It’s that time of year again. The clocks have changed, the nights are drawing in and the fires are being lit. Drawing the curtains in the morning we are met with a black sky as people begin to reach for their cans of de-icer and warm wooly coats and hats. Outside in the natural world, we wave goodbye to our spring and summer favourites as the flowers die back and the trees shed their now brown and yellow leaves. The swifts, swallows and house martins have deserted us and left our once screaming blue skies silent, and the buzz of insects and flitter of butterflies has almost disappeared. How depressing we cry as we throw our duvets over us and settle down for a night of television, ignoring the subtle murmurings of our forgotten wildlife outside. But it’s not all as bad as it would seem and for me, the winter months are perhaps my favourite and the wildlife sights that accompany this season really are true hidden gems.
So, what can be so fabulous about the wildlife in such a cold and unwelcoming environment? Plenty! Perhaps the main attraction for bird watchers in the winter is that it is the best time of years to observe wildfowl. That’s right, as our temperatures fall, many species of wildfowl including ducks, geese and swans desert their breeding grounds and head to the UK for the winter. Why? For the warm weather of course! Wait, warm? What?! Has the wildfowl come to catch some rays and work on their tans?! Not quite. Admittedly, it sounds a little odd, but when we consider that many of these 5 million wildfowl visitors that are due to arrive have come down from the Arctic and Greenland, we can understand why our climate may be considered ‘warm’. Coastal areas are the best place to see large flocks of migratory geese, swans and our less common duck species including the long-tailed duck, goosander, red-breasted merganser, pintail, pochard, and the goldeneye (cue the Tina Turner James Bond theme). Barnacle, pink-footed, white-fronted, greylag and brent geese will also all be gathering in their hundreds, accompanied by Bewicks’ and whooper swan. Lindisfarne was the location where I was first introduced to these fantastic spectacles, but salt marshes, wetland, grassland and the coast all serve as the best places to see them. It might be cold, but wrap up warm because it is totally worth it!
But what if you’re not a great wildfowl lover? Shame on you! I’m joking of course and luckily, there are many other sights to be seen and winter is also a great time for roosting birds. Perhaps the most obvious and publicised of these birds are roosting starlings, whose huge flocks can give wonderful sunset air displays in the winter, before they choose a spot to settle for cover overnight. However, starlings are not the only birds to display this behaviour, with ravens, jackdaws and carrion crows also gathering together in large groups for safety and warmth. Out in the fields and near the hedgerows you can look for redwings and fieldflares, who travel and feed together in these habitats. And my favourite? Raptor roosts. If you keep your eyes peeled and stay vigilant, over heathland and wetland, birds of prey such as merlins, marsh harriers and hen harriers (if you’re lucky enough to see them) will fly into their nighttime roosts.
In despite of all this, for me there is one sound that echoes across farmland and woodland that really signifies a still winter night. A ke-wick and hoo-hoo-ooo. Who is our culprit of such noise? The tawny owls. That’s right, from November onwards our tawny owls will be very vocal indeed as they begin to establish their breeding territories. Take a listen in the cool crisp night air and see if you can hear the haunting call of the tawny owls in the countryside; it really is a classic sound of winter.
The tawny owl however is not alone in his winter rowdiness, as he is joined by another species who also begins his courtship display in the deep winter. The great-spotted woodpecker. January is the month to listen out for those 8-12 drums that ring out across the woodland, with this behaviour continuing until around June. Or perhaps you fancy yourself as something of a woodland whiz and tracker extraordinaire? Well then, winter is the best time to practice your animal tracking skills. Lying snow is not the only reason why winter is great for tracking, but due to the reduced amount of foliage and plants covering the ground, there are plenty of damp and muddy areas to provide great spots for possible animal tracks.
It might seem quiet and cold out there, but if you’re willing to brave Jack Frost and the the darkness of winter, you might find yourself some wildlife gems that have you loving this time of year!
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