It’s 2019, the weather is in flux and everyone’s settling down after the excitement of the Big Garden Birdwatch, eagerly scanning the horizon for any sign of sunshine. This week it's finally appeared - a high of 12° which is amazing compared to previous weeks of blustery winds and below freezing temperatures. In Britain we’re pretty used to the cold weather, and any mention of snow brings both an inordinate sense of happiness and dread – the first because snow is pretty, reminds us all of childhood, and is a wonderful way to have fun in the great outdoors, and the latter because it often means icy roads and difficulties travelling anywhere.

Earlier in the month we spent many days watching the weather forecast, having been promised mountains of snow. However, snuggled in our little valley in the heart of the West Midlands, we were blessed with a light dusting of white and an icy lake. This wasn’t such great news for our water-loving birds, but it wasn’t long before the ice thawed and they were back on the islands in no time.

Over the last month or so we’ve had a couple of sightings out on the lake including gadwall, shelduck, pintail, wigeon and shoveler, as well as a caspian gull – which is quite a rarity here and the first one we’ve ever had on our reserve. As its name indicates, the caspian gull comes from the Caspian Sea (bordered by Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan) which means it may have flown around 3,500 miles to get here!

Caspian gulls can be confused with herring gulls, however caspian gulls are much larger with a longer, slender beak. Thanks to Brian for sharing these wonderful photos with us! (above and below)

Our regular garden birds are enjoying the different seeds and fat balls, and the feeders outside the office windows are regularly visited by great, blue and long-tailed tits swooping across from the hedges on the opposite side of the path. Elsewhere on the reserve we’ve had some fantastic fungi finds including scarlet elf cup – a small cup-shaped fungi that often grows in woodland, and frequently appears between early winter and spring. Catkins are also starting to appear as well as clusters of snowdrops, yellow crocuses and blackthorn blossom - a sure sign that spring is on its way!

A more unusual discovery was made by our Friday work party last week. Whilst they were removing some of the nest boxes down from the wall to clean and relocate, they were surprised to find a rather large cluster of ladybirds snuggled in between the bricks. One of our work party volunteers, Jenni, took a brilliant photo of them (see below). Harlequin ladybirds come in a variety of colours and markings. They arrived in the UK in 2004, having originally been imported from Asia to North America, and from there to Europe for aphid control. They sometimes come into houses to hibernate, but will not cause any harm.

The work party have also laid down some wood chip (thanks to Jackson Civils) on some of the public paths, the Musical Glade area, and in the Den Building area ready for school sessions. During winter the paths can get quite muddy and difficult to see, so we hope the wood chip will clearly outline the paths and help our visitors enjoy their exploration around the reserve.

As the weather gets warmer we’ll be planning more outdoor events and welcoming schools and local groups to our reserve. On 16 Feb we’ll be having a Bird Ringing Demonstration where you can meet some of our feathered friends up close, and we’ll also be doing Nest Box Building (16 – 24 Feb) where you can come and build a nest box for the birds in your garden.

If you can’t make those events, don’t worry. There’s lots more to do! Keep an eye on our Facebook and Twitter pages for details and updates. You can also join our RSPB Sandwell Valley Facebook Group here and see different photos and updates from our volunteers and visitors.

We hope to see you soon!

- The team at RSPB Sandwell Valley

Photo credits: Brian Baker, Jenni Wilding, Andy Purcell and Emily White