Things to do in January Number 3: Grasses in the snow

Snow changes everything, if only for a few days. You can walk through the fields and see exactly who has been where – in which spot the blackbirds have chosen to dig for food, which gap in the hedge the rabbits run through, where the heron stalks along the canal in the early morning. Here’s a slightly unusual one but it struck me how obvious all the grass seed heads are when walking through the snow up to Belmount Tower. Usually half the battle with grass ID can be spotting the distinctive heads against the mass of green and brown around them but they stand out beautifully against the white. Here are a few which should be easy to see!

Cock’s foot – Dactylis glomerata

Cock's foot – Dactylis glomerata panicle

So called because of the spur which you can see at the base of the seed head, this grass is a common find where management isn’t too heavy. In this case, it is doing well in a field with a low level of sheep grazing but roadsides, wastegrounds and field edges are other good places to find it.

Crested dog’s tail – Cynosurus cristatus

Crested dog's tail - Cynosurus cristatus panicle

This is a common, tufted perennial grass which is finer than some of the more boisterous grasses such as the cock’s foot above or the tufted hair grass below. Its distinctive feature is a line which runs from top to bottom and, a little like a parting, the seed grows one way or the other. This is distinct from some other similar grasses which grow all the way around in a cylindrical cone, a little more like a pipecleaner.

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa panicleicle

This grass is large and imposing, growing in a tussock and sending its seed heads up and out a metre from the base. Its leaves are a good give-away if you’re in doubt – squeeze the blade between thumb and finger and you will find that it runs smoothly in one direction but drags with impressive friction if you try it the other. This grass is generally found in damper ground – this could be alongside rushes in a marshy grassland or simply a part of the field where the water collects.

Purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea

Purple moor grass - Molinia caerulea panicle

I think that this grass is purple moor grass – another large, tussock-forming species which can be up to a metre tall. Like the tufted hair grass, it is often found in slightly damper locations and is most commonly associated with acidic habitats such as moorlands, as the name suggests.

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris panicle

This is a common grassland species which is likely, along with crested dog’s tail, to be one of the main constituent species within this field. It has a fine, spreading panicle (the term for the entire cluster of flowers) and likes nutrient poor conditions. Again, its prevalence will be down to the right level of management (grazing) to keep the nutrients low.

The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)
The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)

Things to see in January Number 2: Go in search of waxwings

Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are another winter visitor to the UK and, like the short-eared owl mentioned in the previous post, offer an unusual and exciting spectacle in the dead of winter.

They are quite distinctive and very pretty – about the size of a starling and they can look rather similar in flight. However, perched they are a much more exotic looking bird with their smokey, charcoal-grey bodies, the flashes of red and yellow on their wings and tail and a casual plume on top of their heads.

The UK over-wintering population varies from year to year but they are here in great numbers this year. They migrate in search of the berries which have had particulary poor crops on the continent this year. Rowan is a particular favourite with other species such as hawthorn, cotoneaster and rose also providing food.

The birds descend upon trees in small flocks and can strip it bare in a day, sometimes staying until every berry is plucked before moving on. Because of the food species favoured by the birds, they are often seen in rather unexpected places, watching the @waxwingsuk twitter feed gives a roundup of industrial estates, retail parks and supermarkets around the country where these trees are often planted as part of ornamental schemes. They also turn up in more expected sites such as parks and gardens.

Locations where they have been sighted in/near Grantham this year include Downtown carpark (on the A1), Asda carpark (in the centre of Grantham), Aldi carpark (beside the railway line) and most recently beside the A52 as it leaves the town past the barracks to the east. One of the most regular locations has been Marston Sewerage Works although there have been no reported sightings there for a while.

For your best chance to see them, follow @waxwingsuk on twitter as they collate sightings every day providing you with the most up-to-date information on their locations. It’s also handy if you’re travelling as you might see a spot on your route somewhere that’s easy to drop in – I did this in Lichfield before Christmas (see photograph below). I will try to re-tweet any Grantham records so if you’re after local locations, you can check out my twitter feed in the tab on the right for updates!

Waxwings (photograph taken in Cappers Lane, Lichfield)