Winter wildlife on the Devil's Dyke and Saddlescombe estate
Winter is here: a time of short days and amazing weather. This time can be tough on our wildlife with many of our plants dormant and animals hibernating or just migrating south to survive. For those that stay active, the hunt for food takes up most of the daylight hours. However winter is a fantastic time to spot wildlife, the lack of leaves making it easier to see our birds feeding, and frosty muddy ground recording the tracks of our mammals.
Wildlife to look out for
Anthills are everywhere. Winter is a great time to spot them as the grass is short and shadows are long. An indicator of ancient undisturbed grassland, the ants perform a vital bit of magic by looking after the pupae and caterpillars of rare butterflies. The ants guard the caterpillers and pupae of Adonis and Chalkhill blue butterflies in return for their milk (a sugary substance secreted for this very purpose). Almost unbelievably, the caterpillars and pupae of both butterflies have been recorded singing to the ants.
Ivy is an unsung hero of winter. It flowers late, providing a last gasp of nectar for our pollinating insects. It then fruits late, with the berries' high fat content providing a fantastic food source for our birds and mammals, especially at a time food is scarce. It also provides shelter for insects, birds, bats and other small mammals. Ivy traditionally was brought into houses over the winter as it was believed to keep evil spirits at bay, and wearing a wreath of leaves around your head is supposed to protect you from getting drunk.
This overwintering bird arrives here from late September onwards and leaves again in March/April. Look out for a small thrush with a flash of red under its wing and listen for its soft ‘speep speep’ call. The birds we see in the south are from Russia and Scandinavia and if the weather has been stormy during their sea crossing, numbers arriving will be affected. Once here they join up with other birds such as starlings and fieldfares in loose flocks, feeding on fruit and berries. When this food source runs out late winter, they move on to feeding on earthworms.
Whilst the Adonis and Chalkhill blue butterfly sees the ant as a protector, the Green Woodpecker sees it as food, using its strong beak and long tongue to extract them from the ground. Winter is a great time to see and hear this bird as they are often out in the open feeding on ants on the hillside. Look for a big bright green and red bird with an undulating flight and a loud laughing call (yaffle). Their noisiest time of year is between January and February when they attract their mate with their loud ‘yaffle’ and by drumming on dead wood.