In the lull after Christmas, when the nights feel like they’ll never shorten and all the tinsel and glitter has been packed away, it’s an ideal time to wrap up warm and explore the River Tees to embrace this month of change. Spring feels like a long way off but even now, the lambs’ tails catkins of the hazel will be starting to show. The hazel is wind pollinated and so does not need insects to set its seed. The male catkins will eventually turn yellow in February and release the pollen to be blown on to the tiny pink female flowers, resembling mini sea anemones; look closely at the branches to spot them later in the spring. Hazel has always been associated with magical properties; forked hazel branches have a long history of being used for dowsing for water and a hazel staff was thought to keep travellers safe.

Also beginning to show in the riverside woods will be the purple female catkins of the alder tree which after pollination, develop in to small cones bearing the seed, unusual for a tree without prickly needles. This is a pioneer species which thrives in damp soils next to the river, using nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules to create its own fertilizer. Alder wood turns red when cut giving the impression that the tree is bleeding which led to many superstitions. Durable when wet, the wood was used for boat building, for making clogs and also made excellent charcoal and gunpowder.

Even as our thoughts turn to spring, winter is still very much with us, as indicated by the birdlife seen along the river and at its mouth. Particularly striking are the waxwings, a winter visitor from the northern Europe forests driven to our shores in a desperate search for food when the population outstrips resources in their breeding grounds. There were plenty of sightings in December so it’s always worth keeping an eye out when walking past berry bearing shrubs;  they can even turn up in supermarket car parks and are an incredibly charismatic bird with their buff pink colouring, punk like crests, yellow edged tail and red beadlets at their wing feather tips. The resident thrush population is also joined by their more colourful cousins, redwings and fieldfares, again over here from continental Europe. The lovely soft ‘tseep’ call of the redwing is always fantastic to hear and if you get a chance to see one close up, their striking eye stripes and warm orange/red flush under their wings make for a wonderful winter sight.