What to Look for in Winter


The distinctive and evocative trumpeting call of the whooper swan can be heard around the region during the winter months.
This majestic bird, with its striking yellow bill markings, is the national bird of Finland. Most of our winter visiting birds
are from Iceland and like other species; the numbers visiting Britain depend largely on the success of the previous breeding
season, together with the severity of the Icelandic weather.

Look for reddish stains on whooper swans as this is a result of oxides in the water and can give them an unusual appearance.
Whooper swans are likely to be seen around wet meadows and stubble fields, usually by estuaries and rivers, where they feed
on aquatic plants, waste grain and potatoes. The collective term for a group is a wedge of swans.

Whooper Swan (Cygnus olor)

There are few trees more closely associated with the mid winter festival as the holly, with its smooth grey bark and shiny
dark green evergren leaves, contrasted and complimented during our Winter months by rich red berries that are welcome
food for birds and animals.

The evergreen leaves of holly were seen as a symbol of natural rebirth and used to decorate house entrances because of its
prickles, which could snag fairies and other negative forces before they entered the house.

"The holly and the ivy
When they are fully grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown"

Look carefully around larger holly bushes and you may notice that not all the leaves are jagged. This is due to the amount of
sunlight reaching the leaves and is more noticable in a shaded woodland.

The traditional carol possibly comes from one belief that for the first part of the year, the oak king rules the woodland.
When the oak begins to lose its leaves, the evergreen holly is crowned the king, standing guard over the wood while the oak
regains its strength and power. However, there are less harmonius versions of the tale, with great conflicts between the holly
and the oak over the ruling of the wood.

Its wood is excellent for carving and for inlay work and was used to make chariot wheels and spear shafts. An abundant crop
of holly berries is said to point to a hard winter ahead and planted outside a house it is thought to ward off fire and storms.
Builders once made steps of houses from holly wood so witches could not enter.

In the highlands at Hogmanay, people used to be whipped with prickly holly boughs for good luck! Each drop of blood would
bring good fortune to the poor recipient.


January is the month when tawny owls become noticeably more active and vocal as they begin to establish territories for
the coming breeding season. The commonest and most widespread of our British owls, tawny owls are nocturnal, their daytime
roosts sometimes given away by the frenzied alarm calls of small birds as they mob the seemingly oblivious owl. A 12th Century
tale suggests why owls are nocturnal. As one had stolen a rose which was a prize given for beauty, the other birds punished it
by allowing it to come out only at night. Among many other folk cures, alcoholism was often treated with an owl egg! The call
is well known, though the word hooting scarcely does justice to a sound that is short but so musical, far carrying and atmospheric.

The hoot of the male, in effect saying " this is my patch keep out " is often answered by the ke-wick of the female, usually
its mate. As hooting is very infectious, often once one begins, so several others follow, definitely not just one voice singing
in the darkness! It is therefore very apt that the collective noun for a group of owls is a parliament. Any male that is foolish
enough to not put his best efforts in, is inviting another to seize an apparently unclaimed territory. The young, on average
2 or 3, are extremely cute and covered in down when first fledged and may be visible in daylight, as they do not venture far
from the nest. The best giveaway in mid June onwards, is a noticeable area of droppings, usually under a mature broad-leaved tree.

They have a squeak like gentle call, as if made through pursed lips and clenched teeth. Be warned, the female can be extremely
aggressive in protecting her young. Any area with mature trees can provide a home for tawny owls; listen out for them especially
around Big Wood, Cessnock Wood and Burnhouse Brae near Galston, Lainshaw Woods near Stewarton and Glen Afton Woods near
New Cumnock. So brave these cold January nights, step outside for a while, and find out how many you can hear.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)



February often brings the first snows to Ayrshire around the same time that the first snowdrops are boldly forcing their way
through the hard ground. This determination to push through the hard frosts gave rise to the localized name of snow-piercer.
The tips of the flower head are toughened, allowing it to force through the earth. Their delicate white flowers are found along
streams, woodland edges and increasingly in gardens as it is a very robust little plant and naturalizes easily.

It is also known as the fair maid of February and its scientific names mean milkflower and resembling snow. Other names include
Candlemass bells, Mary's taper and dingle dangle. The 18th Century poet Thomas Tickell referred to it as 'vegetable snow'!

Among other plants that start to appear this month is the curious looking butterbur, found along burns and rivers . Also known
as wild rhubarb, butterbur is best described as a small Christmas tree, covered in snow, rising up from the ground. Numerous
others follow suit, covering the ground with a strange but beautiful display, well before the leaves start to develop and unfurl.

The tradition of wrapping butter in the leaves, which can reach up to 36 inches across, gives it its name. This was before the
days of refrigeration, the soft grey down keeping the leaves cool. One of the most familiar of garden plants, the daffodil, will
also start to emerge this month. The bulb was once mixed with barley meal to heal wounds.