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Footprints in the sand

Nature Table

During spring nature wakes up from the quiet time of winter and the plants and animals become active again. The weather does not necessarily get any better but the days always get longer. It is this that switches nature back into life.

Use your mouse to click on different areas of the picture to find all the things we've collected to make up our Spring nature table.

Try turning a corner of your bedroom or classroom into an interesting and ever-changing display of the world around you. When you go for a walk, keep your eyes open for interesting things to take home or to school to display on your nature table.

Can you find all the different parts of the Spring nature table - there are 14 in total! Sycamore Beech Oak Horse Chestnut Hawthorn Berries Hazelnuts Oak Gall Rosehips Dogwood Stag Deer Antler Scots Pine Needles Scots Pine Cones Beech Masts Hedgehog Red and Grey Squirrels Bracket Fungus Sycamore Keys Acorns Ash Keys Teasel Head Crab Apple Nest Box Crocus Daffodil Female Chaffinch Frog Spawn Gorse Lesser Celandine Male Chaffinch Snowdrops goatWillowCatkinsMale Hazel Catkins Male Alder Catkins Birds Nest Wood Sorrel Variegated Holly Beech Buds Horse Chestnut Bud Dogwood Hazel Catkins Yew Robin Moss Lichen Pine Cones Scots Pine Broad Buckler Fern Hedgehog Holly Grey Squirrel Red Squirrel Holm Oak Ivy Seed Heads Ivy
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Variegated holly looks like common holly but is two toned in colour. This one is yellow and dark green.

Beech Buds

Most leaves of deciduous trees have fallen by winter. Trees can be identified at this time of year by looking at their buds. Beech buds are fine, narrow, pointed and rust coloured.

Horse Chestnut Bud

Most leaves of deciduous trees have fallen by winter. Trees can be identified at this time of year by looking at their buds. Horse chestnut is a large, pointed, sticky bud.

The blood red bark of the Dogwood, an understorey shrub, is easily seen at this time of year. It's black berries have already been eaten in the autumn. From medieval times to early this century, butchers used 'dogs' or skewers, made from the hard white wood to hold cuts of meat in shape.

Hazel Catkins

Most leaves of deciduous trees have fallen by winter. Trees can be identified at this time of year by looking at their buds. Hazel buds are small and round. You will also see catkins, the male part of the flower forming at this time of year.

Yew

Yew trees are evergreen and are often found in old churchyards. Their leaves are dark green, flattened needles. They can live for as long as 2000 years. It is said they were planted in times when people used bows and arrows, so that their tough, strong branches could be cut to make bows. Yew leaves and their red or purple berries are poisonous. Thrushes and blackbirds swallow a lot, but usually spew them up again. If you look near a Yew tree you may see this.

Robin

Despite their popular appearances on Christmas cards, the robin is a common garden bird that stays with us all year round. They are very territorial and will fight off other robins on their patch. You can help birds by putting out suitable bird food and making sure they have water to drink and bathe in that hasn't frozen over. If you put up new nest boxes or cleaned out old ones in the autumn, this is the time of year to put some clean hay or wood shavings in them as birds may use them as a winter roost site. Look at the RSPB website to find out how to take part in their winter survey called the Big Garden Birdwatch.

Moss

In winter, mosses gleam with a strange brightness on the forest floor, stones, dead wood and tree trunks. Moss plants photosynthesise/make their own food like other plants. All of the cells in a moss plant can make their own food so they don't need a system to circulate food like other plants do. Moss plants reproduce using spores, which blow away in the wind. For more than a hundred million years, moss and mushrooms had the land to themselves, but then, about 400 million years ago these early mosses evolved into the earliest ferns.

Lichen

There are many different types of lichen. They live on rocks, branches, houses; even metal. They appear to have crusty, leafy, or shrubby growths. A lichen is more than a single thing. It is a thriving relationship between two different types of living organisms: a fungus and an alga. Neither of these organisms is a plant, so the lichen isn't a plant either.

Throughout history, people have used different species to make fabric dyes, poisons for arrowheads, and "green"-smelling scents for perfumes. Birds use lichens to make nests. Reindeer and other animals, including some people, eat them. (Don't try this at home - some species taste awful!)

Scientists have found a new role for these growths: as environmental watchdogs. They are good monitors of air quality. When you see lichens growing it is usually a good sign that the air is clear and the environment healthy. Their disappearance, however, can be a warning sign.

Scots pine is a different kind of evergreen; its leaves grow in pairs of thin, long needles. They have a lovely scent, and when they fall, the forest ants use them for buildings nests. It has rough red bark. Pine cones are the fruit of the tree containing lots of seeds which are scattered by the wind.

Scots pine is a different kind of evergreen; its leaves grow in pairs of thin, long needles. They have a lovely scent, and when they fall, the forest ants use them for buildings nests. It has rough red bark. Pine cones are the fruit of the tree containing lots of seeds which are scattered by the wind.

Many ferns are still green against the background of brown fallen leaves in winter. Ferns were the first plants with leaves to have evolved from moss about 360 million years ago. Like moss, most ferns grow in places where there is plenty of water usually near the banks of streams. But eventually some ferns were able to figure out how to live in dry places too.

When flowering plants evolved, about 100 million years ago, they were more successful than ferns and began to take over most of the places where ferns had grown. Perhaps in response, ferns evolved quickly into new forms, becoming more like modern ferns. Today ferns grow mainly in places where flowering plants can't grow because it is too wet or too shady or the soil is too acidic, or there isn't enough soil (like in cracks in rocks). Some ferns have evolved to live on the flowering plants themselves, growing right on the trunks of living trees.

Hedgehogs, bats and frogs are our only animals that hibernate through the winter. They are nocturnal mammals. If they visit your garden you can feed them dog or cat food and some water. Avoid using slug pellets in your garden as they will kill hedgehogs too. If you have a steep sided pond in your garden, create some sort of a ramp from boards or chicken wire as an escape route to prevent hedgehogs from drowning. Make sure any household drains are covered to stop them from falling in. Hedgehogs can be seriously injured by garden forks or spades- be careful when working with piles of leaf litter or twigs, or lighting bonfires - a hedgehog may be hidden in them.

Many people like to decorate their homes with this spiky leaved evergreen at Christmas time. Holly can be found in the understorey or shrub layer of woodlands and in hedgerows.

The bright red berries are ripe at this time of year for birds such as fieldfares, redwings and mistle thrushes to feed on. The seeds inside the berries are then spread when they pass through the birds gut and land in the bird's droppings later. Both fieldfares and redwings are winter visitors; they breed in the north and come south to avoid the cold weather.

Many people think that squirrels hibernate in winter, but this is not true. They are less active in winter to conserve their energy when food is in short supply but they will return to their hidden nut stores several times during this period. The red squirrel is native to Ireland. The grey squirrel was introduced to Ireland from North America in Victorian times because travellers thought they were cute and cuddly. Unfortunately, over time, numbers of red squirrels have fallen as numbers of grey squirrels have risen. The survival of the red squirrel is now under threat. The greys compete with the reds for places to live and food to eat. The greys also carry and spread a disease called a pox virus which kills the reds. Loss of suitable woodland habitat has also caused numbers of red squirrels to fall.

If there are red squirrels in your area you can feed them hazel nuts in their shells, unsalted peanuts without shells, whole maize kernels and cuttlefish to help prevent calcium deficiency. If both reds and greys are in your area you can get special red squirrel feeders which prevent the larger grey squirrels from getting at the food.

You can help red squirrels by reporting sightings to CEDaR, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Co. Down, BT18 0EU, Tel: 028 9039 5264, cedar.info@magni.org.uk.

If you find a dead red squirrel please contact the NIEA Wildlife Officer, Tel: 028 9054 6558.

Many people think that squirrels hibernate in winter, but this is not true. They are less active in winter to conserve their energy when food is in short supply but they will return to their hidden nut stores several times during this period. The red squirrel is native to Ireland. The grey squirrel was introduced to Ireland from North America in Victorian times because travellers thought they were cute and cuddly. Unfortunately, over time, numbers of red squirrels have fallen as numbers of grey squirrels have risen. The survival of the red squirrel is now under threat. The greys compete with the reds for places to live and food to eat. The greys also carry and spread a disease called a pox virus which kills the reds. Loss of suitable woodland habitat has also caused numbers of red squirrels to fall.

