February brings ever increasing signs of life returning to our woods and trees. The forerunners of spring tease and tantalise the senses, lifting spirits and bringing a smile to all who admire them.
Trees/shrubs… The golden male catkins of the hazel tree begin to expand and release their pollen, which is carried on the wind to fertilise the red female stigmas. Distinctive wine-red alder catkins are a colourful sight. Later in the month buds should appear on apple trees and evergreen yew trees produce cream blooms. Find an elm and you may see their red flowers appearing. Pussy (or goat) willows are the first of the willows to flower, silky buds first appear which transform into catkins. This is often a good month for tree planting as the ground is warmer.
Plants… The beauty of delicate white snowdrop carpets is a stunning sight and heralds a new year of life. Primroses also make an early appearance. While the green leaves of dogs mercury, violet, ramsons and bluebells tentatively break through the soil. If you wish to plant some wildflowers this is a good time to prepare the ground. Mistletoe flowers from February to April, ensuring there are lots of berries for wildlife and humans next winter.
Fungi/lichens… Black witch’s butter sounds like an ingredient for a cauldron, but it is a jelly fungus that can be spotted all year round – especially on old lime and oak trees. Yellow brain fungus is another jelly-like fungus, it can be found all year on dead branches of deciduous trees. Lichens come in a range of forms: crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy) and fruticose (shrubby or beardy). Crustose lichens are the hardiest/commonest, while fruticose are the most delicate/rare.
Birds… Listen out for the impressive drumming display of great spotted woodpeckers claiming their territories. Nuthatches and treecreepers can often be seen darting up and down tree trunks, hunting out small insects from cracks in the bark.
Mammals… As the days continue to warm, hedgehogs may emerge from hibernation to seek much needed food. Badgers begin spring cleaning their setts this month, discarding old winter bedding and preparing for the new year.
Amphibians… Frogs usually begin mating in February, amazingly a single pair can produce 1000-4000 eggs, look out for their spawn in ponds. Woods can be excellent places for ponds. Trees filter out pollutants and buffer ponds and other water bodies within them from contaminated water, such as the run-off from farms. This means they are often cleaner than ponds in other terrestrial habitats.
Insects… There could be a smattering of butterfly species on the wing during warmer days. These include brimstone and peacock butterflies that hibernate over winter. Red admirals may also be seen; some individuals can survive here during mild winters, but they are strong flyers and each year many migrate to the UK from continental Europe. Mated female bumblebees come out of hibernation and busy themselves making a nest for this years brood.
Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser