A month in the countryside: connecting with nature in February
Writer and naturalist Susie White lives and gardens in a small valley in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its diverse mix of habitats and landscapes provide a rich variety of wildlife to observe and record – including through her regular Country Diary entries for The Guardian.
We’re delighted that Susie will now be sharing some of her sightings and reflections with CPRE, for this exclusive monthly website column. In her second month, Susie gives us her tips on what to look out for in nature – celebrating both what makes the North Pennines so special, as well as the everyday beauty that can inspire us all.
Six ways to connect with nature this February
1. Consider winter’s impact on wildlife
Snowdrops are flowering in my garden, bobbing in the cold east winds, looking fragile yet tough. Some days they are white on white from snowfall. It’s a proper North Pennine winter this year with the landscape being repeatedly revealed and covered, which has an effect on wildlife.
I hear tawny owls calling in the dark evenings, the males hooting back and forth as they vie for the territory of this garden with its plentiful voles. They are unable to hunt when the snow lies thick because their prey can scuttle through snaking corridors beneath its surface.
When the nights have been wet and windy I see barn owls flying from necessity by day, creamy buff coloured wings slowly quartering the rough grass of the hillside.
In this upland area February is very firmly a winter month, but I look with hope for signs of reawakening in new honeysuckle leaves and catkins, in buds and early flowers.
2. Celebrate the first buds of spring
We’ve had numerous frosts in the valley this year. As I walk, the ground feels hard and unrelenting beneath my feet. This makes it all the more astonishing to see buds muscling up through the soil in my garden.
Peonies bulge, plump and crimson, like clusters of onion domes on a Russian church. Euphorbias are lime green, sedums are pale jade. Rhubarb buds are red and shiny, their nascent leaves wrinkled and corrugated like the wings of newly emerged dragonflies about to expand.
We all eagerly look for flowers in February but we can also take time to notice the beauty and colour of plants pushing up through the earth.
3. Find colour in the woods
Walk in the woods at this time of year and you might see vivid splashes of cherry red amongst the wet drabness of leaf litter. These vivid fungi are Scarlet elf cups, Sarcoscypha austriaca, and they grow on decaying branches and sticks on the woodland floor, especially amongst hazels.
Brilliant red inside, they have pale apricot coloured backs and their cups are fully rounded like apples that have been hollowed out by blackbirds. Underneath is a short stalk that attaches the fungus to the rotting wood. Rain collects in the irregularly shaped cups and it’s easy to see how they got their name.
4. Be uplifted by bird calls
It’s usually in mid-February that I hear my first curlew. Having wintered at the coast, they come back to the uplands to breed. I rather hope they are a bit late this year because the frost-hard ground will make it harder for them to feed. Curlews use their beautiful curved bills to probe the fields for earthworms and leatherjackets as well as beetles, spiders and caterpillars.
There’s usually a pair of curlews that nest near our house and their calls become familiar for a few months, but the first time I hear one each year is a magical uplifting moment.
5. Spot a queen bee
If you see a large bumblebee on the wing in February, it is likely to be a Buff-tailed queen, Bombus terrestris. I grow some of their favourite plants in my woodland border so that there is plenty of food to greet newly woken queens. Hellebores have large flowers in open cups giving easy access to the Buff-tailed bumblebees which have relatively short tongues. Lungworts flower from late winter well into spring and have white-spotted leaves and nodding pink and blue flowers.
Buff-tailed queens spend up to six months underground, tunnelled into the soil, before waking to feed and find a nest site to rear a new colony. In cities in the south of England they can be winter-active, so plant a bush of Mahonia and you can watch them feeding from its scented yellow flowers.
6. Look to the stars for inspiration
Clear frosty nights are perfect for stargazing and I’m very lucky to live in the North Pennines AONB with some of the darkest skies in England. Just a few miles from my house are two Dark Skies Discovery Sites where the lack of light pollution gives incredible views of the night.
I can stand outside my back door and see the Milky Way spangling across the sky in a wide fuzzy belt, see the bold W of Cassiopeia, the familiar curve of the Plough or Orion. It is to the constellation of Orion that we look to see how many stars we can spot for the CPRE’s annual Star Count.