The first days of February are the time of Imbolc or ‘the first showing’, the start of spring in Celtic and pagan calendars. Just four short weeks into the New Year, and already the season is progressing from late winter, into a semi-spring. It is a fickle season when there is still a likelihood of frost and snow even in southern parts, and spring is really little more than a rumour. But it is a rumour that is believable; day length is noticeably longer, and there are subtle signs all around of nature waking up and getting ready for the Great Race that is the breeding season.
January is a hard month; all too often full of self-and-society-made pressures disguised as positive resolutions, post Christmas/New Year financial tightening, and depleted levels of vitamin D and serotonin compounded by days of dreary weather. When February comes however, there are usually enough signs that point towards better days to come to begin to lift our moods and convince us to get back outside into our gardens, parks, streets, allotments and countryside.
Don’t believe me? Well there are the spring bulbs for a start… if yourself or perhaps your neighbours planted bulbs in window boxes, pots or garden borders in the autumn, the green shoots of these will be bursting through now. Some, such as snowdrops and crocus, will be beginning to bloom. Pop outside when you finish reading here, wander along your street and take a look.
Whilst you are out, keep your ears open as well as your eyes and you might hear a familiar bird. The Great Tits are calling now, sounding a lot like they are shouting ‘tea-cher tea-cher’ over and over again, or squeaking like a bicycle pump. Song Thrushes are another strong performer at this time of year, and you may also hear the Dunnock which always sounds like it’s forgotten the rest of it’s words!
Somebody who also appreciates the early bulbs such as crocuses, other than ourselves, are the first bumblebees that may start to emerge this month on warm days. The first bumbles to be seen in the spring will be the large queens. They will have mated in the autumn and hibernated over the winter, and now, hungry and cold they need to feast off the spring nectar and warm up in the sunshine, so they can set about finding a nest site and starting this years colonies.
Other beneficial flowers are winter heathers, Hellebore, Winter Aconite and any early examples of Violets, Primroses, Lungwort and tree blossom.
Beyond our gardens, the woodlands and path-side banks are becoming increasingly green as the fresh leaves of many herbaceous wildflowers are shooting through the brown blanket of winter debris. The frilly leaves of Cow Parsley promise froths of white flowers to come, and the green spikes of Bluebells can also be seen now. Look for the arrow shaped leaves of Wild Arum unfurling, and bright gold star shaped flowers of Lesser Celandine, which open in the sun and close in the dull shade.
The trees themselves are still skeletal in February, many of them will not burst into leaf until next month, but that doesn’t stop the Rooks and Grey Herons returning to their nests. Both birds nest in large gatherings, high in the treetops, in large nests built from sticks. Although the Rooks look more suited to high-rise life than the larger long-legged heron! Both birds return to the same woodland citadels each year in early spring, re-affirming their pair bonds and repairing nests damaged by winter winds. You’ll probably hear them before you see them, particularly as the season moves on and they fiercely protect their spot from the neighbours!
Herons of course are water birds, and you are just as likely to see one standing motionless, sharp dagger-like bill poised, watching the water of a lake or slow river for fish or frogs.
Not that the frogs will be paying much attention; their mind is on very different matters… mating! Frogs and toads will return to the very same pond from which they hatched, to spawn. If you are lucky to have a popular breeding spot near you, you might find hundreds gather in a mass of wriggling croaking amphibian orgy!
Frogspawn forms clumps of jelly-like eggs, whilst toad spawn is laid in single strings of eggs. (Newts tend to lay eggs individually, often rolled in the leaf of a water plant!) A big hazard for toads is traffic, when they are forced to migrate across roads to reach their traditional breeding grounds.
(Look our for my blog post on Friday 16th February for all my top tips on building your own wildlife pond!)
If the recent rains or snow have made it rather too soggy underfoot to visit local ponds or woodlands, my next favourite place to head in February is out to the coast. The beach isn’t just for summer! Particularly high tides as a result of the close orbit of the full or new moon, and the aftermath of winter storms, can wash all sorts of interesting things onto the beach. You might find driftwood, sea-glass, (a message in a bottle?), even the egg cases of sharks and rays. These are known as mermaids’ purses and recording their locations is a huge help to the conservation efforts to protect these amazing fish.
Find out more here: https://www.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_hunt
It is not advised to remove shells and or large numbers of pebbles from beaches, as these are part of the natural ecosystem and structure of the beach. What you can remove however is litter – an unimaginable amount of rubbish, mostly plastic, washes up on our beaches every day and poses a massive danger to our marine environment. Find out how you can help here: https://beachclean.net
(Sorry to nag but…Remember to always check your local tide times and respect the water – for all its beauty the coast can be a dangerous place. Never go near the water in stormy weather. Also keep a close eye on dogs if walking on the beach, and never let them eat anything they find for risk of poisoning by toxic chemicals such as palm oil.)
What to do if you find marine animals washed up on the beach: http://www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/if-you-find-a-stranding/
If it is coastal birdlife you are keen to witness, head to the estuary where ducks, geese and waders will still be gathered in significant numbers before heading off to their summer breeding grounds. If you are lucky, you might even spot a hunting Peregrine Falcon – the fasted bird on earth!
Back at home, February is the time to finish tidying the garden if you have been putting it off over winter, and the last chance to trim hedges before the nesting season (although spare a thought for spring blossom). Some birds such as Blue Tits will even be prospecting nest boxes already!
There is so much happening in February, and so much more to come!