From hazel flowers to wildfowl, there's plenty to see in early spring
In February’s stripped-back landscape, nature is often more visible than in summer
Winter is a great time to look in detail at things you might not even notice when you are dazzled by the kaleidoscope of species that fill our world in the spring and summer. Photograph: Getty Images
“Midwinter spring,” TS Eliot writes in Little Gidding, “is its own season . . . suspended in time.” There can certainly be an almost eerie sense of suspension, of silence, in the world beyond our heated homes at this time of year.
Most plants have long since died back to ground level, or vanished altogether; most trees have lost their leaves. Few birds sing. Some animals, like hedgehogs and bats, simply go with this sinking flow: they suspend their own systems in hibernation, until the sun warms the earth once again.
Yet the idea that winter is a poor season for enjoying the natural world is doubly misleading. First, there is far more activity going on out there than you might expect.
Second, in this stripped-back landscape, it is often much easier to observe what is happening than in high summer. A bird is much more conspicuous in a bare tree than in a leafy one. Deer and other mammals can appear vividly etched against frosty landscapes. The plants in flower – and again, there are more blooms than you might think – often stand out brilliantly against dark backgrounds.
Intense cold snaps make some creatures more approachable, as they prioritise the search for food over fear of humans. When such freezes are prolonged, hunger may drive shy birds, like snipe and woodcock, right out into the open, and even into gardens.
It’s true you may often have to work harder in winter to find a variety of plants and animals, but the rewards can be rich, and are often very close at hand. A single species, that you might pass over in another season, can offer hours of rewarding exploration.
The hazel, for example, is one of our commonest trees, so much so that we often screen it out, as we tend to do with common species, when scanning a landscape. But the hazel in winter is well worth approaching very closely, because it produces male and female flowers of great beauty, from as early as late December.
The male flowers are held in catkins. These miniaturised hanging baskets, though only a couple of centimetres long, can each hold up to 240 individual blooms. The catkins develop in summer, but look dull and inconspicuous until the flowers begin to open. Then they become a vivid yellow, and dispense golden pollen in little puffs of dust as they swing in the wind like, well, kitten’s tails.
The female flowers are not only tiny, but solitary. To the naked eye, they are barely visible, a pink blur on a small green bud, right in against the branch. A hand lens, however, reveals exquisitely delicate tendrils (these are styles, there are no petals), as beautiful as a sea anemone’s. It really does seem like alchemy that the tough and fibrous hazelnut can develop from such a fragile structure.
This metamorphosis depends on wind-borne pollen from a male flower lodging on the female styles. Bees love hazels, which provide them with vital winter food, but it is still debated whether they really help pollinate the female flowers. In any case, the catkins open long before the hazel puts out leaves, so as to maximise wind exposure for pollen dispersal.
Though both flowers usually appear on the one tree, you may notice males and females often open days or weeks apart on adjacent hazels, identically oriented to whatever sunlight there is. This variation means trees are more likely to fertilise their neighbours than themselves, thus increasing genetic variation.
This in turn suggests greater inter-plant communication than we generally suspect, a subject fascinatingly explored in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, discussed on these pages last year by Michael Viney.
You may prefer do more reading on nature topics than spend time out walking in natural places during February. If you want to find out more about plant reproduction while on your sofa, you can have great fun with Plant Love: the Scandalous Truth about the Sex Life of Plants, by Michael Allaby. Or you can delve deeper into these and other botanical issues with the more serious-minded Richard Mabey’s enthralling The Cabaret of Plants.
But what you really need is a book to make you put on your coat and gloves and get outside again. There are few better than The Collins Guide to the Countryside in Winter, by Alastair and Richard Fitter. It seems to be out of print now, but used copies are available online for a pittance – and they often offer the possible benefit of previous users’ personal observations.
This small but densely informative volume can greatly enhance your awareness of the myriad signs of life in winter landscapes. You can learn to identify the many abandoned nests made visible in naked trees, and to rediscover well-loved trees without their leaves, simply by their subtly distinctive silhouettes, and by their twig shapes and buds. You can track down diverse signs of insect life, and explore entire new worlds, like the vast universes of lichen, moss and liverworts.
So winter is a great time to look in detail at things you might not even notice when you are dazzled by the kaleidoscope of species that fill our world in the spring and summer.
However, if none of the foregoing tempts you, there is of course at least one habitat where you will find much more conspicuous wildlife than in other seasons. As we have written more than once on these pages, estuaries and wetlands teem with visiting wildfowl and wading birds in winter, offering unforgettable visual and auditory spectacles.
So you really have no excuse . . .
February joys of leading amateur naturalists
I can’t wait to see my first celandine of the year, with their brilliant, shiny, golden petals and exquisitely patterned, heart-shaped leaves. I look out for them beside streams, in woodlands and other damp places.
I love the fluffy white blossoms of pussy willows, small mauve violets and pale lemon primroses as they emerge from their winter sleep. I need, too, to smell the celery-like aroma of Alexanders, its bright green foliage shiny in the hedgerows, the aroma replacing the scent of the winter-heliotrope flowers as they die away.
As I walk along a country lane, I might see some purple violets or the asparagus-like tips of emerging horsetail plants, or the sunshine faces of Colt’s-foot flowers. I’ll watch out for the lumpy mass of jelly that is frogspawn in puddles and ditches.
Zoë Devlin is author of Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year, collinspress.ie/blooming-marvellous
Devlin’s website also shows which flowers are in bloom each month: wildflowersofireland.net
For butterfly-lovers, February continues the butterfly famine. Butterflies that over-winter as adults remain concealed in woodland, muted underwings blending with greys and browns of tree trunks or mimicking holly, bramble and ivy leaves, in the case of the brimstone butterfly.
The poet Edward Thomas suggested that, in February, spring must be dreamed up. To ideate spring, the butterfly-lover seeks the white golf-ball eggs of the brown hairstreak butterfly on dark leafless blackthorn stems, and the nests of spiky, hedgehog-like caterpillars of the marsh fritillary, huddling together in lucid February sun.
Occasionally, a warm day rouses a peacock, small tortoiseshell, comma or brimstone butterfly. These bask on walls, tree trunks and tufts of dry grass litter, but soon return to their winter abodes. They’re not out of the woods yet.
Jesmond Harding, Butterfly Conservation Ireland, facebook.com/ButterflyConservationIreland/