Wild Devon: will you spot these five in February?
PUBLISHED: 13:44 05 February 2016 | UPDATED: 08:48 08 March 2016
Naturalist Tom Rhys Williams suggests five signs of spring to watch out for in Devon this month
It’s the end of the working day and as I sit down to write this, I am aware of a faint turquoise hue on the horizon that was not there last week: certainly not at this hour. The days are stretching out and so joining January’s pioneers; more harbingers of spring are coming thick and fast. They seem endless and come in many different guises. Here’s just a taster.
Frog’s spawn is appearing in ponds and lakes all around us. Having dug out my own pond last autumn, I am stupidly excited by the translucent speckled spheres of potential that were left in my pond last night. Some frogs are less fussy and use ditches. I even heard this week of spawn on Exmoor that had been deposited by the bucket load in the flooded depressions left by a tractor. The amphibians give us the window to watch incredible stages of development that are well and truly hidden in other vertebrates. To witness the little black specks turning into wriggling tadpoles that then in turn sprout legs is just insane when you think about it.
Black headed gulls
Black-headed gulls are found all around Devon coasts. They are a much smaller gull than the herring gull and could be called dainty or even pretty. Through February they will start to live up to their name. A smudge of charcoal feathers just behind the eye will recruit those white feathers around it till breeding plumage is restored. They favour estuaries and where shellfish are abundant, their call can give way to the clicking sound of falling mussels. Like some crows, these intelligent birds have learned how to open up these tasty bivalves. They take short vertical flights, dropping their prize onto the rocks below. Crow Point and Instow are cracking places to see this.
Lesser celandine is a common woodland plant that is also abundant in hedgerows, on roadsides and gardens. Its flower is a bright yellow glossy one; the same colour as a buttercup to which it’s related, but the daisy-like flower is more attractive. It grows up from club shaped tubers that store the plant’s energy from one year to the next. These are edible if cooked. Should the soil be disturbed around them, the bunched tubers readily split up and clones of this plant are spread everywhere.
Back when wild boars were found throughout our woods turning over soil, it would have been an excellent dispersal device. For this reason you will also see it described as one of the garden’s most troublesome weeds. My garden is full of the stuff but I’ve never had the urge to shift it. I’ll always be fond of this little burst of sunshine on a drab February day.
Badger setts are starting to stir after a quiet winter. They do not hibernate but keep their heads down and do ‘just enough’ for a month or two. February is when most badger cubs are born. They will be tiny, helpless little animals entirely dependent on their mothers. We won’t catch a glimpse of these till late spring but they’re down there!
Badger setts can be huge and they are easy to spot once you get your eye in. Wooded slopes are favourite sites. The soil is typically undulating reflecting the earth shifted by these industrious animals. Look out for holes around a foot or more in diameter and if you find a few of these close together you have most likely discovered a sett.
Only one or two holes will be used at any one time and these give themselves away with freshly dug earth and paw prints outside. You may spot vegetation strewn around them. To prepare for the new-borns, badgers will have cleared out the stale bedding they overwintered with and taken in fresh. To watch them do this is comical. Shuffling backwards, they drag in the bedding with their front paws in jerky motions.
Greater spotted woodpeckers
Greater spotted woodpeckers are a favourite bird of mine. What’s not to love? They are stunning birds with striking contrast between blocks of black and white and if that wasn’t enough, chuck in a splash of crimson.
Male birds have a red spot on the back of the neck and both sexes have red around the vent. They will still be making forays into Devon gardens where fat feeders and peanuts have enticed them in through the winter. To spot this bird is always pleasing but it’s their first February drumming that always has me smiling ear to ear.
The male bird drums as only a woodpecker can onto dead wood high in the tree. It’s the sound of winter loosening its grip. You can almost imagine the reverberations shaking the chill off the bare branches. You can hear this all over Devon but my favourite place to go is an ancient oak tree growing in a hedgerow just outside Chapelton. The tree is an absolute belter and there’s a drummer there every year.
Tom Williams is a naturalist living on the north Devon coast just outside of Barnstaple. When he’s not working as a veterinary surgeon, he’s exploring the stunning Devon countryside on his doorstep.