Wildlife To See – December
Trees and shrubs:
The two coniferous trees that are native to the UK, i.e. the Scot’s pine and yew, are evergreen and the upper bark of the pine has an orange colour and you may be able to see some berries on the yew trees but beware of the yew as its seed, leaves and bark are all poisonous. The holly is an evergreen broadleaved tree and they are either male or female, unlike most trees that have both male and female flowers on the same tree. Only the female holly produces berries and if you can see the leaves at the top of the holly trees you may be able to see that they have far fewer spines that the ones closer to the ground. This is because the spines are a defence against being eaten by deer and other herbivores and there is no need for them to be spiny above the height that animals can reach.
Other trees that have notable colour in winter are the silvery bark of birch and the purple tinge of catkins on the alder trees. The young stems of the dogwood shrub are blood red in colour.
Holly berries are reminders of the festive season to come, as are mistletoes, which are semi-parasitic and grow in a distinctive bunch in fruit trees and in the bare branches of trees such as lime, beech and oak. Mistletoe’s white sticky berries are a favourite of the mistle thrush. Where the soil is chalky, you may see the bright orange fruits of the spindle tree – they are poisonous to us but not to birds.
A few plants may still be found lingering on in flower, such as the scarlet pimpernel.
The ivy also keeps its leaves and keeps many woodlands looking green. The ivy is a climber and is only using the trees as a climbing frame, it does not kill them and it provides an important source of nectar for insects, berries and nesting sites for birds and roosting sites for bats. The holly blue butterfly also lays its eggs on the ivy.
In wetlands, you may spot a Bewick’s swan or catch a glimpse of a kingfisher as it moves down river to an estuary. Look out, too, for the pink crests of waxwings that feed on berries such as yew and holly after severe winter weather in Europe brings them to our shores.
The robin is one of the few birds in the UK that sing all year round and it sings because it holds its territory over the winter and males often hold the same territory for their whole life. Territories are defended by singing from perches and by aggressively driving intruders away. Did you know that two robins weigh roughly the same as one chicken egg?
Keep an eye out for goosanders on the rivers during December. Goosanders are large elegant ducks and are members of the sawbill family because of their long serrated bills with a hooked tip at the end that are good at catching fish. Male goosanders have a dark green head and a white body with a dark line along the back, whereas females have a red-brown head with a crest and a greyish body with a large white patch on the wings.
At night, foxes call out with the females eerie blood-curdling screams and the dogs barks and yelps as they start to form pairs.
If the weather is mild bats may emerge briefly from their winter’s sleep to grab a meal of insects if there are any about.
Amphibians and reptiles:
Frogs and toads are hibernating but may wake to feed for short periods in warm weather.
Phantom midge larva can be found in ponds even on winter days and are called phantom midge larva because they are transparent. They have large eyes and filter feed using their large brush-like mouthparts. The larvae will grow into non-biting flying midges. The females then lay their eggs in jelly like disks on the surface of the water.
The December moth can be found between October until mid to late December. This moth is fairly common over much of the UK and can be identified by its full, fluffy body and its slate-grey wings edged in brown and marked with a cream colour band. Look out for the moth resting on twigs or bark during the day or coming to lit windows at night.