If there are red squirrels in your area you can feed them hazel nuts in their shells, unsalted peanuts without shells, whole maize kernels and cuttlefish to help prevent calcium deficiency. If both reds and greys are in your area you can get special red squirrel feeders which prevent the larger grey squirrels from getting at the food.

You can help red squirrels by reporting sightings to CEDaR, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Co. Down, BT18 0EU, Tel: 028 9039 5264, cedar.info@magni.org.uk.

If you find a dead red squirrel please contact the NIEA Wildlife Officer, Tel: 028 9054 6558.

Holm Oak

Holm oak is an evergreen. It does shed its leaves, but not all at once, mostly in the spring. It looks very different to the common oak, which it is related to. It is a fine growing tree.

Ivy

Ivy flowers in December, giving a rich supply of honey to winter moths and insects that survived the autumn. If you look closely at the ivy, you will see a few greenish-purple berries forming which will ripen in the spring to a dark purple colour.

Ivy

Ivy flowers in December, giving a rich supply of honey to winter moths and insects that survived the autumn. If you look closely at the ivy, you will see a few greenish-purple berries forming which will ripen in the spring to a dark purple colour.

Nest Box

Sometimes we can give birds a helping hand by putting up nest boxes. It's getting harder for birds to find good places to nest these days because of us. We tidy up our gardens and the countryside too much; cutting down dead trees with holes for birds to nest in.

This basic design, a wooden box with a hole in it, can be adapted for different bird species by changing the size of the entrance hole.

Autumn's the best time of year to put up a nest box. This gives the birds plenty of time to investigate before nesting the next spring.

Always make sure you have permission and get an adult to put up your nest box. Choose a sheltered spot facing between North and East away from cold winds and hot sunshine. Tilt it forward slightly to avoid driving rain. It will need to be at least 3m high from the ground to make most garden birds feel safe. Check there is nothing blocking the entrance to stop birds from flying in. If you are attaching it to a tree be careful not to damage the bark and use wire around the trunk instead of nails, cushioned with something like a bit of old hose pipe or rubber.

Clean your box out once a year in the autumn when the birds have stopped using it. Remove any nesting material and clean with boiling water to kill any nasty bugs. Let it dry properly before putting the lid back on. If you put a little bit of clean hay or woodshavings in the box some birds may use it as a winter roost site.

You could experiment by putting up boxes in different places, at different heights with different sized entrance holes.

You have to be patient and wait. Birds mightn't use your box for a while. Try another spot if you don't have much luck after a nesting season or two. Don't be tempted to peek into nest boxes when they are being used as this will disturb the birds. Just watch from a distance.

Crocus

Crocuses are a cultivated garden plant in Ireland. Wild crocuses are native to a large area from coastal and subalpine areas of central and southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, across Central Asia to western China.

Daffodil

In Ireland, Daffodils are always planted or from our gardens, and have never truly naturalised. The wild daffodil is a native of damp woods and grasslands in England and Wales and has spread to Scotland.

Female Chaffinch

The chaffinch is the UK's second most common breeding bird after the wren, and is the most colourful of the UK's finches. Its patterned plumage helps it to blend in when feeding on the ground and it becomes most obvious when it flies, revealing a flash of white on the wings and white outer tail feathers. The male has a reddish breast while the female has a brown breast. It does not feed openly on bird feeders - it prefers to hop about under the bird table or under the hedge. It likes to eat insects and seeds. You'll usually hear chaffinches before you see them, with their loud song and varied calls. They have a loud, 'pink-pink' alarm call.

Chaffinches can be seen all year round in woodlands, hedgerows, fields, parks and gardens anywhere.

They nest in hedgerows, bushes or tree-forks, building a neat cup of grass, moss and lichens, lined with hair.

Frog Spawn

Frogs are amphibians; animals which can survive both in and out of water. In early spring, they come out of their winter hibernation to breed and lay their eggs or frogspawn in ponds. Frogs have a life cycle which involves a number of changes. This is called metamorphosis. The eggs are the first part of their life cycle. The eggs hatch into tadpoles. They use gills to breathe. They are herbivores living on algae growing on pond weed. Finally the tadpoles change to small frogs which are carnivores. The whole process takes twelve weeks. From then on frogs spend most of their time out of the water.

