December in the Valley
The highlight of the winter wildlife in the Valley is the arrival of large flocks of wildfowl that are to be seen on the lakes. Birds to watch out for include Wigeon, Pochard, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe as well as Coot, the emblem of the Blackwater Valley. The birds prefer open areas so that they can see potential danger approaching and the sites that have not yet been surrounded by tree growth, such as Moor Green Lakes and Tongham Pool, are the ones that attract the largest numbers. An added bonus is that the open nature of these sites makes observing the wildfowl easy and it is a spectacle not to be missed.
If you are out and about watch for visiting Blackcaps, which have been over wintering in Britain in increasing numbers since the 1960s. They eat a wide range of fruits and berries and suburban gardens play an important role in their survival. If you have berry-bearing shrubs in your garden such as Cotoneaster or Pyracantha do watch them for visiting Blackcaps.
Foxes are now sporting their thick winter coats and should look particularly striking and bulkier than they do in the summer. The bare winter countryside helps make them much easier to spot and with the mating season peaking early in the New Year there’s every chance of spotting their increased activity in daylight hours. They also become noisier and their yelping contact calls and piercing screams can be heard throughout the night and are often mistaken as the sounds of cats wailing.
Whilst out walking in woodlands do look for old pieces of rotten wood coloured a bright blue-green, as though they’ve been treated with preservative. The staining comes from the Blue-green Cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens (pictured). If you’re really lucky you may see the fungal fruit bodies, delicate blue-green cups sprouting from the rotten wood which are less common. Also look out for the beautiful scarlet Elf Cup fungus Sarcoscypha coccinea, another fungus found on rotten damp wood. It has cups often three or four centimetres in diameter and provides a splash of colour. Both fungi belong to the cup and flask group Ascomycetes whose microscopic spores explode from the surface of the cup when touched. If you would like to find out more and see some pictures visit the First Nature website.
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Did you know that garden snails hibernate over winter? They crawl into sheltered corners and secrete mucilage which dries into a tough membrane. They use this to ‘glue’ their shell to a solid surface which will protect them from predators and minimise water loss. So if you are troubled by snails this is a good time to search out the hibernation sites and move the residents on.
Did you know that there are about 1,700 species of lichen in Britain, and they come in a vast array of colours from dark brown to bright yellow and brilliant orange-red. They cover 8% of the world’s land surface and are found on rocky coasts and mountain summits as well on trees, stones and rocks. If you’ve never thought about identifying them, now is the best time to start looking, particularly those found on trees and twigs as the leafless winter months make them much easier to spot. The Natural History Museum website has an excellent section all about lichens with a very useful identification guide. More information >>>