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Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for February 2021 as well as the December Nature Quiz Answers. Click on each photo to see a larger photo on a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic see the links below.


Native Hazel Tree

February can be a rather drab month, best known for being thankfully short, as we move towards the end of the winter season.

Amongst the stark, bare branches of most of our trees, one real delight of February is seeing catkins, particularly evident on hazel, birch and alder trees. Catkins are the male flowers of these trees, which bloom early, designed to be pollinated by wind not insects. They are sometimes called lambs tails, and contain masses of microscopic pollen within their scales.

The earliest catkins are on hazel trees, dangling down in small clusters, flowers with no petals as such, but laden with pollen that is released in yellow puffs when the wind blows through the branches. These are easier to see than the tiny female flowers, called styles, which are bright red and sticky. This helps catch the pollen in the air, which then travels down the tube in the centre of the flower to fertilise the ova inside, from which new hazel nuts develop. Clever.

Dangling catkins are always wind pollinated, but there are also upright catkins which appear a little later, such as on various willow trees – salix - and these are pollinated by early bees, flies and also blue tits, who enjoy feeding on the nectar produced; pollinating by default as they forage on the fluffy catkins surrounded by pollen.

So, the next time you venture safely out for a late winter walk, look up and see how many catkins you can spot, as well as the discreet red female flowers on hazel trees. A sign of spring arriving soon.

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of Native Hazel Tree


Rooks

I may have mentioned it before, but the Corvid family of birds are amongst my very favourite birds, and of the whole Corvid family - crows, ravens, jackdaws, rooks, choughs, jays and magpies – rooks are the ones I like best. They are so intelligent, highly sociable, and also very handsome!

We need to look carefully to help us distinguish between crows and rooks, as they are mistakenly all thought to just be big black, scary birds. Corvids have often been thought of as vermin that simply require eradication. But as we have learnt far more about their behaviour and have come to understand more about how intelligent and adaptable they are, there is, thankfully, less persecution now.

Numerous scientific tests of corvids, including rooks, have clearly shown they have intelligence on a par with primates and dolphins. These include their understanding of displacement of water in order to reach food, an ability to think ahead and problem solve, to use teamwork, making and using simple tools, the ability to mimic a wide variety of sounds and they also have a lovely tendency to ‘play’ in complex ways. This implies enjoyment as well as mere survival.

As humans we have always tended to think of ourselves as at the top of the evolutionary tree, and judge other species by very inappropriate human parameters. This is evident in the term ’bird brain’. Avian brains are built in different ways to ours and they have developed a part of the forebrain, called the hyperstriatum, which we and other mammals lack. Corvids have a large brain, similar in size to ours in ratio to body size, and packed with an exceptionally large number of brain cells. Rooks have excellent memories, make mental maps, enjoy socialising with each other - and they can fly!

Jays are the most colourful and distinct member of this bird family, but rooks have a gorgeous purple gloss to their feathers, and the base of their beak is bare and grey, not covered in fine feathers, and they have a more loose, ‘baggy trousers ‘ look to their thighs. How marvellous is that! Their beak is longer and sharper than in carrion crows, and it is also said that if you see a flock of crows then they are more likely to be rooks, as they are far more sociable.

Rooks nest together in colonies called rookeries, and the collective nouns for rooks include: a clamour, a wing, a congregation and a storytelling, which is lovely as they do chatter loudly to each other.

As an artist, I have made a series of artworks about this amazing bird, so have included one here, Rook, in watercolour and mixed media.

We will learn more about this extraordinary family of birds, but in the meantime, look closely when you see a crow, and you may find that it is instead, a rook. Baggy trousers, bare faced brilliance and all.

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of Rooks


Scottish Wildcat

The magnificent wildcat is in severe decline, facing extinction now with less than 100 pure bred species, all concentrated in the Scottish Highlands.

They need a large area of wild country and woodland to hunt their prey, which is in very short supply, and have been heavily persecuted by humans and culled by gamekeepers. They also mate with feral cats, which results in hybridisation, and dilution of wildcat genes. A fully protected species since 1988, there are efforts to increase their numbers by the Save Wildcats project, within the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. This is a complex project, needing the cooperation of local cat owners to neuter their moggies, and excluding any feral cats. A part of the Cairngorms now has permission to develop a special area for conservation and release of pure bred wildcat kittens.

Superficially similar to domestic tabby cats, the wildcat is a different animal in various ways. It is thickset, and up to 1 metre long including their tail, has longer legs, a more broad, blunt head, and a pale brown/ russety body with up to 11 black stripes. It has a very distinctive, thick tail with 3 black rings and a rounded black end. Pure wild cats are always this colour and never have white paws. It is silent apart from mating, and only has one litter a year in spring.

Nocturnal and solitary outside of the mating season, wildcats are carnivores, feeding on live prey, mainly rabbits, small mammals and birds, only eating grass occasionally for extra roughage and vitamins. Their soft feet allow them to approach their prey quietly, and then pounce and kill quickly with a bite to the back of the neck. Being solitary ensures each cat has exclusive hunting areas, and they rarely meet up apart from mating, so avoiding potentially damaging fights.

