It might be getting cold outside, but life goes on.
It might be getting cold outside, but life goes on under the ice.
IT’S ALWAYS WORTH braving the chill to see spectacular scenes like this: a frosted landscape sparkling in the winter sun. The countryside seems frozen, as if time has stopped. But you’d be wrong to think there’s no life here.
A flurry of snow drops from a tree as a flock of fieldfares and redwings arrive. They’ve travelled here from Iceland and Scandinavia in search of berries to see them through the colder months. High in the canopy they have a good vantage point to survey the hedgerows for bright red hips and haws, which they’ll quickly strip before moving on.
The snow provides cover for voles and mice who can burrow through, unseen by the kestrels and owls that might be keeping an eye out for them. In the soil below, moles are active too, but winter can be tough for these expert excavators. Many of the earthworms they want to eat will have dug much further down to escape the cold, so to keep them going moles will have made themselves a larder. A mole will chew off the heads of hundreds of worms which stops them crawling away but keeps them fresh throughout the winter! There will be mammals up and about above the snow too: look carefully and you may find tracks of badgers, foxes and deer.
The surface of the lake may have a thick icy crust but around the edges dabbling waterbirds will do their best to keep a patch of open water clear. Geese and swans, with their considerable weight, can help smaller birds get to their aquatic food by breaking the ice. There’s frost on the outside, but deep in the lakeside vegetation there’s a microclimate warmed by decaying leaves. Tiny insects and spiders scuttle up the stems, where robins, wrens, and dunnocks may pick them off. One of the few members of its family to overwinter in the UK, the Cetti’s warbler, also survives on bugs hiding among the reeds.
Beneath the water, fish like stickleback, rudd, tench, pike and eel will still be swimming. Life at the bottom will have slowed right down. Underwater animals that are still active like caddisfly and dragonfly larvae will be moving at a more leisurely pace than they would in spring and summer. Others will be nestled deeper in the mud, including frogs and newts which are able to take in oxygen from the water through their skin.
Take a winter walk on an RSPB reserve for scenes like this: rspb.org.uk/reserves