When to Watch Wildlife

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PMcS 2006






This month look out for:

Bird flocks in wetlands and estuaries
Redwings, fieldfares and waxwings
Surprises at the garden bird table
Frogs returning to ponds
Thrushes, robins and great tits singing for territories

Christmas is over and the new year celebrations are now a mere hangover.  January and February are the core of winter, and Spring feels a long way off.  Days are short, but can be crisp and bright.

Early morning frosts leave pearls of ice on spiders webs making them useless for catching prey.  Lasts year's leaves also get a frosting, and lawns are often silvered with ice.


frosted bramble leaves


Most plants have disappeared to their over wintering form (such as bulbs, runners and seeds or leafless above-ground branches), although one or two may be now tentatively poking through again. 

The list of winter bird species is very different from the summer one, as many species have migrated southwards.  However geese, ducks and waders feed frenetically on coasts and wetlands are a special attraction at this time of year.  Fieldfares and redwings move in flocks through the countryside, whilst many smaller birds come to garden bird tables to find enough food to survive.

Trees stand starkly in fields and woodlands in winter with buds poised to burst when spring at last arrives.  They have a particular beauty in their bare form.  Although it is perhaps more difficult to identify trees without their leaves it is worth the effort.  One way to cheat is to look for fallen leaves below a tree and see if it is possible to identify it that way.  However if you look carefully many species, particularly oak, ash and silver birch for instance, have a very specific shape, bark texture and twig\bud form.  Any good tree guide should point out what features to look out for.


a winter tree (ash) in the mist


As the month progresses, the song thrush, with its strident repeated notes, starts to proclaim its territory.  On sunny days blackbirds, greenfinches and great tits also sing.  In woodlands you may be lucky enough to hear a great spotted woodpecker drumming against a tree.

At certain sites during winter bird flocks gather to roost in their tens of thousands.  This provides a moving spectacle and quite a din.  Starlings for instance flock in wetlands, such as on the Somerset levels, and cover the reed beds like black, chattering locusts.


winter flocking starlings



Habitats and species
Parks and gardens: The parks and gardens are largely bare with only a few hardy bedding plants and perennials showing any colour.  However the first shoots of the spring bulbs are likely to emerge.  In addition it is heartening to see the delicate looking snowdrops emerging with flowers opening in January onwards.

By now you may have been feeding garden birds and putting out water for a number of months.  If not it is never too late and you can make a real difference to bird survival.  Flocks of wintering thrushes (red wings and field fares) move around together in search of berries and other food.  At night they can be heard calling to one another with a distinctive metallic chack noise or a high pitched whistle.  Remember that blue and great tits will now be scouting around for nest boxes for Spring, so you need to have them in place as soon as possible.

In winter the seemingly bare parks redirect your focus on the more common spectacles of nature normally overlooked, such a  spider's web made useless by frost or dew.


frosted spider's web


The occasional butterfly can emerge in mild weather such as small tortoise shell butterfly.  Maybe it will return to its hibernation when the cold returns.

Woodlands (including wood pasture): Woods are quiet, save for the twitters of occasional flocks of small birds moving through and the  clattering of bare branches in the wind.  January can see hard frosts cover last autumns decaying leaves.  However there is a glimmer of better things to come as cuckoo pint leaves are starting to emerge in a curled funnel formation and a precocious lesser celandine may dare to flower.

an early lesser celandine flower



Arable and hedgerows: Snow may reveal animal tracks if the weather is harsh.  However warm weather can see some bird species singing to declare their territory such the skylark, which sends out is beautiful song as it ascends into the sky.
Road verges:  One of the first wild flowers that appears on our road sides is the Winter heliotrope.

Its round leaves form large clusters with delicate pink and white flower spikes poking up.

Chalk and limestone grasslands:
Meadows (neutral) and flood plain grasslands: As winter progresses flooded grasslands may attract gulls.  Where sites are more permanently flooded, and possibly even managed that way, ducks (wigeon, gadwall, long-tailed duck, teal), waders (golden plover, lapwing), mute swans and even geese may visit.
Acidic grasslands:
Mountain and Moorlands (uplands): Uplands are at their harshest.  The mountain hare, the stoat and ptarmigan (a game bird) are all species which change to a white winter plumage from their dark summer coats.  This provides camouflage from both the hunter and the hunted!
Rivers and ponds (including bogs and mires): One or two key bird species of rivers, such as kingfishers, have moved to the coast or are over wintering in Africa.  However the grey wagtail can still be found bobbing along the bank and amidst the froth or a weir.  Larger lakes provide feeding and resting areas for ducks and geese such as bean and white fronted geese.  Winter swans such as Bewick and Hooper swans return each winter to the same areas, notably those managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust e.g. Slimbridge and Welney.  They feed on root vegetables and winter wheat on arable land around these sites.  Coots are abundant on open water and space themselves out in a way that just permits the minimum of squabbles.