My own much loved moggie, Freddy, is also thickset, but black and white and very fond of lolling about on my bed, showing off his tummy. Unlike wildcats, he would be most insulted to be constantly out in the cold, making a ‘nest’ as they do amongst rocks, tree roots and old fox burrows and badger sets.

A piccy of Freddy here too, so you can clearly see the difference between a wildcat and a domestic cat!

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of Scottish Wildcat


December Nature Quiz Answers

  1. What do Fly Agaric, the red and white spotty fungi, eat? Fly Agaric tap into the roots of a tree, taking carbohydrates and helping the tree to absorb various nutrients such as minerals and water in return. The relationship between fungi and trees is complex and only recently better understood.
  2. What are oak apples? Oak Apples are the result of a tiny wasp laying eggs into an acorn, and as this develops it distorts the growth and shape of the acorn. Oak galls contain lots of tannin and have been used for centuries to make ink.
  3. Roe deer are crepuscular. When are they most active?  Crepuscular means an animal is most active at dawn and dusk.
  4. How many wood ants can a green woodpecker eat each day?  A Green Woodpecker can eat up to 2,000 wood ants every day. Yum yum.
  5. How do Peacock butterflies survive the winter? Peacock butterflies overwinter in log piles, hollow trees and sometimes in our garden sheds and outside buildings. Their dark brown underwings keep them well camouflaged in dark, woody places.
  6. What is an old country name for a nuthatch? An old name for a Nuthatch is Mud Stopper, because they bring mud to the nest and ‘plaster’ it, to make the entrance the best shape for them, and to keep larger predators out.
  7. Which insect likes to overwinter in roof spaces and spare rooms? Ladybirds very often overwinter in roof spaces and quiet spare rooms, and together can make a rather impressive ball. They also like hollow stems of plants, so another good reason not to over tidy gardens.
  8. How did earwigs get their name? Earwigs were thought to resemble a human ear, which seems unlikely, even for rugby players!
  9. Name our three native species that hibernate. Our 3 native species that properly hibernate are bats, dormice and hedgehogs.
  10. Why do hoverflies have black and yellow coloured patterns? Insects like hoverflies copy the black and yellow colour patterns of wasps and bees to deter predators, who will think they may sting them.
  11. Which favourite garden bird sings all winter, and why? The robin sings through the winter, to announce and retain their territory. Unusually both the male and females sing.
  12. How many moults does a Mountain Hare have each year, and why? The Mountain Hare has 3 moults, with the early winter one producing a whiter coat to help them’ disappear’ in snowy hills.
  13. Name our three native deer. Our 3 native deer are the Red deer, the Fallow deer and Roe deer.
  14. What type of antlers do fallow deer have? Fallow deer antlers are much broader in shape, called palmate, and are used far less in dominance fights with other males.
  15. Which is the most nutritious winter berry for birds? The deep purple / black berries of the ivy are the most nutritious berry for birds in winter, ripening just when they are most needed.
  16. Which member of the Corvid bird family has red legs? The member of the highly intelligent Corvid family of birds who has red legs is the Chough.
  17. What is the winter coat of a stoat called? When stoats develop their pale winter coat after moulting, it is called Ermine.
  18. How can you tell a female and male barn owl apart? Female barn owls have spotty markings on their breast.
  19. How are mistletoe seeds spread? Mistletoe Seeds are very sticky, so after a bird has enjoyed eating the white, fruity flesh round the seed, they wipe their beak on the tree bark, thereby scratching the bark and depositing the seed.
  20. Which 3 native species change their coat/feather colours in winter? Three native species who change their colour for winter are the Mountain Hare, Stoat and the Ptarmigan.
  21. Name 5 adaptations reindeer have to help them survive in the cold. Five adaptations by reindeer to help them survive the cold are: a heat exchanger in their nose to warm the air, a type of antifreeze and a heat exchanger in their legs, their hooves change shape, reducing the soft pad area to reduce heat loss and giving them more grip on ice, they have a very thick layer of woolly undercoat for insulation, and their fur hairs are hollow which helps to conserve body heat.
  22. Name 3 swans that migrate here, and where have they come from? Three migratory swans who come to our shores are: the Bewick, from Siberia, the Whooper from Iceland and the Mute swan from Eurasia.
  23. Name 3 different types of frost. Three types of frost are: Hoar frost, air frost and ground frost. Sometimes people refer to grass frost, which is really ground frost.
  24. What is thunder snow? Thunder snow is when a thunderstorm occurs and there is snow in the cloud. The loud noise is due to the rapid heating of the air by lightning.
  25. Which native tree is the best host for more than 500 other species, and why is it late to lose its leaves? Our fabulous native oak tree is host to over 500 other species. It is late to lose leaves as it took longer to come into leaf in spring, because the oak makes a new vascular system each year for the sap to travel through.

Hope you did well! There are lots more answers and more amazing fingertip facts in the Autumn to Winter nature booklet I wrote. Enjoy.

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of December Nature Quiz Answers

© Jan Flamank 1st February 2021. All rights reserved. Images used in the document have been sourced free for use in this social, educational, non-commercial setting

STAND (Stannington & District Library Group) was formed in 2013 after two public meetings that explored the issues raised by Sheffield City Council’s announced withdrawal of formal support for Stannington Library. Since then, the group has been formalised, a committee was formed and teams of volunteers were recruited