The Changing of the Guard

The denizens of the warm months have left the stage, but a new cast of characters is stepping forth to take their place

Oak apples on an oak leafIt's that time of year again, the time I call 'The Changing of the Guard'. It is when, as winter approaches, some species tuck themselves away to sleep through the winter while others gather together and become more visible, or migrate to our shores from colder climates. 

Amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts are hopefully sheltered under stones or have dug themselves into the earth. Small mammals such as mice and voles will be cosying up in their burrows. The hornets that were so numerous in the woods earlier this year have suddenly disappeared. In the course of our work, we have found several tucked under logs when going to move them. We left the logs where they sat, so the hornets were undisturbed and we hope to see their meandering flights through the trees next year. 

Excepting clouds of bobbing gnats (a type of crane fly) dancing in the air over brash piles, there are few flies on the wing and only the occasional bumblebee to be seen on late flowering shrubs such as mahonias. The ghost-like clouds of bobbing gnats, of the family Trichoceridae, will entertain us in the woods this winter with their mesmerising performance. Unlike some small winter gnats, they do not bite so I shall, for a short time, not need to consider the pine tar-based repellent I use, the only repellent I've come across that works for me. I like the light smoky scent of this repellent but sometimes forget to apply it, and get bitten, so it will be a treat to not think about it for a few months. 

Winter robinA winter welcome

All seems quiet and yet, whilst the denizens of the warm months have left the stage, a new cast of characters is stepping forth to take their place. Birds such as long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) are gathering into chattering flocks. They will fly together, flitting about in their search for insects, and huddle in groups at night for warmth.

Other birds will flock too – blue tits, great tits, coal tits and finches assemble into flocks in winter for safety and warmth and can often be seen flitting from tree to tree or foraging in groups under the eaves of buildings as they search for spiders and small insects. Some insects are hidden as larvae, such as those of gall wasps which overwinter in oak apples. Out in the woods, I noticed that the first fieldfares have already arrived, on Saturday, November 25; only a few of them so far, but their slightly other-worldly 'chack, chack' call was loud and clear. Soon their song will fill the woods and hedgerows. 

In a town garden last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the process of pairing up in two robins which happens during the cold winter months. The female had entered the male's territory to make her presence known to him and he, thinking she was a male, was excitedly posturing, puffing up his red chest and swaying from side to side with his beak pointing skyward. Had he been posturing like this towards a male, it would have postured back and they might have fought, but the female just sat and looked at him as if to say, 'I'll just wait until you figure it out'. Eventually, his display having no impact, the male robin flew off in seeming confusion. I wasn't there to see what happened when he returned, but I'll visit that garden again soon and hope to see a mated pair of robins.

See RHS wildlife gardening advice


*Please note, the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS

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