If there’s one creature that is synonymous with Christmas, it’s the nation’s favourite bird, the robin. If it’s not taking pride of place on Christmas cards, it‘s immortalised in plastic perfection on the top of your Christmas cake, or yule log. Christmas without robins is like Christmas without a turkey, but why is this year-round resident such a festive favourite?
Its status as a Christmas card icon is all down to the postmen of the Victorian era, who wore red jackets, earning them the nickname “Robins”. Christmas card artists were inspired to paint their namesake on their cards and so the tradition began.
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a robin on your birdtable - or Christmas cards, or wrapping, or cake...
Legends around the bird’s red breast also have a Christmas link. These include the once all-brown bird being stained with blood as it pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ and suffering a scorched breast while shielding baby Jesus from a fire.
Snow seems to getting rarer at Christmas but an icy morning is the next best thing...
The holly and the ivy Wildlife also gets in on the festive spirit when it comes to Christmas carols.
Turtle doves, partridges, geese and swans star in the 12 days of Christmas, but there could be an avian connection to more of the true-love’s gifts in the song: “drummers drumming” could be displaying snipe and “five gold rings” a reference to the marking on a pheasants’ neck.
In December, we couldn’t be further from butterfly season, but one of our garden favourites is inextricably linked with The Holly and the Ivy. The holly blue lays its tiny eggs on holly in spring and ivy in summer and couldn’t survive without these festive evergreens.
The holly (and the ivy) is great for wildlife, including its namesake, the holly blue butterfly (Andy Hay - rspb-images.com)
Holly berries are popular Christmas decorations, but if you have berries of any kind left in your garden, you might receive a very special gift – a flock of waxwings. It is a “waxwing winter” and thousands of these chubby birds, with sibilant sleigh bell calls, have arrived from Scandinavia to gobble their way through our berries.
Kicking up a snowstorm - don't forget to feed your birds in winter when natural food is much harder to find
Underneath the mistletoe The tradition of hanging mistletoe in your house at Christmas goes back to the ancient Druids who believed it possessed magical powers to ward off evil spirits during dark winter days. It’s also a sign of love and friendship - hence the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
This parasitic plant also gives our biggest thrush its name. The mistle thrush loves the sticky white berries and in the process of cleaning its beak on a branch, it deposits seeds and does its bit to ensure there is enough mistletoe around for next year’s Christmas party festivities.
Get in the Christmas spiritWhat wildlife is in your mind at Christmas? If you have any Christmas nature connections, we’d love to hear about them.
When I’m setting the seasonal wildlife challenge for each issue of Nature’s Home, it would be really helpful to have a crystal ball. Some events in nature are hard to predict, especially the arrival of those enigmatic birds that experience big fluctuations in their numbers. If I had known what November would bring, then three very special birds would have featured…
One of the best known of these is one of our most unmistakable birds, the waxwing. As reports started to arrive of flocks of them heading west and south along the Norfolk coast in early November, I began to suspect it was going to be a “waxwing winter” and it’s proven to be the case. They’re here!
Waxwing by Nature's Home's very own Andy Hay. This one's enjoying wild privet berries.
As I write, I haven’t seen one yet myself, but it’s completely normal for the first wave of arrivals to head deep inland and start munching berries further north before working their way through the UK. At the moment, the majority are in Scotland but more will arrive as berry stocks dwindle on the continent and as the birds already here exhaust supplies and become nomadic, keep an eye on any bushes near you.
Almost a shore thingWhenever talk turns to shorelarks among birders, I take great pleasure in casually slipping in that I hold the record for the biggest flock of these stunning birds ever seen in the UK! In November 1998, hundreds of this usually very scarce coastal winter visitor assembled on the East Coast and I was in Holkham Bay on a day when the flock there happened to peak – an astonishing 240 birds. One of the best things I have seen in the UK for sure.
Shorelark by Nature's Home illustrator Mike Langman. Think skylark with make up.
There has been nothing like that number in the UK since, but as numbers there built to an also impressive 77 birds in November, I feared for my record! Laura (my wife) and I were visiting friends up there so Rich (who also happens to be a birder), his wife Cat, their toddler Raf and us found ourselves at Holkham for a walk. We eventually found the flock of these yellow and black-faced beauties, in spite of the constant rain. Our feigned surprise on “stumbling upon” the flock and pretending we didn't know they were there was seen though instantly by the girls, though. They‘ve had years of experience of us two trying to go birding at every opportunity when we meet up!
A shorelark even turned up in the middle of landlocked Herefordshire (the first ever I think in that county). You’d be incredibly lucky to find one away from the coast but if you are there over the winter, keep your eyes peeled for a flock of birds shuffling around the shingle or the tideline and look for yellow and black faces. It is the best winter for a long time for what I think is one of our best birds.
Another bird that seems to have arrived in good numbers is the short-eared owl. The secret to seeing this bird is to choose a still day (they don’t like the wind) and be out scanning rough fields and marshes for them in the last couple of hours of daylight.
Short-eared owl by Mike Langman - the owl you are most likely to see in daylight.
Happy huntingSo, although the October issue of Nature’s Home’s wildlife challenge doesn’t include finding shorelark, waxwing and short-eared owl, add them to your hitlist this winter. You might never have a better chance of finding one near you. Don’t forget to let us know if you get lucky by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving a comment on the blog.
I hope Nicola Chester's fungi foray "Skill" in Nature's Home Winter 2016 has inspired you to get out looking for some of the 16,000 species of fungi recorded in the UK. Fungi have become a bit of an obsession of mine with so many to go at. Most weekends I'm out with my local fungi groups adding to my list and learning loads about this fascinating family. You need to use so many skills to identify fungi (including smell, sporeprint and what trees they grow with), so they are a real challenge.
Lunchtimes here at RSPB HQ at The Lodge also provide good fungi-foraying and today i found a new species for me that I have been looking for for a long time - bracken club. These are tiny white "clubs" that grow in lines down the side of dying bracken stems. They often appear after rain and following an all-day deluge on Saturday, they have popped up on a handful of stems. It took a lot of bracken searching to find it though!
I thought I'd post a few pics from my autumn forays so far. It has been pretty dry overall but there have been lots of species to find and I reckon I have seen around 400 species so far this autumn in my local area. I hope you've managed to find, and identify, a good number in your part of the world.
A stinkhorn egg (Image by Mark Ward)
Any ideas? This is the "egg" of the dog stinkhorn. The phallic stinkhorn busts out of this sac and if you look carefully, you can get an idea of the shape the mature fruiting body is with the darker head showing on this specimen that I found dropped at the side of a woodland path.
A bit gruesome for a Nature's Home cover, perhaps but Devil's fingers is a stunning sight (Mark Ward)
Until last month, this was one of my most wanted species to see in the UK - devil's fingers. It also emerges from an egg into this foul-looking, but stunning, fungi.
The classic toadstool - Fly agaric (Mark Ward)
Perhaps the most easily-recognised UK fungi - fly agaric. Many are now on show among the birches here at RSPB HQ.
Magpie inkcap (Mark Ward)
This is one of the best specimens of magpie inkcap I have ever seen. It is a localised species that grows with beech trees, so that's the place to find one. The white scales are really beautiful close up.
We'll be featuring plenty of fungi in Nature's Home magazine, so look out for more species to find and tips for locating them!