2020 was a tough year for everyone. The countryside, our local parks and gardens have been our salvation, nature our anti-depressant. Which is why the Wharfedale Naturalists Society wanted to celebrate the diversity of plant and wildlife here in the dale. Asking its members to join in their first-ever Christmas plant hunt and birding competition. Aiming to end 2020 on a high, looking forward to happier times ahead.

The task was to record as many plants in flower (excluding those in gardens) or birds seen either in the garden or countryside over the festive period (starting Saturday, December 19, and finishing Sunday, January 3). Everyone was asked to keep within the spirit of the times and restrictions, submitting records from within five miles of their home, as the crow flies.

To tempt members further we had four book tokens to give away. “Points win Prizes” or in this case “Species win Prizes”. Two for the most plants or birds recorded, and a further two for a “star” bird or flower (just like becoming “star baker” on the Great British Bake Off!)

The results were amazing, 92 birds were sighted over the two-week period, and 86 plants found in flower. And the winners are:

Most birds sighted: 80, by Andrew Kelly

“Star” bird: Whooper Swans spotted by Isobel Tate- Smith, (aged 13)

Most plants found in flower: 40, by Carmen Horner

“Star” plant: Climbing Corydalis found by Sarah Ward.

Originally the main aim of the festive plant hunt and birding competition was to provide fun and an engaging project during the quieter winter months. However, it also provides valuable insights into how many species of plant are in flower in winter, and the number of both resident birds and winter visitors we have within the dale. Many of you will be surprised at the results. I have had my eyes opened and I wanted to examine in more detail:

* Why birds might want to visit us in winter?

* And ask the question. Which plants come into flower in the depths of winter and why?

First a closer look at our results:

92 different bird species is a phenomenal number. All resident species, apart from 10 that could be regarded as winter visitors and one exotic, a ring-necked parakeet. The most commonly recorded species was the robin, closely followed by blackbird, chaffinch, carrion crow, dunnock, wood pigeon, wren, and blue, great and long-tailed tits. 42 birds were seen by half or more of the recorders. Encouraging all of us to get out our binoculars and take a look, there are so many different common species visiting our gardens and local countryside.

Even more surprising were the 86 plants found in flower, however unlike the birds many plants were often only seen by a single observer. Just 17 of the commoner species were recorded by half or more of the entrants. The commonest plants in flower were gorse and herb robert, other common finds included creeping buttercup, groundsel, hairy bittercress, ivy-leaved toadflax, shepherds purse, common chickweed and smooth sow-thistle. Not all were prime specimens, but certainly worth keeping your eyes open as you enjoy a winter walk.

Why birds might visit Wharfedale in winter?

Birds migrate for many different reasons. I want to look at reasons why birds might arrive in Wharfedale in winter.

Not all birds migrate, and a few such as partridges, never move more than a kilometre from where they were born.

The most well known are long distance migrants such as swallows, which breed in Europe and spend the winter in Africa. But you might be surprised to learn that many others do as well. Even the blackbirds in your garden at Christmas could well be visitors from Eastern Europe.

Irruptions are a mass arrival of birds that do not usually visit the UK in large numbers. This happens with northern species, such as waxwings, when their population grows too large for their winter food supply of berries in Scandinavia, they fly west across the North Sea. This only occurs approximately one year in ten, but is a wonderful spectacle when it does happen.

Instead of migrating north and south, or east and west, some birds migrate up and down. This is called altitudinal or vertical migration. Birds that breed in upland areas in the summer head down to lowland areas in winter in search of milder climate and more food. Which is why we say goodbye to many of our skylarks, meadow pipits, curlew and stonechats from their moorland habitats, as they head for lower altitudes.

Winter visitors or migrants are birds that arrive in autumn from the north and east to spend the winter in the UK, where the weather is milder and food easier to find. Returning in spring to their breeding grounds. These include many of the birds regularly seen in Wharfedale in the winter months; fieldfares, redwings, whooper swans, goldeneye, wigeon, and scaup. If we lived near the coast there would also be large numbers of ducks, geese and wading birds.

One bird recorded on our list, a green sandpiper may have been a passage migrant, stopping off in the UK during its journey south. Using Wharfedale like a motorway service station, refuelling en route.

Lastly partial migrants that may not even be noticed. In severe winters, birds normally resident in Eastern Europe may migrate west for the milder UK joining their British cousins. This includes many of our common birds, including starlings, blackbirds, and tits. Returning home and saying their “goodbyes” when the weather improves.

For whatever reason birds visit us here in Wharfedale in winter, they are a welcome sight. You just never know what you might see.

Which plants come into flower in the depths of winter and why?

It is amazing to think 86 plants were found in flower in Wharfedale over the festive period. Often not good specimens, remembering that plants have a ‘plastic response’ to poor and difficult growing conditions. Their overall height and leaf size may be reduced, but rarely the size of flower, which are reduced in number but not in dimensions.

The British Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) has been running an annual New Year plant hunt for the last ten years. Their results are similar to ours, with Native and Non-Natives species accounting for roughly equal numbers of Christmas/New Year flowering plants. As you might expect more species were in flower the further south or west you went, and at lower altitudes. Their ‘top four’ has always remained the same, daisy, groundsel, dandelion and annual meadow-grass, all of which make an appearance on our list.

Looking closer at those plants in flower. We can recognise four categories:

* Autumn stragglers - flowering late

* All year-round flowerers

* Winter specialists - mid-late winter flowering plants

* Early spring flowers - flowering early

‘Autumn stragglers’ account for the most, amounting to approximately 50 per cent of species recorded.

