Nature Diary

Nature Diary – February

The very first signs of Spring are starting to appear at Skanda Vale.

By Brother Andy

On the last Monday of February, a small group of us emerged from the nine o’clock puja to be greeted by a huge circle of light in the sky, surrounding a moon that was nearly full. Lunar halos are not uncommon but this particular example was spectacular, seeming to fill a whole sector of the night sky.

Folklore says that the appearance of such a lunar halo is the precursor of impending unsettled weather and this certainly proved to be the case. Monday had been a beautiful calm day with bright sun and blue skies. In great contrast, the following two days brought gale-force winds and driving rain.

A lunar halo is formed as moonlight refracts in millions of hexagonal ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere

We have become accustomed to such changeable weather. In recent weeks temperatures have dropped well below freezing, bringing snow and a long succession of torrential rain causing local flooding. Blue sky days are a rarity.

Snow elephants

During this period I was been concerned to see a middle-aged and an elderly lady walking around in all but the coldest of weathers. Valli and Lakshmi have no problem keeping warm because they have such a large body mass compared to their skin surface; their biggest problem is losing heat.

Seeing as most of you have not been at school during the lockdown, try this for homework; work out the surface area to volume ratios of three cubes, with sides measuring 1cm, 2cm and 3cm. You will see that as an object gets larger the surface area to volume ratio gets smaller.

Little mammals like mice have a much higher ratio than elephants, so they get cold much quicker. Elephants get so hot, nature has given them special cooling equipment; their large ears are filled with blood vessels to bring excess heat from their bodies to be cooled at the skin’s surface.

The dawn chorus

Despite the weather, song thrushes, chaffinches and nuthatches have begun rehearsing for the big event, the Dawn Chorus, which will be in full swing in a few weeks time when they will be joined by visitors flying in from Africa.

There are other signs of the natural world waking up; perhaps responding more to the increasing daylight hours than to the inclement weather. Garland maker Kate and Swami Karuna both report large quantities of frog spawn appearing in ditches and ponds.

We have yet to see the appearance of this spawn in the Durga Lake; temperatures are slightly lower at the bottom of the valley. A small clump of Barren Strawberry is in flower in a sheltered place by the Durga Lake; nearby Brother Colin saw a robin collecting nesting material.

Swami Karuna has recorded what we think is the call of a crossbill. These birds are quite common in Somaskanda Ashram but I’ve not seen them around here. Crossbills are brightly coloured birds usually seen at the top of coniferous trees where they use their unusual beaks to extract pine seeds from cones.

A chunky finch with a large head and crossed bill used to extract seeds from conifer cones.

Feed the birds!

Birds are desperate for food during periods of poor weather. As soon as I put food out in front of my chalet birds appear in great numbers. These are mainly blue, great, coal and marsh tits. These acrobatic little birds cling easily to the bird feeder taking seeds and flying up into the trees to consume them.

In more abundant times I hang up coconuts and large tins of ghee (open at both ends). These attract not only members of the tit family but larger birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches.

You are all probably too young to remember when milk was delivered to the door. I can recall going out to bring the milk in and frequently found that the tin foil caps on the bottles had holes in them. Blue tits were the culprits. They would puncture the caps and drink the cream on top of the milk.

As time went on, low-fat milk became more popular and bottles were replaced by cartons so these intelligent little birds, which had learned this behaviour by watching others, had lost this source of food.

I occasionally see long-tailed tits in the trees outside my chalet. They rarely visit bird feeders, remaining insectivorous throughout the year. These are tiny birds, weighing just nine grams, (about the weight of a pound coin), and because of their small size lose heat rapidly in cold weather.

Severe winter weather can see their population size fall by as much as 80%. In winter they roost at night in thick shrubbery – keeping warm by huddling with others in small bundles.

Two interesting bird species have made visits to the Sri Ranganatha Temple. A kingfisher has been seen on more than one occasion on the Durga Lake, and a Grey Wagtail sometimes flies on to the Sri Ranganatha island during the puja.

An outdoor lake temple at Skanda Vale dedicated to Sri Ranganatha
Devotees offering their prayers at the Durga Lake.

This latter bird has nested in this Temple before, so hopefully, the bird is making exploratory visits to see whether the Temple will again make a suitable nesting site. The Sri Ranganatha Temple is obviously attractive to these birds as the nest is usually placed in a location close to a fast-flowing river between hollows, or nooks and crannies among stones and rocks.

Tawny Owls have been particularly vocal during last autumn and this winter. Their twit-tawoos have even been heard during daylight hours. This is a sign of birds establishing territories before the breeding season commences. Young birds are reaching maturity and looking for new homes while older birds are fighting to hold on to their patch.

Spring is on its way.

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