In winter life can be hard for wildlife – days are short and for many creatures, especially small birds, finding enough food to survive takes up almost every hour of daylight. The winter solstice (sometimes called mid-winter’s day) is on 21 December. This is the shortest day when the sun rises latest and sets earliest. After this the days do get longer though the coldest winter weather and highest chance of snow is often in January and February.
Most trees have lost their leaves and we see the shape of their trunks and branches most clearly in winter. Large numbers of migratory ducks, geese and swans are present and other winter visitors to look for include redwings, fieldfares and in some years waxwings!
Winter is the best time of year to watch ducks, geese and swans for two very good reasons: the highest numbers of birds are present in winter months and drakes are in their brightest and best plumage of the year.
In winter look out for huge flocks of migratory geese, especially in coastal areas, and for some of our less common ducks, including pintail, goldeneye, long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser and goosander.
Look for tracks, trails and signs of mammals
Snowfall provides a wonderful opportunity to study animal tracks. Look for the double slot tracks of deer, or the prints of fox, badger or even an otter. Winter, even without snow, is the best time to find both tracks and trails as with fewer plants to obscure tracks on the ground and plenty of muddy areas and damp soft ground you will have plenty of opportunity to practise your tracking skills.
Find roosting birds
In winter many birds roost together for safety and warmth. Starling roosts can be spectacular with huge flocks twisting and turning in the air at sunset before diving into cover where they will roost for the night. In some places rooks, jackdaws, carrion crows and even ravens gather at communal roosts.
Redwings and fieldfares will often travel and feed together on fields and hedgerows, sometimes in flocks hundreds strong. Some nature reserves, especially on the coast and on wetlands and heathlands, have exciting raptor roosts where you can spot hen harriers, marsh harriers, merlins and other birds of prey flying in to night-time roosts. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling Broad nature reserve over 100 marsh harriers have been seen coming in to roost, along with rare birds such as common cranes.
The best time to track down bird roosts is from one hour before sunset when you may spot birds all flying in the same direction heading to safe roost sites. Pied wagtails and even wrens gather in numbers to roost together for warmth. See what you can discover – there is much still to learn about where and how birds roost.
Listen for woodpeckers drumming and tawny owls hooting
Discover holly, ivy and mistletoe
Winter evergreens provide a welcome touch of green in mid-winter. Only the female holly tree has red berries and holly berries were traditionally used in Christmas decorations. Mistletoe was always a magical plant and symbol of fertility and today is still brought into homes at Christmas for people to kiss under! Ivy may be common but it’s great for wildlife. See if you can spot woodpigeons or other birds feeding on the black berries of ivy in late winter.
Go on a snowdrop walk
In February there are often walks organised in woodlands carpeted with snowdrops. Take a look at events in your local area!
Visit a lake, estuary or reservoir and look at wildfowl
Many Wildlife Trusts will have wetland nature reserves which are great for spotting ducks, geese and swans in winter. On a sunny day even in January and February many wildfowl will be displaying with drakes flashing their bright colours, bobbing their heads and calling noisily. A great winter wildlife spectacle.
Build and put up a nest-box
The ideal time to put nest-boxes up is early winter. Blue tits and great tits will begin looking for nest sites in late winter so get your box up early. National Nest Box Week is usually around February 14th.
Feed the birds
You can make your own bird feeder or buy one, but feeding garden birds in winter can make a real difference to their survival. In the coldest weather fat balls are a great source of food and providing foods such as sunflower seeds will ensure your garden is popular with greenfinches and chaffinches as well as blue tits, great tits and if you are lucky coal and marsh tits. If you put the feeders near a house window you can enjoy birdwatching from the comfort of your house!
Plant a tree or even a hedge
Winter is the best time for tree planting but you need to choose a day when the ground is not frozen! Choose trees or hedge plants such as hawthorn, rowan and holly as these will provide berries for birds in winter as well as places to nest in the Spring.
EXTRA Tip number six! Don’t forget to ask your parents and friends for some wildlife related Christmas presents – membership of Wildlife Watch (well that goes without saying!) but why not ask for some good wildlife identification guides or a hand lens. You might just get lucky!
Wrap up warm and give these a go! Click on the thumbnails to download the activity sheets, and have fun!