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Why February is the month of love for Yorkshire’s great crested grebes

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:55 24 January 2018

The weed dance is the February highlight of the great crested grebe calendar, and one of natures most stunning courtship rituals (c) Alistair Marsh Photography

The weed dance is the February highlight of the great crested grebe calendar, and one of natures most stunning courtship rituals (c) Alistair Marsh Photography

Elliott Neep

It’s the most romantic month of the year and although it’s chilly across Yorkshire’s countryside, the amorous antics of our wildlife can certainly warm the heart. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall gets all loved-up

The male great spotted woodpecker  given away by his red head spot  needs a perfectly resonant tree to perfect his drumming (c) Elliott NeepThe male great spotted woodpecker  given away by his red head spot  needs a perfectly resonant tree to perfect his drumming (c) Elliott Neep

February can often feel like the harshest month of winter; the short days have been dragging since November and spring still seems like a faraway glimmer. Despite the sub-zero temperatures however, nature is witnessing the first stirrings of what’s to come, and it’s perhaps fitting that this month’s Valentine celebrations coincide with plenty of wild romance too.

A crisp morning sees low mist creep across a calm lake, like the dry ice of a stage in readiness for a breath-taking show. The performers are equally elegant as any prima dancer; all fine lines, fancy headgear and the moves to match the style.

With little of the razzmatazz of Strictly Come Dancing, a pair of great crested grebes follow each other silently in from the wings. The initial gestures seem simple enough; gentle bowing and move-sharp mimicry for the classic opening sequence.

As the mood intensifies, so follows a varied repertoire of neck twists, stretching and increasingly intense head-bobbing with the endlessly captivating split-second imitation by both partners of each and every move.

For the male goldeneye, securing a partner can be a real pain in the neck, with their annual display a feat of contortion (c) Gary FaulknerFor the male goldeneye, securing a partner can be a real pain in the neck, with their annual display a feat of contortion (c) Gary Faulkner

If the beginning had all the grace of a ballroom routine, it’s now time to spice things up with a touch of tango. With roses in short supply, the male grebe dives down and returns with a more practical offering of underwater weeds, swaying his bouquet side-to-side as the female follows suit mirroring his responses.

Finally, satisfied that their partnership is as strong as ever, they both rise in unison breast to breast on the water’s surface, hurriedly paddling with their webbed feet to maintain the maximum height above the water.

Moments later the performance is all but over as quickly as it began, but the pair’s bond has been confirmed just a little more. In just a few short weeks the business of raising a family will take precedence and such extravagances as dancing will take a back seat to the practicalities of feeding hungry mouths.

Elsewhere on the watery dancefloor, the goldeneye is busy making up for a lack of repertoire with some lithe, back-breaking feats of contortionism in a bid to attract a female.

Both red squirrels (pictured here) and grey squirrels indulge in up to an hour of intense chasing ahead of mating in early spring (c) Mike RaeBoth red squirrels (pictured here) and grey squirrels indulge in up to an hour of intense chasing ahead of mating in early spring (c) Mike Rae

With a much shorter neck than the great crested grebe, the goldeneye resorts to stretching its head back around ninety degrees, touching the tip of its head firmly into its back. This lumber-twisting move is enhanced by the raising of its feet in a splashing motion, and unlike the grebes who enjoy a bit of privacy, the goldeneye’s moves have to be shared with other would-be suitors, with only the best show-offs likely to secure a mate.

If the water’s edge is the place to ‘bust a move’, then in the woodlands, it’s all about sound, and they don’t come much louder than the great spotted woodpecker. With a beak tough enough to carve out a nest, their percussionary prowess is equally impressive. After seeking out a suitable hollow trunk or bough, the woodpecker can repeatedly drum at more than a dozen times a second, in bursts capable of carrying hundreds of metres on a still day.

Such commitment would be likely to lead to some serious headaches, but the woodpecker’s solution is a clever area of cushioning tissues between its beak and skull, softening the impact of the charismatic calls that can run from February right through to June. Like so many things in life, it’s tough being single too, with unpaired male woodpeckers having to drum up to 600 times a day in peak season, three times more than their happily partnered counterparts.

For those who have happily paired up, the thrill of the chase adds to the romantic ritual with woodpeckers often seen following each other from tree-to-tree in February, before clambering up and down in a classic case of playing hard to get.

Another creature fond of the challenge of the chase is the red squirrel, along with their larger, non-native counterparts the American grey squirrel. While the latter will be no challenge to seek out among the parks and gardens, a trip to Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales will be required to enjoy the ‘reds’ circling the pines at eye-watering speeds. These incessant antics can take place for more than an hour before actual mating.

Location, location, location

From woodpeckers to goldeneyes – yes, they’re ducks that really do nest in trees – the perfect des res is a nice cosy cavity, but nowadays our woodlands don’t always offer enough suitable real estate.

It’s no coincidence then that this, the most romantic of months, is also host to National Nestbox Week – perhaps your last chance to create a home-from-home for some of your garden wildlife.

Whether you opt for a DIY effort or splash out on the latest high-tech house with built in CCTV, you can be sure the birds will fly in for a viewing and may even consider putting down an offer.

Nesting and roosting boxes are a multi-million pound business and they’re at the heart of direct conservation management for birds such as pied flycatchers and barn owls – and some of our rarest mammals such as the dormouse and many species of bats.

The traditional square box with a two pence-sized hole still remains the firm favourite, and is likely to be rented from spring onwards by blue tits or great tits. One of the more unusual nest boxes to come into use in recent years however, is one that is synonymous with the north of England – the terrace box. Like the red brick residences of Coronation Street, the terrace box is a winner when it comes to providing accommodation for house sparrows – a bird that has declined massively in the last 20 years.

House sparrows aren’t the only ones struggling to find an urban pad, with swifts – one of our most enigmatic summer migrants, also struggling to get on the property ladder. These peerless fliers are one of a handful of birds that spend almost their entire life ‘on the wing’ – only taking a break each summer to build a nest. Help is now coming from perhaps the most appropriate corner however – the construction industry, with some manufacturers building swift ‘bricks’ that can be installed directly into new developments and contain a dedicated nesting area.

Whatever nestbox you choose, make sure it’s in place by the end of the month, to have the best chance of having a feathered family on your doorstep this spring.

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