In winter lakes and wetlands take on a particular character with mists over the water and the chill in the air.  Make sure that while shivering to keep warm, you also take in this austere beauty.


reeds in winter



Sea and the sea shore (including estuaries): This is a fantastic time to watch over wintering birds such as waders, ducks, geese and swans.  They waders move with the tide to feed on the exposed mud of the estuaries.  Huge flocks of knots can be seen swooping and darting along the shore.
Mammals: Many species of mammals such as bats, hedgehogs and badgers are hibernating over winter when their food supply is in short supply and\or difficult to get to.  However should the weather ease they may venture out and make a sortie.  Evidence of badgers can be found by looking for fresh pad mark or scratch marks on their well worn paths.  Badgers are creatures of habit and will not let a barbed wire fence stop their wanderings.  It is not uncommon to find stiff hairs caught in the wire twists showing that a badger has passed that way recently.

badger hair caught on a barb

Some species such as grey and red squirrels tough it out, feeding on buds and stashed food supplies.  Grey squirrels (although they are quite silvery in winter particularly) can even be tamed to come to you to take peanuts.

Love or loath them, they do provide many people with a close up experience of nature not found any other way.  Young children are particularly fond of them and in many parks it is possible to hand feed them if you have the patience.  You may see them engaged in a courtship chase during January where the females are pursued by one or many males vying for her attention and to father her offspring.  They can be very noisy with strange chatterings and raspings.

Birds: Along with the birds mentioned here under various habitats above, one winter delight is the sight of waxwings.  Named after the waxy tips to some of their feathers these beautiful pinkish birds can be found even in cities.  They have a particular liking for the berry laden trees and bushes of some supermarket car parks and are certainly worth making a special trip to hunt out!  In Britain the uncommon Cetti's warbler and the extremely rare and localised Dartford warbler are the stars of their type as they do not migrate and are scarce enough to excite.  However (perhaps?) increasingly blackcaps and chiffchaffs can be found in Britain at this time of the year and their presence is a pleasant reminder of summer.

Things are starting to liven up in the rookery at this time.  Rooks tend to keep close to their nesting area through out the year, but are now evident around the nests once more.  Pairs may be seen together repairing and rebuilding the nests for the new season ahead.

Amphibians & Reptiles: All species hibernate during winter.  Newts for instance may be unintentionally discovered under logs and in stone work, but should not be disturbed during hibernation.  However January sees the emergence of some species with first newts moving towards their breeding ponds.  In the south western counties, were it is on average warmer and that bit more temperate, the first of the common frog spawn can be found in ponds now.
Insects: Insects are few and far between. Occasionally in the winter sunshine swarms of gnats make an appearance, dancing in mid air.  Some butterflies migrate but many over winter as a pupa or adult.  Peacock butterflies are often to be found in sheds and attics where the temperature is fairly constant and the air is moist.
Plants: January is really a low point in terms of plant hunting. However there are some signs of things to come.  Precocious dandelions may flower as may other common wayside plants.  The first of the hazel catkins are stretching out into golden tassels.

Lichens are easily found at all times, and it is worth venturing into graveyards, for instance, where the air is not too polluted to discover these fascinating organisms.  Lichens are an association between algal and fungal species, which benefit from each other in a way that enables them to survive the most adverse of conditions.


liverwort (Pellia epiphylla)


Liverworts are always present throughout the year, growing where there is constant moisture.  These relatively simple plants require high humidity levels to prevent drying out and to enable them to reproduce.


hart's tongue fern


Ferns too provide a diversion as many can still be seen in winter.  The common hart's tongue fern can be found growing abundantly in many damp woods and hedges.

Fungi:  Even in January some fungi are still bright and fresh.  The slimy orange capped fungus below brings some colour to a winter woodland.

woodland fungus


All images and text are copyright PMcS 2006