If you wish to study the frog life cycle you can collect some spawn as soon as it appears. Take only a handful of spawn and some pond weed leaving most of the spawn in the pond. Keep the spawn in a dish or bowl. Change the water every 2-3 days. Keep the container out of direct sunlight. As the tadpoles' back legs start to grow they begin to eat meat. Tiny bits of cat or dog food is ideal. As their tails shrink and the froglets lose their gills and begin to breathe air, they will start to crawl out of the water. You must provide them with small stones on which they can climb. When they reach this stage you MUST release them back into the wild as only in their natural habitat will they be able to find the constant supply of insects they need. Be sure to put them back in the pond or lake where you found the original spawn to ensure the adult frogs have the correct environment to live in.

Gorse

Gorse, also called whin or furze, is a very common prickly shrub which produces lots of yellow pea-like flowers in spring (and stays in bloom almost all the year round).

Lesser Celandine

Spring flowers come out in a sequence. Lesser celandine usually appears after the snowdrop, and is followed by wood anemone and bluebell. Each flower brings a new colour to the woodland floor. It is very common in damp, shady places. Its leaves are heart shaped and grow on long stalks.

Male Chaffinch

The chaffinch is the UK's second most common breeding bird after the wren, and is the most colourful of the UK's finches. Its patterned plumage helps it to blend in when feeding on the ground and it becomes most obvious when it flies, revealing a flash of white on the wings and white outer tail feathers. The male has a reddish breast while the female has a brown breast. It does not feed openly on bird feeders - it prefers to hop about under the bird table or under the hedge. It likes to eat insects and seeds. You'll usually hear chaffinches before you see them, with their loud song and varied calls. They have a loud, 'pink-pink' alarm call.

Chaffinches can be seen all year round in woodlands, hedgerows, fields, parks and gardens anywhere.

You could carry out an experiment to see what materials birds like to use to build nests by hanging out a nesting sock. Stuff an old sock with a mixture of materials like dried grass, moss, shredded paper and wool scraps. Separate the different materials by either twisting and knotting the sock or tying off portions of the sock with string. Cut holes in the sock and pull some of the stuffing through to allow the birds to see what's inside. Hang the sock somewhere at home where you can have fun watching birds trying to transport stuff to their nest and by watching which species use which materials.

Snowdrops

This is the first flower to be seen in spring. It first grows in early January underneath the trees in the woods. The bulb at the bottom of the stem allows it to get an early start. It is able to grow and produce seeds before the leaves are on the trees. All spring flowers use the same trick. They have bulbs or thick roots that store energy.

Goat Willow Catkins Male

Trees are also flowering plants. This is obvious with fruit trees like the cherry which has a lovely pink blossom. Other trees have flowers called catkins. These are not brightly coloured because they do not rely on insects for pollination. They use the wind to blow pollen from male to female flowers. There are few insects about in the spring so pollination by insects is useless. The catkin is the downy male part of the flower which hangs down from the branches of the tree. The female part of the flower is much smaller. The willow, hazel and alder have catkins. The catkins are easily seen as they appear before the leaves. Hazel catkins are often called 'lambstails' and Goat willow is often called 'pussy willow' due to the soft, velvety grey catkins.

Hazel Catkins Male

Trees are also flowering plants. This is obvious with fruit trees like the cherry which has a lovely pink blossom. Other trees have flowers called catkins. These are not brightly coloured because they do not rely on insects for pollination. They use the wind to blow pollen from male to female flowers. There are few insects about in the spring so pollination by insects is useless. The catkin is the downy male part of the flower which hangs down from the branches of the tree. The female part of the flower is much smaller. The willow, hazel and alder have catkins. The catkins are easily seen as they appear before the leaves. Hazel catkins are often called 'lambstails' and Goat willow is often called 'pussy willow' due to the soft, velvety grey catkins.

