Dear Readers, well here we are, and this feels like the fastest year in recorded history. My Mum really was right that things speed up as you get older. And it looks as if we could be in for a bit of snow this week, here in the UK, which is always a mixed blessing – lots of fun if you’re young and mobile, not so much if you find it difficult to walk on ice or snow. But hey, the Christmas lights are being switched on, the shops are full of Christmas songs, and the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg are omnipresent. Let’s see what’s going on!
Things to Do
- It’s a little bit early for most places to have posted their Christmas 2023 activities, but some of the best things to do at this time of year are free – a brisk walk in some green space during the brief days always lifts the spirits.
- With the leaves gone from the trees, it’s well worth borrowing some binoculars and going out for a spot of birdwatching – there are a lot of winter visitors to see, including the brambling which crops up in parks and gardens all over the place. Plus it’s the best time of year to see many of our coastal birds. This article lists ‘the ten best places for winter birdwatching’ in the UK.
- If you don’t fancy going out, this online talk on Conserving Nature in the Royal Parks sounds interesting (and it’s free)
- Walthamstow Wetlands has ‘Storytelling with Santa‘ (including a BSL interpreted session), which is described as ‘a Santa experience with a wildlife twist’. Sounds like fun but I’ve been at the Wetlands when it’s on, and it’s very popular, so book now if you fancy it!
- There’s also a session at Walthamstow Wetlands on ‘Comets, Meteorites and Asteroids‘ on 14th December. Wrap up warm!
- The London Natural History Society December talk at 19.00 on 7th December has piqued my interest with its mention of ‘the Underground mosquito’ – online and free!
- Have a look at the plant catalogues and sites online, early December (before the Christmas mayhem starts) and after the Big Day are great times to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to start making some plans. If money is tight, seeds are always a good bet for cheering the place up, and if you or someone you know is a member of the RHS you can get up to 15 packets of seeds gathered from their gardens for a tenner.
Plants for Pollinators
- The RHS’s plant for December is Mahonia, and I can see why – it flowers for a long time in the middle of winter, it smells great, and although it’s an awkward, spiky plant it’s very forgiving of heavy soil, shade and neglect. In particular they are recommending Mahonia japonica, but I’ve seen bees on the other varieties too.
- Winter-flowering honeysuckle should still be in flower, along with stinking hellebore, and gorse may be in flower too.
- December is the moment when all sorts of unusual birds might pop into the garden if there’s bad weather – I only ever see siskins when it’s snowing, for example (they’ve become ‘snow birds’ to me.
- The first winter for many birds is the crucial time – if they can get through to spring, they will probably go on to breed. It can be a sad time, though, with many birds succumbing to cold and lack of food, especially those who don’t visit gardens. This is a peak month for finding dead birds in the garden (though with bird flu this year, it’s been terrible for many areas)
- That song that you hear on an iron-hard morning is probably a robin – robins establish their pair bonds during December (normally), although they won’t actually breed until the spring. How do you know that you’ve got a pair of robins? If they’re feeding within a few metres of one another without beating one another up.
- If you’re able to get out to some wetlands, December is the best month to see goldeneye ducks, surely some of the most handsome of our winter visitors.
- Similarly, if you’re close to the Wash or Morecombe Bay, the number of knots (small wading birds) can put on a show that’s every bit as exciting as the more well-known starling murmurations, as they take to the air to avoid the incoming tide that covers the mudflats where they feed. You can have a look at a lovely film of them here. Worth a trip to Norfolk, I think!
- The bad weather seems to bring wagtails into closer contact with people too – there’s a pied wagtail that I only ever see in bad weather outside our local Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there was a grey wagtail beside the pond a few winters ago. These birds prefer to be close to water in the summer, but the pied wagtail in particular is spending more time in town, and there are massive roosts in the street trees in some parts of the country.
Plants in Flower
- Precious few, but around these parts (North London) you might see hazel catkins, winter jasmine with its yellow flowers, witch hazel, some varieties of daphne with their exquisite scent, and the 365 days-per-year flowers of the daisy family and yarrow.
Things to Watch/Listen Out For
- The tiny muntjac deer is inconspicuous for most of the year, but with the foliage so sparse you might catch a glimpse in December. There are rumours of a muntjac in East Finchley, so watch this space!
- If you look at a London plane tree, you should see that it has its very own Christmas baubles, in the shape of the round fruits (technically called achenes). The fruits are full of tiny seeds that are prone to irritate the nasal passages of anyone with hayfever, but for now they just hang there, looking festive
- Look out for masses of hibernating snails (bless them), all sealed up in their shells and just waiting for the warmer weather. I often find them tucked away under the overhanging edges of my cheaper flower pots. Slugs, on the other hand, bury themselves away underground.
- Cemeteries are great places to look for hibernating ladybirds, who often find the crevices in old gravestones or tombs a perfect place to hide from the weather. Some, however, seem to like the public conveniences – not so picturesque, but presumably a few degrees warmer.
- It’s not a good time of the year for mothing, but you might see December moths attracted to light – they don’t feed at this time of the year (so don’t have to worry about flowers) but they are looking for a mate.
- Very few UK animals turn white in the winter, but if you’re out and about you might, if you are very, very lucky, see a stoat that’s turned into an ermine (i.e. white with a black tip to the tail). I recently saw a ceremonial robe edged with ermine, and there must have been the skins of fifty of these little animals, judging by the tail tips.
- Another animal that goes white is the mountain hare, now only found in the Highlands and parts of southern Scotland, the Peak District and a few islands. The animal was widely culled as a threat to grouse moors (don’t get me started) but this was banned in 2020. Hopefully this will give this enigmatic animal time to recover.
- The December full moon is on 27th December, and is known as the Oak Moon, the Full Cold Moon or the Moon After Yule.
- 7th December – Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) begins at sundown
- 22nd December – Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year)
- 25th December – Christmas Day
- 26th December – Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day
- 31st December – New Year’s Eve