Frogspawn is another signal that winter is drawing to an end. But, is it early and what will happen when, or if, there is a cold snap?
The characteristic semolina like jelly of frogspawn is laid in shaded, shallow ponds, surrounded by plants. With the recent heavy rain, the two main streams on the reserve are creating pools which are good for frogspawn and as part of winter management works reserve managers have been leaving dead and fallen trees over the streams and felling some trees to create more natural pools, with benefits for a diversity of wildlife. To have a chance of seeing some frogspawn, take a look in the pool in the river by Hisley Bridge or in the artificial pond next to the Woodland Centre, as the eggs mature they swell and float to the surface (see photo below), but only one in 50 survive because of predators and frost.
The changes in their lifecycle linked frogs to fertility and creativity in ancient Egypt. During the Middle Ages however, the church linked them to the devil, based on the second Biblical plague of Egypt. Perhaps that’s why in fairy tales they are ugly until the beauty inside, is released by a kiss.
Frogs, like the newts who feed on their tadpoles are ectotherms and most of their heat comes from external sources. Nature’s Calendar data is being used to research the impact of earlier breeding on frogspawn success rates, as well as increased tadpole predation by newts, which were first seen in February last year, 15 days earlier than the benchmark year.
Now is also the time that toads are returning to their breeding ponds. They follow the same route, regardless of what gets in their way, which sometimes leads to them crossing roads (see Froglife website). There is a toad crossing point on the road across Trendlebere Down (between Lower Trendlebere and Middle Trendelbere car parks) – Froglife have a network of road crossing points used by toads and some of these are actively monitored by volunteers. This season, this section of road is being monitored by a volunteer patrol manager who makes regular evening checks, assisting any toads to the other side to stop them being squashed by passing vehicles, they also display the specially designed drop-down toad patrol road sign, to warn passing drivers.
Early pollinators are on the move in February
With their distinctive yellow and black stripes, nipped in waists and triangular heads, common wasps don’t win popularity contests. But does their ability to sting when in danger justify their bad press? At the top of the food chain, wasps are important pollinators and keep the insect ecosystem in balance by eating aphids, spiders and centipedes.
Another insect queen emerging from hibernation is the red-tailed bumblebee, whose distinctive red tail can cover up to half her abdomen. Like the wasp, her mission is to build a nest, so she can lay eggs. You’ll be able to see them on the edge of woods, as well as in hedgerows, nesting under stones or by walls. Known in middle English as a humbul-be, the bumblebee is linked to wisdom in Celtic mythology, and is a messenger between the human and spirit worlds.
Two more early pollinators are the peacock and small tortoiseshell, whose change from caterpillar to butterfly, symbolises creativity and transformation.
While the incredible eye patterns of peacock butterflies make them easily recognisable to us, they evolved to confuse predators. If threatened, they have another deterrent, they can make themselves sound large and dangerous, by rubbing the veins on their fore and hindwings together to make a hissing sound.
Last year on average, all insects were first seen 23 days earlier than the 2001 benchmark, and a research project is investigating whether butterflies and the red-tailed bumblebee are emerging from their diapause (dormancy period) earlier due to changes in seasonal temperature over the last 50 years.
Flowering food in February
One of the flowers early pollinators will be heading for is bright yellow coltsfoot, which is named after the waxy ‘hoof shaped’ leaves which appear after the flowers have finished. Records sent in by volunteers show that coltsfoot is starting to flower later, which isn’t what scientists expected and may indicate that it’s becoming less widespread across the country. Used as a traditional cough treatment, it is also called coughwort and contains tannins that are anti-inflammatory.
The red-tailed bumblebee and small tortoiseshell will also be heading for blackthorn. Last year blackthorns started flowering 27 days earlier than the benchmark year and provided valuable food and shelter for caterpillars and birds throughout the year.
What else can you look out for?
You can already hear and see the increased bird activity around East Dartmoor’s woods and two familiar birds, the blackbird and the blue tit start nest building this month. Both started earlier last year, the blackbird by 11 days and the blue tit by eight compared to the benchmark year. Will that be repeated in 2020?
Do you have some time to record what you see in nature? You can find out more about current research, how to start recording and what’s been seen this year on the Nature’s Calendar website. This year the Nature’s Calendar team are particularly interested in any records of coltsfoot. (Blog link – Coltsfoot – A little ray of sunshine in spring)
By Jane Halliday, for the Fingle Woods blog. With thanks to Albert Knott for East Dartmoor related information on toads and frogspawn