In February, the pace of the breeding season is determined by the weather – a mild winter will result in breeding activity from early in the month, but sharp frosts and icy conditions can apply a brake of several weeks. Look on Heronry Lake as a barometer – fine, calm days will see grey herons and cormorants displaying and building nests.
Passage oystercatchers, redshanks and dunlins move through the Pits complex, most heading for northern latitudes, though some waders – such as ringed plovers – will stay to breed. Look on the Sailing Lake islands, where lapwings, Canada geese and greylag geese will be establishing nest sites by the month’s end. Great crested grebes also bring colour and finesse to the lakes, with their fine breeding plumage being used to attract a mate. Wintering wildfowl, such as goldeneyes, will start to disperse for Iceland and Scandinavia in late February, though not without much head-bobbing and chasing of potential mates.
Of course, if it is a cold February, the birds’ emphasis is on survival, as food supplies run low. Prolonged icy periods can spell death to many waterfowl, kingfishers and small birds. If the Pits freeze over, many will move south and west in search of open water. At the same time, other birds – such as whooper and Bewick’s swans – can move in from the east.
With less growth over recent months, ground vegetation is generally sparse and a casual glance can enable you to see the ‘runs’ made by mammals – mostly rabbits, but also fox, muntjac deer and badger (which forage on the reserve). Goldfinches search out any remaining teasels, while passage winter thrushes (and perhaps a waxwing?) feed on any hawthorn, rose and buckthorn berries that have survived thus far. Look out, too, for the rosette of dark leaves on the willows, caused by gall gnats which laid their eggs here last spring. The basal leaves of evening primrose, rosebay willowherb and teasel can be seen throughout the winter, and it will only be a few weeks before they flower. Meanwhile, the first splashes of colour are painted across the landscape, with the white of snowdrops and the yellow of coltsfoot.
Towards the end of the month, redwings and fieldfares will pass through the region, heading east and bound for their continental breeding grounds. There will be eggs in the cormorant and grey heron nests and first chiffchaffs (perhaps an overwintering bird) will be singing.