December in the Forest
The continuation of warm weather into autumn has kept flowers flowering and insects buzzing for much longer than normal. This is good news for the birds that stay, or arrive, for the winter although those looking for berries saw them disappear at the usual rate. Ivy is a wonderful source of nectar and pollen during the autumn and early winter, as the Hornet in the photo has discovered. After the flowers the berries provide a feast for Wood Pigeons, Thrushes, Blackbirds and Blackcaps, so it is a very valuable plant for wildlife.
When the frosts come they accelerate the leaf drop from trees and finish off the tender plants, but do they signal the beginning of hibernation? The temperature is certainly a factor in a complicated set of triggers which include day length and food availability. In the UK quite a number of creatures enter a state of hibernation. Cold-blooded creatures including bees, ants, ladybirds, some butterflies (such as the Peacock), frogs, newts, toads and snakes just cannot function in low temperatures anyway but in mammals it is a behavioural and physiological adaptation to survive periods with little food. The metabolic rate drops to less than 5% of normal and, for Hedgehogs, Dormice and bats, the winter is spent in a state similar to a deep sleep. Squirrels, which make winter dreys out of close-knit leafy twigs up in the forks of tree trunks, sleep huddled together there for warmth but wake in milder periods for the purpose of toileting and seeking out a snack from their stores. The same is true of Hedgehogs to a lesser extent, and for them it is riskier as they don’t have stores of food and they may expend more energy than they can make up.
We can help hibernating creatures by providing shelter, whether it be bug hotels, heaps of leaves or piles of woody prunings, and making sure we don’t disturb these during the winter.
I hope you’ll be enjoying the season and, like our wildlife, have plenty of shelter, company and food this Christmas!