Well, we’re nowhere near the formal start of spring, but if you know what to look for and you take the time to glance and listen, signs that spring is on the way are definitely out there.

Spring in our calendars may not be with us for another eight long weeks, but days are lengthening and this is the first stimulus for animals to get with the programme.

February is a bit of a gloomy month as far as I am concerned, so I always like to have a bright and positive outlook in January and I never, never attempt a resolution until well into March, by which time my resolve has well and truly dissolved.

So the slightly brightening horizon as I drive bleary-eyed eastward along the A3052 each morning gives me hope that, in a few weeks, my journey will not be so dark.

Blue *** are already prospecting for nest sites, with males battling over the best locations. And this morning was the first time the birds in the grounds here at Knowle have paid the morning chorus any serious attention.

Robins, dunnock, blackbirds and wrens were bashing out a few chords and the graceful notes of a song thrush could clearly be picked out amongst the hubbub.

Song thrushes are widely regarded for their morning call, a melodic flute-like song with a characteristically repeated phrases. Threes are the key, with the thrush reprising each short sequence three – or sometimes four - times before moving on to the next. They have such strong songs that it takes them some weeks to build up from what is currently a weak and short burst of song, to their full ebullient best. If anything can drive away the winter blues, it’s the promise of that soon to come!

A nuthatch was also joining in with the commotion this morning, adding a staccato punctuation to the end of the chorus after the other birds had settled down. Their call is hard to describe, but, once recognised, you will pick it out anywhere, just like the smell of a fox!

The hard winter we experienced this year, with two periods of settled snow and long swathes of sub-zero temperatures, will have had a massive impact on our local wildlife, some for the worse and some positive.

Small birds, like the well-known Dartford Warbler, may well be hit hard by the icy chill. These little birds are tiny, which means they need to eat more in cold weather to survive. However, they are also, mainly, insectivores, which means their winter diet of the odd hidden spider or other forgotten morsel, is even harder to come by.

The much more familiar long-tailed tit is a bird in a similar predicament. The long-tailed tit, however, has the ability to breed prodigiously to recover from winter losses, whereas the Dartford Warbler is in a vulnerable position, due to habitat fragmentation and loss.

Losses from one isolated site might not be made up by in-migration of new birds if there are no other breeding sites locally. It will be an important year for us all to keep an eye on these little beauties on the pebblebeds.

Some species, like dormice, on the other hand, will have benefited from us having a ‘proper’ winter.

Any species, which has evolved to spend the hard times in the deep sleep of torpor, will fare better if the temperatures remain low through the winter period.

Dormice lack an organ called the ceacum, a part of the stomach that other small mammals use to digest tough cellulose. This means that dormice need to eat food high in protein, and cannot resort to subsisting on grass or other plant material if this runs out.

So dormice take the seemingly lazy glutton’s option of stuffing themselves to bursting point in autumn and sleeping all the way through to spring, surviving on all that stored fat. Just like we can do after the Christmas excess!

So, while the dormice has gambled everything on a good long sleep, if temperatures rise before a time of year when food is available for the little animals, then they will waste valuable stored fat bringing themselves out of a deep sleep, and, possibly, even die if the false alarm is raised too often.

Finally, a word of caution for gardeners and pond owners. There may well be stories in the press about mass frog deaths, due to the cold winter we’ve just had. But, if you come across what seems to be a dead frog while you are doing a spot of New Year gardening, leave the poor fellow where you find him.

Frogs take a long time to come out of the state of hibernation they drop into when things get really hard, and so you may well be disposing of a healthy frog which just looks (and feels) like a corpse.

Unless there is obvious necrosis in the animal, it’s best to leave it in the place you found it and keep everything crossed that he wakes up in a few days’ time!

The lime green leaves of snowdrops are just beginning to peep out of the frozen soil; before we know it, winter will be a distant memory and we’ll be well on the way to the celebration of nature that is spring!

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