What To Look For In January 2024
Witches’ Butter, ant nests, apple snafflers, mistletoe hunting, and stars in the gutter.
Here’s the updated January 2024 guide for all Outdoor Citizens interested in the nature on their doorstep. (And sorry it’s a bit late - all this takes quite a bit of rounding up, as you can imagine, but all the wild and wonderful things you’ll find here will still be knocking about in early February too).
Please feel free to share with all your friends interested in this kind of thing.
Thanks again to Sorby Natural History Society, Sheffield Bird Study Group and several others for their help, and a special mention to photographers Andy Deighton, Roger Butterfield, Chris Kelly, Pete Brown and Gerry Firkins for yet more brilliant photos.
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There are still a few Waxwings around here and there, Hassop and Endcliffe Park, for example. But now’s the time we see visiting thrushes coming into town.
Fieldfares and Redwings (both members of the thrush family) are wintering here from Northern Europe now, but tend to steer away from people when they arrive in late autumn, as birds of those frozen forests are suspicious of us, until they learn we’re too busy peering at them through binoculars to try and eat them.
They all seem to like fruit, so look for trees with berries or around the fallen apples on the ground, which may also host a few grubs and slugs if they’re lucky.
If you have lots of Blackbirds in your garden just now, bear in mind some of them are migrants too, and may have been in Russia a few months ago.
Spring plants are starting to appear, including the tiny rosettes of Spring Whitlow Grass which botanist Gerry Firkins says are all over the city centre just now, looking like “stars in the gutter”, he says.
The plants develop small white flowers in a month or two, which are good for bees and insects. In the past this species was used to try and treat whitlow finger, an unpleasant rash caused by the herpes virus, hence the less than starry name.
Geese and Swans
Keep your eyes to the skies, as we’ll probably see skeins of geese, and maybe a few swans, crossing the city high above us this month.
Wind and heavy rain can cause pink-footed geese and swans to pause here for a day or so on their long January journeys back home to their northern breeding grounds - look for them on local lakes and reservoirs too.
Now most deciduous trees are leafless, it’s a good time to look out for mistletoe hanging from trees in parks, open woodland and even gardens. Mistletoe used to prefer south west England, but seems to be increasing in Sheffield, and is now growing from at least 25 trees across the city, including Beauchief, Millhouses, Norton, Nether Edge, Broomhall, Burngreave and Tinsley.
A tour of Mistletoe sites by Sorby Natural History Society late last year found 18 plants around the Beauchief area, usually on a hybrid Poplar or Common Lime.
Some have been planted on trees by gardeners, but often new growths of Mistletoe have been sown by birds eating the sticky berries, then wiping their beaks leaving the seeds stuck to the tree. Once growing, the ‘hemiparasitic’ mistletoe sucks some water and food from the host tree, but it can also photosynthesise from sunlight itself.
Venerated by many ancient traditions, the old British druids saw mistletoe as a sacred plant and cure for many ailments, but it’s now generally seen as poisonous to humans. Sorby Natural History Society say they’d like to hear from anyone who spots mistletoe growing in the Sheffield area: firstname.lastname@example.org
If we get any sun in the next few weeks, look out for sunbathing wood ants. Now the trees are bare, in the woods at Grenoside and Longshaw for example, it’s worth looking for large mounds of twigs on the ground, often a metre or two wide.
These are vast ant cities, and while the wood ants who built them generally stay inside to keep warm over the winter, a little sunlight can encourage some to venture out to warm themselves up ready for the spring. And if you fancy counting the nests you find, let the Sorby experts know: email@example.com
Our down to earth mycologist (literally, as you can tell by her photos) Chris Kelly has offered us several species of jelly fungus we might watch out for just now, also known by her fungus friends as ’wobblies.’ (Many look unnervingly like internal body parts, as per the Tripe Fungus above, named after a once popular offal delicacy.)
“We are now reaping the benefit of our countryside custodians such as the National Trust, Sheffield Council’s Parks and Countryside officers, and Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, who are recognising the importance of not tidying up our open spaces,” Chris says.
“They’re leaving rotting wood and log piles, which are so important for invertebrates and fungi. Here is where we are finding good numbers of the Jelly Fungi.”
The Jelly Ear, below, is one of the more common species in this group, and comes in various shades of pink, red or purple. It used to be found mainly on Elder, but has now colonised various species of dead or dying wood.
There’s the Yellow Brain Fungus (top of post), part of a small family including the Leafy Brain and Crystal Brain, so named for perhaps obvious reasons when you look at them.
And then there’s Witches Butter, confusingly applied to a few species (including the Yellow Brain), but the official Witches Butter, according to mycologists, is below.
The name, it seems, may be linked to the idea of witches’ familiars, like birds or cats, which are sent out to steal dairy goods for their owners, or even for their demonic friends. But when the animals eat too much themselves, they vomit the butter (or cheese etc.) out on the woodland floor after a night of devilish scavenging.
The official Witches Butter is on the right below, along with the equally weird but slightly more boringly named Beech Jelly Disc on the left.
Finally, just to make January and February exploring that little bit more challenging, Chris explains: “Quite a few of these Jelly Fungi expand or shrivel depending on available moisture, so can look quite different.”
Good luck out there. Do let us know in the comments about anything you find.
Thanks for reading. This year I’ll be updating the original posts of 2023 with a few new ideas and findings, with the help of all the marvellous experts who I called on over last year.
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