Footprints in the snow (or mud!)
January’s snowfall shed a new light on some of the mammals found at the Pits. With practice, you can identify them by their footprints. One of the easiest is the rabbit, due to its very different front and back feet and the way it hops. The front feet are much shorter than the back ones but when a rabbit hops, it lands with its back feet in front. This means that the longer, rear footprints appear in front of the shorter, front ones!
The most frequently seen mammal at Paxton Pits is the muntjac deer. It has classic cloven hoof footprints, but on a tiny scale as it is the smallest deer found in the UK. Its footprints are only about 3-4 cm long and 2cm across.
We may not have more snow in February but there will certainly be plenty of mud, so look out for footprints!
You might have heard robins singing all winter, but in February they are joined by other birds anticipating spring. The great tit is one of these. It has a very varied range but one of its most characteristic songs is sometimes likened to a squeaky bicycle pump! Great tits often sing in prominent positions so they are easy to spot when the trees are bare. They are not singing to entertain us, but to stake a claim to their breeding territory, even though they won’t start breeding until March or April.
During winter, long-tailed tits forage in groups of up to twenty birds, scooting around from bush to bush, rarely spending more a than a minute in one place before moving on. Many of the birds in these groups will be closely related, perhaps parents and offspring from last year’s breeding season. Long-tailed tit numbers have increased significantly in the last thirty years, probably because of milder winters. Once spring arrives, the family groups will break up and pairs will start to build nests, from late February if the weather is good.
These shy finches are present all year round but once again are easier to spot when the trees are bare. The male’s bright pink plumage is conspicuous in the brown winter woodland. Unlike the sociable long-tailed tits, bullfinches usually stay in pairs throughout the year so you will often see the male and female together. Numbers in the UK have fallen over the last few decades but they are regularly seen at Paxton Pits and this time of year is your best chance.