to define their territories, you are almost guaranteed to hear one even on the coldest days of winter. Robins are also one of the few birds that sing during the night in our towns and cities, making use of the extra hours of activity made possible by the artificial street-lighting.
If you live in more rural regions, or are lucky enough to have a park or green-space near your area of town, which contains some mature trees, then January is the month to start listening for woodpeckers drumming. Woodpeckers feed by tapping and pecking the branches of trees and dead wood to extract insects from under the bark. At this time of year, the males also use their strong bill to hammer repeatedly on a resonant branch, creating a rapid drumming sound; a signal to other woodpeckers that this territory is taken, as well as a call to attract a mate. Woodpeckers are able to do this thanks to the cleverly adapted construction of their skulls, which contains a type of cushioning that prevents brain damage from the impact!
Whilst walking in your local park or woodland, you will almost certainly see another arboreal creature; the grey squirrel. Just like the woodpeckers, these cheeky inquisitive and clever animals start their courtship in January, although they take a more active approach! Potential mates will chase each other frantically through the trees, spiralling up or down trunks often at break-neck speeds. Squirrels are master climbers! Often it will be a female in the lead, with one, two, or even more males following, each competing to prove themselves stronger, faster and fitter than the others. It is a test of stamina and agility, but to us it simply looks like great fun.
But what about other life, that which cannot chase through the tree tops and beat out a rhythm on the branches? Even though January may seem the bleakest of months, look closely and you will find that the trees and plants are not all as sleepy as they first appear. Across the country, the appearance of the first spring flowers varies, with spring arriving earliest in the southwest, slowly spreading northwards.
In the middle of a city, where our homes and businesses generate a microclimate of relative warmth, or in the very south of the UK, you may find greenery emerging and plants in flower even as early as New Year.
(Around my Sussex home this is certainly true; I noticed the heart-shaped leaves of lesser celandine on the bank beside the bus stop on New Years Eve.)
Even in more northern regions, frost hardy plants such as snowdrops may begin to push up through frozen soil at this time. Snowdrops contain a form of antifreeze in their cells that means they can survive the worst of the changeable winter weather.
Another plant to look for now, is rather larger than a snowdrop! Hazel trees may start to develop catkins even as early as the autumn, and these will hang on the twigs and wait until the warmer weather appears, then carry on growing as soon as spring arrives.
The robins, woodpeckers and squirrels may be thinking about getting on with producing the next generation, but for some familiar characters it will be a number of weeks before they emerge into the spring sunshine, or rather, moonlight. Hedgehogs and bats should both still be hibernating through January, although in recent years climate change and intervals of unseasonable warmth has sometimes triggered them to emerge early. Unfortunately this can spell disaster, as temperatures are rarely consistently high enough at this time of year to tempt out the invertebrates that these mainly insectivorous mammals rely on for food, and so they can seriously struggle to replace the essential body fats used up over the winter period. Try to resist tidying up the garden too fastidiously for another month to avoid disturbing any hibernating hogs. This will also help those beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybirds that may be over-wintering in any hollow stems or dry foliage left standing in pots and flower borders.
For those animals, such as our garden birds, which do not hibernate, winter is a difficult time. Finding enough food and water is a daily challenge. You can help by putting out suitable bird feed, either loose or in a feeder, and keeping some fresh clean water ice free. (I will be publishing a blog later in the month full of tips for feeding birds, so watch out for that if you want to know more!)
If you already have bird feeders that are visited regularly, it is worth taking a moment to look more closely at the visitors, as in very cold weather more unusual characters are sometimes forced to make the trip into our gardens from the wider countryside in search of food. Redwings and fieldfares visit us from northern and eastern Europe and Scandinavia and are cousins of our resident blackbirds and song thrushes. Hawfinches and waxwings are much rarer and may cause quite a stir amongst the local birdwatching community!
Keeping a list of all the birds you see on your feeders or within your local park for example can be fascinating, and it is a great source of friendly competition with family members or neighbours!
So resist the urge to remain in a Christmas food stupor, make the most of the renewed energy of the New Year and get outside. Whether it’s helping wildlife in your own back garden, exploring your local green-space or the wider countryside, there is plenty to see and do…nature in January is not as quiet as you might think!