This is even more marked when November and December are warm, with temperatures not dipping below 4°C as in 2015. Such conditions allow plants to continue flowering well into winter, presumably because of the absence of frosts which would normally kill any late flowering shoots.

‘All year round flowerers’ and ‘Winter specialists’ (those plants you might expect to be in flower in December/January) made up a further 25 per cent.

These included gorse (as the saying goes “when gorse is not in flower, kissing is not in season”), hairy bittercress (many a gardeners curse), annual meadow-grass, petty spurge, common chickweed and shepherds purse, all of which can be found flowering in any month of the year.

Examples of mid and late winter specialists might include Winter Aconite and Snowdrops, both welcome harbingers of spring.

‘Spring flowers flowering early’ make up the remaining 25 per cent. Given global warming and climate change, you might have expected more spring plants like; primrose, cowslip, and lesser celandine.

However the evidence from the BSBI and our list is less marked with more species flowering late than early.

This is because very large advances in flowering would be needed for plants normally flowering in March or April to flower at Christmas. In addition, many spring-flowering (vernal) species require periods of freezing temperatures (stratification) to break dormancy and begin growth.

Coming across a plant in bloom in winter always brings a smile to my face. Stopping for a period of reflection and amazement.

So a huge thank you to everyone who took part, you all made a tremendous effort. Judging by comments, it sounds as if everyone enjoyed the experience and are up for the same challenge next Christmas.

If you would like to know more about Wharfedale Naturalists Society visit our website wharfedale-nats.org.uk or phone Peter Riley, our president for a chat on 01943 862916.

Like the Ilkley Gazette, Wharfedale Observer and Craven Herald we are aiming to keep your sprits uplifted. We are keeping in touch with our members with weekly emails on topical subjects and twice monthly ZOOM webinars. All for a £12.50 membership fee. Hopefully returning with summer field meetings, trips and walks, and winter lectures as soon as safely possible.

Table 1

Christmas and New Year bird sightings (Total = 92)

All are “All-Year Round Residents” apart from where indicated.

 = Commonest birds. Recorded by at least 50% of observers

Barn Owl

Black-headed Gull 

Blackbird 

Blackcap Now regarded as year round resident

Blue Tit 

Bullfinch 


Canada Goose

Chaffinch 

Coal Tit 

Collared Dove 

Common Gull


Cormorant 

Carrion Crow 



Dunnock 

Feral Pigeon 

Fieldfare  Winter Visitor

Gadwall Winter Visitor/Resident

Goldcrest 

Golden Plover

Goldeneye Winter Visitor

Goldfinch 

Goosander 

Greenfinch 

Green Sandpiper Scarce Winter Visitor

Green Woodpecker

Great Crested Grebe

Great Tit 

Great Spotted Woodpecker 

Grey Heron 

Grey Wagtail

Greylag Goose

Hen Harrier

Herring Gull

House Sparrow 

Jackdaw 

Jay 



Lapwing 

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Redpoll


Little Egret Scarce Resident

Little Grebe

Little Owl

Long-tailed Tit 

Magpie 

Mallard 

Mandarin Duck

Marsh Tit

Meadow Pipit

Mistle Thrush 

Moorhen 

Mute Swan

Nuthatch 


Pheasant Common 

Pied Wagtail

Pink-footed Goose Winter Visitor


Red-legged Partridge

Red Grouse 

Red Kite 

Redshank Common

Redwing Winter Visitor

Reed Bunting

Ring-necked Parakeet Exotic

Robin 

Rook 

Scaup, Great Winter Visitor

Shelduck, Common


Snipe, Common

Song Thrush 

Sparrowhawk 

Starling 

Stock Dove


Tawny Owl


Tree Creeper 

Tree Sparrow

Tufted Duck 

Water Rail Winter Visitor/Resident

Wigeon Winter Visitor

Whooper Swan Winter Visitor

Wood Pigeon 

Wren 

Table 2

Christmas and New Year plants found in flower

(Total = 86)

 = Commonest plants. Recorded by at least 50% of observers

Adriatic Bellflower


Alison Sweet


Annual Meadow Grass


Bramble 

Broad-leaved Willowherb


Canadian Fleabane

Castor Oil plant



Common Chickweed 

Common Ragwort 

Common Mouse-ear

Cow Parsley


Creeping Buttercup 

Creeping Corydalis


Daisy 

Dames Violet

Dandelion 

Dogs Mercury

Druce’s Cranesbill

False Oxlip

Feverfew 

Field Forget-me-not

Fool’s Parsley


Gorse 

Green Alkanet

Groundsel 

Hairy Bitter-cress 


Hedge Mustard

Hedgerow Cranesbill

Herb Robert 

Himalayan Honeysuckle

Hogweed 


Hybrid Ragwort - Common Ragwort x Marsh ragwort


Ivy-leaved Toadflax 


Lesser Periwinkle

Ling (Common Heather)

Meadow Buttercup

Mexican Fleabane

Musk Mallow

Narrow-leaved Ragwort



Ox-eye Daisy

Oxford Ragwort

Petty Spurge


Procumbent Pearlwort


Pot Marigold

Prickly Sowthistle 

Red Campion

Red Dead-nettle

Red Valerian


Santa Barbara Daisy

Scented Mayweed

Scentless Mayweed

Shepherd’s Purse 

Shining Cranesbill

Smooth Sowthistle 


Stinging Nettle

Thale Cress

Tuberous Comfrey

Trailing Bellflower


Wargrave Pink Geranium (Geranium oxoianum)

Wavy Bitter-cress

Welsh Poppy

White Dead-Nettle

White Melilot

Wild Strawberry

Wood Aven 