What To Look For In February
Hungry migrants, noisy Rooks, dozy ladybirds, elf cups, snowdrops, the return of the Lapwing, and oyster eaters arrive in Sheffield.
Our reader’s guide to the wildlife and plants to look out for around the Outdoor City in a blustery February. Thanks to members of Sorby Natural History Society, the RSPB Sheffield Group and Sheffield Bird Study Group for their expertise.
For us, February might just be the hopeful end of winter, but for birds in particular, February is the beginning of a new year. Birds living in Sheffield all year round know they need to get going now if they want to raise a brood (or two) of chicks before the end of summer, while winter migrants to the city are congregating on lakes and reservoirs or snaffling through our remaining berry crops before heading back north.
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Rooks and Crows who’ve been streaming at dusk to huge roost sites over winter (in Ecclesall Woods for example) are now starting to rebuild their nests and think about breeding.
You’ll soon see large grey-beaked Rooks (the related Carrion Crow is an all-black) balancing sticks in their beaks on their way to their local rookery, which in coming weeks will get very busy, and extremely noisy for anyone who lives underneath one.
Redwings and Fieldfares, migrant winter thrushes that arrived here last autumn, will be stripping entire bushes of their berries as they carb-load ready to head back over the North Sea. And our native Song and Mistle Thrushes like to nest early, so they’ll start singing for you and their mates this month in local parks and gardens.
Less obvious February finds are huddles of ladybirds who will still be hiding from the winter in sheltered corners, maybe even in your cellar or garden shed. During February, they should start to come out of their particular type of hibernation, known as diapause, a kind of suspended development.
They often take advantage of our central heating to remain active for that little bit longer in early winter before their suspended development, and as things start to warm up outside, they’ll gradually become more lively again and begin their hunt for food and mates.
Another less obvious but very striking find is the bright red fruiting body of the Elfcup fungus, which should start to appear, if the weather is fairly mild and damp. Elfcups are usually found in damp, shady woods where they grow out of the moss on fallen twigs and branches.
The two very similar species (Scarlet Elfcup and Ruby Elfcup) appear as splashes of red in dark woodlands before the first wild flowers appear, and were said in the past to be the cups where wood elves drank their morning dew.
Look for them in the Rivelin, Porter and Loxley Valleys, New Hall Wood at Stocksbridge and other damp, dark woodlands, but don’t disturb the elves.
This month wading birds start to make their way back to their breeding grounds, across the Peak District, on the edges of Sheffield, and further north within the UK and beyond. Waders are often at their most visible now, as they often congregate in flocks prior to the breeding season, where they will start to grow bold or cryptic breeding plumage irresistible to their prospective mates, they hope.
Amongst the earliest arrivals to look for here are Lapwings, which will soon begin their manic and acrobatic displays over areas of farmland. Lapwings disappeared for many years on the edges of Sheffield, but are now returning, along with a relatively recent colonist of the Sheffield area, the Oystercatcher, which was named after its coastal diet (but it settles for worms round here).
Both have obvious black and white plumage, and loud piping calls - the Lapwing’s alternative name is Peewit, after the sound it will soon be making, all being well, above some of our local farms and fields.
Not really a native flower, snowdrops were brought to Britain several hundred years ago, and were planted in country houses like Chatsworth and Clumber Park, and Brodsworth, Hardwick and Renishaw Halls, and they should arrive soon too in Crookes Valley Park and the Botanical Gardens, and many local churchyards.
You might see drifts of them along the roadside on some country lanes, where they were either deliberately planted, or arrived as bulbs in fly-tipped garden waste, and they may also pop up as reminders of the winter work of gardeners of the past, in long-abandoned allotments.
Some bird species, Blue Tits, for example, are already beginning to check out nesting sites and local nest boxes, and they might soon start collecting building material. (Sorby Natural History Society tell me there is evidence suggesting that some birds are beginning their nesting season earlier due to climate change).
Comings and Goings
Greylag Geese will be making their way over the city back to Iceland from their wintering grounds in Norfolk, and millions of small birds from the different warbler families will this month begin their journey north from their winter homes in Africa and the Mediterranean to their breeding sites in Europe and the UK.
While we sit indoors watching the weather, says one local birder, spare a thought for the busy weeks that lie ahead for these tiny birds preparing to fly to Sheffield from hundreds of miles away.
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