Coming to the countryside near you: wildlife in February
Spring is just around the corner! Nature writer Alexandra Pearce-Broomhead is starting a new regular on this site as she predicts the wildlife to look forward to in February.
Although the solstice is celebrated in December, sometimes the depth of winter isn’t really felt until February. The nights are still long and often end with frosty mornings. Referred to as “snow” or “ice” in medieval times, the full moon falls early in the month, reminding us of the potential weather ahead. February tends to be the coldest month in England; Average temperatures are around 4 degrees, but bitter winds can make it feel a lot colder.
But February is not gloomy. His arrival brings the gentle awakening of the earth and the small signs that we are on the verge of spring. Badgers give birth to young in setts fringed by dry grasses beneath the frosty ground, hazel trees are festooned with catkins. Sparrows, blue tits and long-tailed tits are beginning to collect nesting material in anticipation of the warmer days to come.
Based on my location in the South West, we often see the signs of the season a bit earlier than the rest of the country. So if the arctic gyres allow, here’s what I’m starting to see in Cornwall, so it’s worth keeping an eye out in your area during the month.
Scarlet Elf Cups
We tend to associate mushrooms with autumn, but the scarlet elf cup “blooms” in shades of red and orange during the winter, bringing color to the forest floor in an otherwise muted time. Found throughout the land, although not considered common, scarlet elven cups prefer moist spots and grow in small clusters among moss and foliage. They can also be spotted on rotting sticks and branches, typically on willow, hazel or elm trees, particularly on the banks of streams and rivers.
While scarlet elven cups make a good food source for rodents and invertebrates, there is some debate as to their edibility for us humans. They are not considered poisonous in small amounts, but are not said to be particularly tasty when eaten raw. Cooked, they’re said to have an earthy flavor and make a great addition to stews and stir-fries.*
Their common name derives from ancient folklore suggesting that wood elves would rise early and unnoticed to drink morning dew from the cup-shaped body.
* We do not recommend picking or eating mushrooms without expert guidance.
Whilst short-eared owls live year-round in some areas of northern England, they come to our shores in winter from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland, spreading to all counties of England and increasing their numbers from UK breeding populations of around 600 to 2000 pairs. Their distinctive yellow eyes fringed with cabbage-like feathers and mottled brown body with white underwings make them instantly recognizable when flying low over wetlands, heathland, moorland or coastal marshes while searching for non-wintering small mammals such as voles, mice, and shrews.
Short-eared owls are one of the few owls to be seen flying during the day, although dawn and dusk are still their most active times of the day and you may even be lucky enough to hear their haunting and rhythmic howls. Unfortunately, these owls are listed as amber due to declining populations. Habitat alterations, persecution and egg snatching by foxes, corvids (like crows and magpies) and dogs (they nest on the ground) are all threats to these beautiful birds of prey.
While February sees a big focus on flowering of the introduced species snowdrops and winterlings, primroses are one of the first native wildflowers to bloom in significant numbers. In Cornwall they started peeking in December and January but bloom in gardens, parkland and woodland in February.
The name primrose derives from the Latin word ‘primus’, meaning ‘first’, and the plants, with their thick and wrinkled leaves, develop from shoots in mid-winter before the yellow-centred buttercream flowers bloom. These flowers are important as an early food source for pollinators such as awakening bees and small tortoiseshell and brimstone butterflies.
They are also ancient forest indicators, and seeing their increase in forests could suggest that nearby trees are more than 400 years old.
Primroses symbolize happiness, warmth and love. Giving each other the yellow flowers as a token of love, Victorians adorned their doorsteps with elaborate displays of primula to signify the coming of spring.
Common toads awaken in February. They will have spent their winters hiding from the cold, hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds, under leaves, or under woodpiles. But when the mating season arrives they leave their safe place and make their way to the water to breed, sauntering back at night to the large, deep ponds where they were born and arriving en masse to mate and Laying chains of eggs around vegetation draped under the water.
Male toads sometimes encounter a female on the journey and will climb on her back to hitchhike to the water. These toads will mate before they reach the water, but those not lucky enough to find a mate along the way must join the fight, with males fighting over females in hopes of being the lucky one.
Despite the name “common”, these toads are becoming increasingly rare. Their population has declined by 65% since 1985, believed to be due to habitat fragmentation, increased traffic and changes in farming practices.
There should be plenty of opportunities to see wildlife around you in February. Make sure you pack up, take it slow and watch out for critters. If you manage to capture wildlife shots, contact us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We like to share them! Check back next month to find out what Alex predicts for March.
About the author
Alexandra Pearce-Broomhead is a Guardian Country writer and occasional diarist from Cornwall. She writes about nature and place and the human relationship to both. Her work has also been featured on BBC Wildlife and BBC Countryfile.