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