Alder Catkins

Trees are also flowering plants. This is obvious with fruit trees like the cherry which has a lovely pink blossom. Other trees have flowers called catkins. These are not brightly coloured because they do not rely on insects for pollination. They use the wind to blow pollen from male to female flowers. There are few insects about in the spring so pollination by insects is useless. The catkin is the downy male part of the flower which hangs down from the branches of the tree. The female part of the flower is much smaller. The willow, hazel and alder have catkins. The catkins are easily seen as they appear before the leaves. Hazel catkins are often called 'lambstails' and Goat willow is often called 'pussy willow' due to the soft, velvety grey catkins.

Birds Nest

Birds spend a lot of time singing in spring to attract a mate or defend a territory, before building their nests, laying their eggs and raising their young. Nesting sites are difficult to spot in trees and hedgerows. Female birds that usually sit on the eggs have dull feathers so that they are camouflaged from other animals that could be after their eggs. You may be lucky to see birds flying to and fro, carrying materials for nest building, broken eggshells on the ground from hatched chicks, or hear nestlings cheep as they call for food.

Do not be tempted to get too close to nesting birds: if you disturb the parents they may abandon their eggs. Only ever take old nests which are not being used any more, in the autumn for your nature table. If you are unsure, leave them as you find them. If you find a nest made out of mud, don't disturb it: the same birds may return to it next year.

You could carry out an experiment to see what materials birds like to use to build nests by hanging out a nesting sock. Stuff an old sock with a mixture of materials like dried grass, moss, shredded paper and wool scraps. Separate the different materials by either twisting and knotting the sock or tying off portions of the sock with string. Cut holes in the sock and pull some of the stuffing through to allow the birds to see what's inside. Hang the sock somewhere at home where you can have fun watching birds trying to transport stuff to their nest and by watching which species use which materials.

Wood Sorrel

It has white, delicate flowers with lilac veins. The clover shaped leaves often carpet woodland floors. The leaves, which were used in salads, have a very sharp taste.

Like a Maple leaf, the sycamore is a simple leaf shape with 5 lobes and toothed edges. The dark green leaves turn yellow in the autumn.

The Beech leaf is a simple oval leaf shape with wavy edges and parallel veins which are evenly spaced. The leaves turn from shiny green to yellow to orange or red-brown in autumn.

An Oak tree is very rich in life it can support several hundreds of minibeasts as they feed of the leaves. Oak leaves are a simple shape with 4 or 5 lobes on each side. The leaves and acorns of the oak tree are poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep, and goats in large amounts.

This compound, hand shaped leaf has 5 - 7 large, thick stalkless finger like leaflets. Although not pictured here, the chestnuts or 'conkers' are the shiny brown nut of the tree encased in the spiky green fruit.

Hawthorn Berries

Hawthorn berries, also known as Haws, are the fruit of the Hawthorn bush. They are a very important winter food for many birds, especially thrushes, redwings and fieldfares. They are also edible to humans, and are sometimes made into jellies, jams, and syrups.

Hazelnuts Eaten Hazelnuts

The fruit of the common Hazel bush, nuts are a favourite food of squirrels and mice. Pigeons, jays and pheasants also eat them. Hazelnuts are extensively used in confectionery to make praline and also used in combination with chocolate for chocolate truffles and products such as Nutella. Hazelnut oil, pressed from hazelnuts, is strongly flavoured and used as a cooking oil. Hazelnuts are rich in protein and unsaturated fat.

If you find a shell which is split in half, the nut is likely to have been eaten by a squirrel. If there is a small hole gnawed in the shell with teeth marks the nut is likely to have been eaten by a mouse. You can also tell if a bird has pecked at the shell if there is a small hole pecked in it.

Oak Gall

Oak galls form as a means of protection when a gall wasp lays its eggs on the buds of an oak tree. A larva develops inside each gall and the adult wasp bores its way out in the autumn.

Rosehips

Also called Itchy berries, a fruit of the dog rose plant found in hedgerows. Rose hips begin to form in spring and ripen through autumn. It is rich in vitamin C. During World War II, the people of Britain were encouraged to gather wild-grown rose hips and to make a vitamin C syrup for children.

The blood red shoots and leaves of the dogwood, an understorey shrub, is easily seen at this time of year. Its black berries which ripen in the autumn are bitter and inedible. From medieval times to early this century, butchers used 'dogs' or skewers, made from the hard white wood to hold cuts of meat in shape.

