Stannington Library logo

Here are Jan Flamank's Nature Notes for January 2021. Click on each photo to see a larger photo on a new page. For downloadable pdf versions of each topic, see the links below.

Jan has decided NOT TO PUT THE ANSWERS to the December Nature Quiz on the website this month but will include them with the Nature Notes for February. This will give time for Tuesday Club members to receive their Autumn to Winter Nature Booklets, which will also give lots of the answers within the text. The new booklets will be ready soon!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

Many of us have been lucky enough to enjoy watching birds in our gardens and local green spaces, especially in these tough, but necessary, times of lockdown.

The RSPB does a fantastic job each year of encouraging us all to be ‘social scientists’, reporting which birds we have nearby. January is the time for the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, and it only needs an hour of our time. It is a really useful way of recording and understanding patterns in bird behaviour, and changes in the number of those small local birds we can easily take for granted in our gardens. It is the largest wildlife survey in the world and very easy to be part of.  Simply join by going to rspb.org.uk, where you will find all the information you need. They will also post out a paper copy of the bird I.D. and information sheets if that is better for you. The number is 01767 693690.

So, between January 29th and 31st 2021, settle down with a cuppa or a coffee, specs on, or with binoculars if you have any, and record which birds you can see in your garden, over one hour. What a simple, delightful thing to do.

We know to keep feeding our garden birds through winter with high energy food such as sunflower seeds - which are actually tiny nuts - fat balls and mealworms, and ensure they have supplies of fresh water too. Fill the feeders little and often, keep them clean, and I also leave a few apples on the lawn and put out grated cheese and dried fruit on the table feeder.

Alongside this reminder, some really useful smallish trees to attract birds to our gardens in winter are: Native Rowan, best with red or pink berries, Holly, Ivy, Crab Apple, Hawthorn, Hazel, all providing food, shelter and beauty.

Enjoy all the birds who visit, whether natives or visitors like waxwings, and nearby European neighbours who swell our numbers of blackbirds, robins, etc.

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

The Red Fox

Vulpes Vulpes, a member of the dog family, Canidae

A remarkable native mammal, whose depiction in children’s books, folklore and media have fostered their fearsome reputation, the fox still divides opinion. They have also become much more common in urban areas, due to their incredible versatility and ability to adapt to widely variable habitats.

Our native Red Fox is the largest of the fox species with males weighing up to 18lbs. Like dogs, they have a long muzzle, slim legs and four-toed pads with 5 claws on their front feet and 4 on their hind feet. Their resplendent, bushy tail makes up to 40 % of their length, and varies in thickness depending on the season and their overall health. Males have a broader muzzle and are slightly larger than females, but it can be hard to distinguish them at distance.

Although related to dogs, foxes also display behaviour similar to cats. They hunt with feline stealth, stalking and pouncing on prey; even catching fish from a pond with a front paw. They are also excellent climbers, and sit and sleep with their magnificent tail curled round them for warmth.

Their lustrous coat is in peak condition during our winter months, and the variations in coat colour are called morphs. They have a fine, grey underfur that provides insulation, and longer top coat guard hairs which contain the melanin pigmentation that gives the pelt its glorious rufous colours.

Vixens come into oestrous – with ovulation triggered by shortening daylight - in winter, for up to 3 weeks, but are only receptive to mating for about 3 days a year. Peak mating season is January, which is when we hear the distinctive scream of the vixen, advertising her presence to the male. He is super attentive during this time, known as mate-guarding, and he follows her day and night, awaiting her receptiveness. During these 3 brief days, she scent marks all over her territory, and mating is a noisy ritual of wailing, shrieks and chittering sounds. Foxes remain as a resident pair within their permanent territory, breeding every season together, and have strong lifelong bonds.

Part of the common dislike of foxes is our inappropriate tendency to impose human feelings onto a wild animal. It is understandably upsetting if all our garden chickens are killed by a fox, but the instinct of a wild animal is to take prey at every opportunity, then store it for later. So, keeping chickens in an artificially small, confined area means they need to be properly protected.

Foxes have a hugely varied diet, including rabbits, rodents, earthworms, eggs, fruits and carrion in what is known as optimal foraging – changing their diet to ensure they get the best energy reward for the effort used in finding the food. Urban foxes have been with us since the 1930’s, mainly due to our housing encroachment on their natural habitats. They may explore bins, but prey mainly on rats, mice and pigeons, doing a great job of urban pest control.

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of The Red Fox

Winter Moths

Members of the Lepidoptera order of insects

We tend to think of moths as pesky little things that munch through our favourite jumpers, but they are far more fascinating than that, and it is the larvae that eat the wool, not the adult moth. Despite the shocking decline in both the number and variety of insects, moths remain far more numerous than butterflies and are often very beautiful. There are many more species of moth than butterfly, with over 2,500 moth species in the UK, who often rely on specific plants and trees for their lifecycle. We tend to ignore moths as they are mainly nocturnal - active at night - so we see them less often, especially so in the winter months.

Moths are fantastically adapted to their nocturnal lifestyle:

  • Many moths have ‘ears’, located on their thorax, made up of tiny membranes stretched over small cavities. These vibrate when near sound, sending a signal to the brain, and are ultra-sensitive to the high pitched sound made by bats, who are a major predator of moths.
  • Moths have feathery antennae, and this larger surface area enables them to detect scents at a distance and also help them to navigate and balance when flying. Touch sensors at the base of each antennae pick up their flight movement, a bit like a gyroscope, helping the moth to keep a straight course.
  • They are also able to smell and taste with their feet! Adult moths have a very modest appetite, but will feed on the nectar of ivy flowers, sedum, winter jasmine, etc. and drink from puddles and soft dung.
  • Nocturnal moths rest during the day, well camouflaged with subtle colours that resemble leaves, bark and even lichen and fungi markings.
  • Winter moths often have plump, furry or scaly bodies to keep them warm, and they also have very strong flight muscles in their thorax. They ‘shiver’ or vibrate these big muscles to bring their temperature up high enough to enable them to fly.

The Winter Moth, one of the many geometrid moths, flies only at night, and it is the male which does so. The female has tiny, useless wings and her only, brief role is to mate and lay eggs. She will sit on tree trunks after dark, and is one of the moth species whose caterpillars can infest and devastate orchards, so gardeners often have moth traps on their fruit trees.

I have a lovely old book I bought in a charity shop, by Richard South, called The Moths of the British Isles, first published in 1908. It has marvellous drawings and paintings of moths as you would expect, but what I most enjoy are all the names of the moths.

Here are a few I really like:

Sharp-angled Carpet, Dark Spinach, The Scarce Tissue, Chimney Sweeper, Cloaked Pug, Slender-striped Rufous, Drab Looper, Bloomers Rivulet, Dingy Footman and the Scorched Carpet. Fabulous names.

We are still uncertain about why moths are attracted to bright lights, but the best ideas so far are concerned with how moths navigate at night. As with other unsung species, we will learn more when we value them more. 

Click here for a downloadable pdf version of Winter Moths

© Jan Flamank 1st January 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