Where wildlife teems in the bleak midwinter

When the English poet Christina Rossetti penned her classic ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, she may have had a certain image in mind. To some this impression may ring true, but those who study nature will recognise a different reality. Our countryside teems with wildlife in winter if you know where to look.

Blue tit in the frost

Small-bodied birds, like this blue tit, need to feed almost continually during cold weather as they lose a lot of energy through heat loss. Photo: Grahame Madge

Matthew Oates, nature specialist for the National Trust, said, “Winter presents us with an array of iconic wildlife, as long as we make the effort to go searching for it. Of course, conditions are much, much tougher for many creatures, while others hibernate or migrate from UK shores. But that doesn’t mean our wildlife has disappeared entirely!

“There are opportunities to spot wildfowl, owls and other birds such as redwings and fieldfares. If it snows, you may stumble across deer tracks, or those of an otter. Hair ice fungi, also known as frost beard, forms on deadwood after a sharp drop in temperature, while the festive season shines a light on holly, ivy and mistletoe.”

Millions of birds, including ducks, swans, geese and wading birds, that nest on an arc from Arctic Canada to Siberia, are lured north in the Arctic summer by near continual daylight and an abundance of midges. However, these same birds are forced to escape the extreme cold and darkness of the Arctic winter. Over the last few weeks our marshes, estuaries and other wetland areas have been filling up with the arrival of millions of birds that will spend the winter on our shores, often in densely-packed flocks.

Met Office spokesman Grahame Madge is also a keen naturalist. He said: “If anyone remains to be convinced of the excitement of wildlife spectacles in the UK, they haven’t stood on the coast of the Wash in Norfolk and watched skeins of pink-footed geese passing overhead on a winter’s dawn. It’s so awe-inspiring that you instantly forget the pain of the frost nipping at your fingers and toes.”

Winter is a season of sheer survival and, sadly, some species struggle in harder weather. Small-bodied birds like wrens, along with kingfishers and barn owls, can suffer heavily during extreme periods of cold. Grahame Madge added: “The cruel winter of 1963 caused a high mortality of these birds and the national populations plummeted as a result. But enough individuals survived to replenish their numbers and all of these birds are currently doing well.”

Nuthatch

In the coldest spells birds like the nuthatch will be enouraged to visit gardens in search of food. Photo: Grahame Madge

As species are mostly focussing on day-to-day survival, many partly overcome natural shyness and can be observed at closer range. Two notable birds to look out for when temperatures drop are the redwing and fieldfare. Known to some as Viking thrushes, these songbirds nest in Scandinavia and spend the winter in the UK, feasting on hedgerow fruits. However, any snow or frost may encourage these birds, and other birds such as the nuthatch, to visit gardens to find food.

In very hard winters, some exotic wildlife can be tempted into gardens and even wetland birds like the snipe and bittern have been sighted trying to eke out an easy meal.

The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and the RSPB all have great nature reserves to spot wildlife this winter. For those who want a taste of winter wildlife beamed to their living rooms the BBC’s Winterwatch will broadcast from the National Trust’s Sherborne Park Estate in Gloucestershire for four days in January.

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