Male deer grow a new set of antlers each year. Antlers are pure bone and can grow an inch every day. Just before the breeding season in autumn when they fight with their antlers to win females (the rut), the blood supply to the antlers is cut off and they stop growing. The antlers drop off one at a time between February and April when they are no longer needed. Each branch/point on the male deer's antlers tells us how old he is. A new point is added until they are twelve. Once cast, antlers may be gnawed by deer and small mammals as they contain minerals such as calcium.

Scots pine is an evergreen and does not lose all its leaves at once in the autumn. Its leaves grow in pairs of thin, long needles. They have a lovely scent, and when they fall, the forest ants use them for buildings nests. It has rough red bark.

Pine cones are the fruit of the tree containing lots of winged seeds which are scattered by the wind when the cone scales open. In a good season, a mature tree can produce 3,000 cones, occurring every 3-5 years.

Beech Masts

The fruit of a Beech tree is a small, sharp, triangular nut 10 - 15 mm long, found singly or in pairs in a soft-spined husk. The nuts are edible, though bitter and are called beechmast. Wood mice, jays and grey squirrels are a common sight eating the masts on the woodland floor.

Hedgehogs, bats and frogs are our only animals that hibernate through the winter. They are nocturnal mammals. If they visit your garden you can feed them dog or cat food and some water. Avoid using slug pellets in your garden as they will kill hedgehogs too. If you have a steep sided pond in your garden, create some sort of a ramp from boards or chicken wire as an escape route to prevent hedgehogs from drowning. Make sure any household drains are covered to stop them from falling in. Hedgehogs can be seriously injured by garden forks or spades - be careful when working with piles of leaf litter or twigs, or lighting bonfires - a hedgehog may be hidden in them.

Squirrels are busy in the autumn gathering and storing nuts when they are in plentiful supply to see them through the hard, cold winter months when there is not so much food available. They do not hibernate and will return to their hidden nut stores several times during the winter. The red squirrel is native to Ireland. The grey squirrel was introduced to Ireland from North America in Victorian times because travellers thought they were cute and cuddly. Unfortunately, over time, numbers of red squirrels have fallen as numbers of grey squirrels have risen. The survival of the red squirrel is now under threat. The greys compete with the reds for places to live and food to eat. The greys also carry and spread a disease called a pox virus which kills the reds. Loss of suitable woodland habitat has also caused numbers of red squirrels to fall.

If there are red squirrels in your area you can feed them hazel nuts in their shells, unsalted peanuts without shells, whole maize kernels and cuttlefish to help prevent calcium deficiency. If both reds and greys are in your area you can get special red squirrel feeders which prevent the larger grey squirrels from getting at the food.

Many fungi produce fruiting bodies in the autumn, especially in wet weather. There are many different types of Bracket fungi. It often grows in semi-circular shapes, looking like shelving growing out of trees or wood. You will often see fungi on beech trees this is because the roots of beech trees cannot easily get nutrients from the soil so they are helped by the fungi. The presence of fungi on a tree often indicates rotten wood inside the tree.

Sycamore Keys

Also known as 'spinners' or 'helicopters'. The coupled seeds have wings and as they fall they fly spinning in the wind.

Acorns

The fruit of the Oak tree, Acorns provide food for wood pigeons, rooks, grey squirrels and mice. They are often found in pairs, grow in shallow cups and ripen in the autumn of their second year.

Ash Keys

Ash keys are the seed of an Ash tree and grow in bunches. The single seeds have a long wing. Ash is used as a food plant by the larvae of some butterflies and moths.

Teasel Head

Teasel grows in rough pastures, by streams and roads. Teasels are easily identified with their prickly stem and leaves, and their purple, dark pink or lavender flowers that form a head on the end of the stem. The seeds are an important winter food resource for some birds, notably the Goldfinch; teasels are often grown in gardens and encouraged on some nature reserves to attract them.

Crab Apple

The fruit of the native crab apple shrub-like tree. They are small and bitter but the fruit is made into jelly, jam and wine, and is very popular with birds in the autumn. The fruit becomes flushed with red in the autumn, eventually turning bright yellow as it ripens. All cultivated apples of today are related to the wild crab apple.