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What To Look Out For - February 2017

  • Thu 26th Jan, 2017

February is a great month to hit the coast; lots of wildlife and less people! Although colder weather has been slowly creeping into 2017, there isn’t much snow yet…. This is good news for some birds such as Kingfishers and Barn Owls which are particularly susceptible to low temperatures and snow cover.

The rocky shores and harbours of North Yorkshire and the North York Moors National Park are great places to see two of our most familiar but often confused birds; the Great Cormorant and European Shag. Yorkshire Coast Nature photographer Steve Race has recently captured some fabulous close up images of both which show the winter differences really well.

Great Cormorant North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve RaceGreat Cormorant North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve Race 

Great Cormorant is a much bigger bird than Shag. When seen close, a Shag has a much slimmer bill. Look carefully at the base of the bill. The gular patch, which is the coloured skin area on Cormorant, covers a much larger area than on Shag. The structure of this area is also different. On Shag the angle between the base of the bill and the end of the gular is much reduced compared to the greater angle of Cormorant. The skin also extends around the eye to a greater extent on Cormorant than Shag.

European Shag North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve RaceEuropean Shag North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve Race 

In flight, Shags are slimmer with a shorter neck and wings than Cormorant. Shags are pelagic birds. By this we mean they spend all their lives at sea only coming to land to nest at the base of high cliffs. It is very rare to see a Shag inland even in winter. Cormorants however have no real landscape preference they are equally happy on inland water areas as they are on the coast.

European Shag North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve RaceEuropean Shag North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve Race 

While you are on the coast look out for Short-eared Owls as they hunt quietly often close to the ground, drifting over the grassland like ghosts. Bempton RSPB and the North Yorkshire coast around Ravenscar can be great places for these birds; there have even been sightings occasionally around Scarborough Castle! They prefer open, rough tall grassland away from tall trees. Rough and uncut tall grass provides a home for small mammals which is their favourite prey. Open land is better because it often means there are fewer crows that can harass the owls.

Short-eared Owl North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve RaceShort-eared Owl North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve Race 

Short-eared Owls often migrate across the North Sea in autumn. On one of Yorkshire Coast Nature’s seabird and whale boat trips in September 2015 a Short-eared Owl appeared above the boat, flying towards land 6 miles out to sea. These Scandinavian breeding birds then spend the winter with us. So the next time you see one in the winter you may be looking at a Viking Owl!

Short-eared Owl North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve RaceShort-eared Owl North Yorkshire 2017 © Steve Race 

In woodlands large and small some of our most famous flowers of the year are appearing. Look out for Snowdrops. A symbol of hope in many European traditions they were also once thought to bring death if a single flower was brought into the house. If it does snow in February look out for these wonderful flowers as the snow melts they can often be seen pushing their heads up through the ice crystals! A wonderful opportunity for a photograph.

Snowdrops © Dan Lombard Snowdrops © Dan Lombard  

Dog’s Mercury is also starting to appear in February, this plant is unspectacular but welcome none the less as it often bathes the woodland floor in vivid green. The small green flowers are foul-smelling and the plant can be very poisonous but with few medicinal uses there are few cases of poisoning.

One of my favourite flowers is Coltsfoot. One of the first to appear often before even Snowdrops, Coltsfoot is unusual in that the flowers appear before the leaves. This feature earned it an old nick name "son before the father". The aromatic flowers can be eaten and are especially good in salads. Look out for these wonderful plants on disturbed thin soils such as by the side of gravel tracks or on old building sites where they love to be a real pioneer.  

Coltsfoot © Richard Baines Coltsfoot © Richard Baines  

Richard Baines YCN