Natalie's winter wonderland

Natalie Welden hillwalking

By Natalie Welden, OPAL Community Scientist in York

As years go, mine has been pretty awesome.

I spent all spring and summer outdoors in the fantastic scenery in Scotland, climbing munroes, pulling on my wellies for rivers days or teaching snorkelling in the chilly Clyde Sea

As well as meeting lots of groups for OPAL surveys I’ve been teaching biology and geography field courses and leading primary groups on outdoor adventures; all fantastic fun.

Dark days and highlights

Now winter is here my hours of “wild-time” look severely limited. The end of the fieldwork season is guaranteed to include a lot of desk work (not my favourite thing at the best of times); short winter days of fluorescent lights and central heating, when darkness falls before I have even left the office.

Lit office building at night

When this happens, I try to maximise the quality of my outdoor time to include everything that’s good about winter.

With the holidays looming, I thought I’d share my list of favourite things to see and do - my guide to the highlights of the season.

1. Spot the difference

Tip one: spot the difference. As the season swings there are obvious changes right on our doorstep.

At this time of year most birds have completed their winter migration, and our parks should now be host to a range of migratory birds.

Long range flyers such as Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwing that have made their way to the UK to escape the cold weather in northern Europe, but one of the real stars are a local bird - Goldcrests.

Goldcrest in conifer

Goldcrests are real gems; Britain’s smallest bird, weighing the same as a 50p coin. A tiny leaf warbler with a flash of yellow on its diminutive head.

In winter our population of Goldcrests is increased by migrants from northern Europe. For the best chance of spotting these petite passerines, keep your eyes on anything flitting through low bushes and dense conifers.

If you are lucky you might even spot a Firecrest - the Goldcrest's rare cousin - flashing through the undergrowth.

This winter I have been out spotting the additions to the geese around Yorkshire. So far, in addition to the local Greylags and Pink-foots I have managed to see the gorgeous Brent Geese coming in along the coast and a White-fronted Goose feeding in a farmer's field in Ingbirchworth.

Brent geese in flight

Brent Geese breed in the artic and migrate to Europe in big flocks in winter, but more excitingly, the Ingbirchworth White-fronted Goose was from Greenland, a subspecies that only migrates to the UK (the other race is the European White-fronted Goose which breeds in European Arctic Russia and northwest Siberia and migrates throughout Europe).

2. Moorland magic

My second winter suggestion is moorland magic.

Your best chance of getting your feet on snow is to hit the hills. Upland habitats are incredible. In the cold weather there aren’t many places better; wide open skies, the peace and quiet only disturbed by the sound of a calling Grouse.

If you’re visiting the Cairngorms in Scotland you can hope for sights of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting.

Head to the Peak District and Pennines for the chance of seeing Mountain Hare in its winter finery south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Mountain hare by Cat Burton

For some of the best hillwalking in the UK, Snowdonia takes the biscuit; the magical mix of mountains and coast there gives spectacular views and wild weather.

At the end of last winter I spent my free time tramping around Glen Shee in search of Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting. I didn’t have much luck with the Bunting, but I got my best ever views of the Ptarmigan moulting between their winter white and summer brown plumage. 

Ptarmigan

Remember, pack your flasks and warm layers and check the weather before heading to the hills. The animals that stay there all year round are tough for a reason!

3. Wetlands

Third tip, and definitely the best, is wetlands.

If you want a really amazing outdoor experience I recommend getting out to an area of reed bed or marsh. Either just after dawn or before dusk is best – easier on short winter days. On a clear morning, with the mist rising, there is nowhere more atmospheric.

Reedbeds at Faxfleet

Pick the right spot (my personal favourites are Slimbridge, Slapton Ley, and Leighton Moss) and you can hope for hunting owls, Hen and Marsh Harrier, and the potential for migratory Bittern over the reeds.

Marsh harrier hunting over reedbeds

On the open water you can hope for waterfowl, both from this country and farther afield: tiny Teal, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Whooper Swans, with a chance of rarities like Pintail and Long-tailed Duck.

Last weekend I was out at a new site for me, Cresswell in Northumberland, to see a Long-billed Dowitcher – a wading bird with a very long bill – that had gotten lost while on migration. As well as getting to see a new species I was able to enjoy flocks of Lapwing and Widgeon in the muddy pools, and the feeders someone had thoughtfully put up were smothered with Tree Sparrows, Goldfinches, and Greenfinches.

4. Home sweet home

Speaking of feeders, for my last tip, don’t forget the animals on your doorstep.

If you haven’t already, this is the time to put out the bird seed, fat balls and old apples (Blackbirds and Thrushes love apples). If you have a pond, remember to melt a hole in any ice that forms to let animals drink. A couple of additions to the garden can see the best of the winter wildlife coming to you! 

Here in York we have put out a few extra feeders and I am already making plans for another day at the local reserve. Whatever you do this winter, make time to go wild.

Follow Natalie on Twitter: @NatalieACWelden

Photo credits: Mountain hare by Cat Burton / FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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