Winter Wildlife – a spotters guide

Spring doesn’t officially start until 20th March, so there’s still plenty of time to see what’s happening at this chilly time of year in the countryside.

The last weekend in January is also the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch where you can record all the different types of birds in your garden, or local park, then send your results to them. Download a pack from their website to get started.

Below are some things to look out for in the garden, plus some great reasons to get outside and be actively involved in helping wildlife in the UK this winter.

January is often the coldest month of the year with bitterly icy spells and hard frosts as well as freezing rain, hail and snow. This can often be a month when small birds die with low fat reserves only lasting up to two days and their natural food larder can often be frozen.

Many garden birds move to the warmer south, but for those that stay this is the time to give them an important lifeline and keep your bird feeders and tables well stocked.


Give your garden birds a helping hand during the winter months

February into March is when the days start to feel longer, and although it can bring some of winter’s worst weather it doesn’t normally linger. The first signs of spring can be detected with, heather, primroses and violets amongst the first flowers to emerge from the frozen ground. You may even see hibernating butterflies on the sunnier days!

winter heather
Delicate pink heather sprouting out from the winter snow

Large numbers of migratory birds are present, including ducks, geese and swans plus many winter visitors to the UK: redwings, fieldfares and sometimes waxwings. A big advantage this time of year is the trees are bare of leaves with dark silhouettes against the stark winter skies so any wildlife is much easier to spot.

Things to look out for in winter:

Wildfowl are present in the UK in their highest numbers; huge flocks of migratory birds can be seen in coastal areas and are a spectacular sight, particularly at dusk.

Tracks and Trails in the snow where you may be able to follow deer, fox, badger or even otter. Even if there is no snow, muddy soft ground will give you plenty of opportunity to practise your tracking skills.

spotters guide
Try and match the tracks to the animals footprints in the snow or mud

Roosting Birds staying together for safety and warmth: rooks, jackdaws, carrion crowns and ravens. Starling roosts can be spectacular with huge twisting and turning aerial displays at sunset.

Woodpeckers drumming and Tawny Owls hooting, as this is the time they begin their courtship displays. If venturing into the Highlands you may spot a ptarmigan, which turns completely white in winter to camouflage in the snowy conditions.

Male downy woodpecker perching on a cold winter’s day

Some great reasons to get outside this winter:

Go on a local snowdrop walk in woodlands carpeted with these very pretty and hardy flowers. There are 100s of places to see them all over Britain, including famous gardens and National Trust properties.

Look carefully to see the distinctive green markings on the inside and on warmer days they release a fragrance, you may also see crocus and winter iris mixed in with them.

Check out a lake, estuary or reservoir to spot wildfowl – ideally on a sunny day. You should be in for a real winter wildlife spectacle of drakes flashing their bright seasonal colours, bobbing their heads and calling noisily.

Geese and swans are prolific and you may see them migrating in coastal regions. You can also spot redwings, fieldfares, waxwings and some of our less common ducks, pintail, goldeneye and goosander. Birds like red kites, short eared owls and hen harriers are also more likely to be spotted.

fieldfare thrush
The fieldfare thrush feeding on the berries of a rowan tree

3 ways you can help local conservation groups over the winter months:

Coppicing is an ancient woodland technique. By felling a tree it encourages the growth of new shoots which helps create a sustainable supply of wood encouraging other species and wildflowers to grow. Wildlife and insect populations benefit, which in turn provide food for birds, bats and mammals.

Hedgelaying is an important skill, somewhat forgotten over the years. Hedges act as natural windbreaks over large expanses of flat land, and they are also important in creating a safe home for wildlife, mammals, birds, butterflies and insects by providing essential food and shelter. Hedgelaying in the winter extends the life of the hedge and creates thick bushy growth in spring and summer, perfect cover for wildlife.

Scrub Cutting doesn’t aim to eradicate scrub but helps to keeps it in check, so flower rich grassland doesn’t turn into woodland. Conservation Grazing also minimises scrub regrowth, allowing grasses and flower to flourish. Local volunteers tend to small herds of wild ponies, horses and sheep that graze the area.

Take a look at cottages on our website to discover more wonderful wildlife in the UK.


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