Winter Wildlife

WildNet - Don Sutherland

Conservation Officer John Bristow shares an enchanting guide on how to enjoy wildlife and wild places this winter.

As the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ turns colder and the nights begin to draw in, the slow transition into winter begins. Although many may not like the shorter days and biting cold, I find winter is a great time of the year to catch glimpses of wildlife and nature’s beauty that perhaps is less visible or not present at other times of the year.

I particularly enjoy a woodland walk after the brisk autumnal winds have stripped the last flashes of colour from the trees, leaving the naked beauty of their forms laid bare to see. Entwined limb-like branches point fingers to the sky whilst nooks and crannies in older trees are exposed to view. These hidden nooks are often prized by birds and insects looking for refuge from the weather, as winter tightens its grip. When you get up close to these trees, you might just be rewarded with the sight of a small cluster of ladybirds nestling in the craggy hollows of the bark of lower trunks. 

As with many other insects, ladybirds become dormant at this time of year and overwinter just about anywhere they can find shelter; whether that be a crack in a tree, under a window ledge at home, or even within the hollow ‘dead’ stems of plants such as hogweed. Why not be 'less tidy' with vegetation and garden clearance this winter, as it is important to remember to keep our insects happy all year round.
 

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Rob Bates

Mistletoe is another visual wonder that is far easier to see at this time of year and a bit of a local rarity. It is commonly associated with the Christmas period, perhaps under much older beliefs when this was seen to be ‘alive’ whilst many other plants appeared to be ‘dead’ during winter. There is some suggestion that mistletoe symbolises fertility due to it’s ‘evergreen’ nature and may well be where the tradition for kissing beneath it originated. However, with social distancing in mind, perhaps this should be avoided this year!

Mistletoe is most commonly found growing upon cultivated apple trees as a ‘hemiparasite’ (which means it does draw water and some nutrients from its host but also photosynthesises). It can also be found on other trees such as hawthorn and a variety of poplar species. However, its berries provide a valuable winter food source for passing birds and if lucky, you might just spot a thrush tucking into a berry or two! 
 

The cold of the deep winter can also give rise to another of nature’s most beautiful sights, a hoarfrost.

An almost magical phenomenon, this only occurs when the atmospheric conditions are just right and on a cold, crisp winter morning presents a real feast for the eyes. I’m particularly fond of catching rowan in hoarfrost with its winter berries standing out starkly; a flash of deep red against the white, frost-bound limbs,.. Yet another important source of food for overwintering birds.

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Nick Upton/2020VISION

But do remember to look down when out and about whilst snow or heavy frost is around; although you might not see the ‘culprit’ first hand you may very well see signs of foraging animals.

Whether it is a line of (roughly) diamond-shaped prints of a fox, the distinctive ‘splayed’ hoof prints of deer, or the delicate pattern of four closely set prints of a rabbit created whilst hopping around; all indicate that local wildlife is still very much active in winter!

Deer track in snow

WildNet - Amy Lewis

Of course, I cannot write about winter without mentioning our feathered friends who are also still very active at this time of the year and present opportunities to experience some species who may have travelled a long way to escape colder northern climes. Fieldfares and Redwings travel from as far afield as Scandinavia, Iceland, and Western Russia. On arrival, these birds can be seen traversing the landscape together in large sociable flocks stripping winter berries from hedges or rooting about field margins. 

Starlings some of which will also be winter migrants; can delight the viewer when large flocks (some numbering many thousands!) undertake stunning acrobatic aerial displays in the early evening sky. They wheel about with purpose creating amazing, constantly changing shapes before heading off to roost. It is simply breath taking to see.

 A quiet walk around a deciduous woodland in winter may well see you rewarded with the distinctive ‘hooting’ calls of the Tawny owl as they define their territory in preparation for breeding early in the following spring.

Those who have bird feeders may well see a far more diverse group of feathered visitors to their feeding stations too as food becomes scarce. So please do keep topping up the food, clean the feeding station regularly, and do not forget to put out water if there isn’t a ready source in your garden.

If botany is more your ‘thing’, winter can be somewhat sparse, but there are some gems to experience if you are lucky enough to know where to look! Snowdrops are one of our earliest flowering plants and can be seen carpeting the floors of damp woodlands and meadows; a sea of gently nodding white flowers heralding that spring is just around the corner. Primrose is another early flowering plant to look out for; this hardy little plant brings a welcome flash of colour within woodland edges and hedges as bright yellow, trumpet shaped flowers brighten up the drab greens and browns of the winter palette, and is an early nectar source for waking insects. 

So perhaps winter is not necessarily as ‘bleak’ as the popular Christmas carol suggests. There may not be quite as much wildlife to see at this time of year as opposed to other seasons, but what there is about to experience is still very special. So why not don your boots, wrap up warm and get out into nature this winter.