You might think that our wildlife had shut up shop for the winter, but you’d be missing some of Britain's greatest natural wonders. Our guide to unmissable winter wildlife spectacles, plus some of the best wilder sounds to listen out for in the darker months
Keep an eye and ear out for these wild sounds and sights this winter
1. Starling murmurations
Bolstered by winter migrants from Scandinavia and Germany, Britain’s starlings congregate in their thousands at fairly predictable winter roosting sites – usually marshes or reedbeds but also man-made structures – throughout the coldest months of the year. But before they settle down for the night, they often perform great swirling sky-dances, their sheer numbers creating thrilling images in the late afternoon sky. Finally, just before dusk, the flocks pour into the reedbed and begin to settle down – though their chattering can be like the sound of a distance steam train.
It’s though that the sky-dance – or murmuration – could be a means of confusing predators who gather to take advantage of what looks like easy pickings as well as jostling for the best roosting position. And ornithologists believe that the reason why the birds gather is to share information about where best to go foraging the following day.
Our largest freshwater predatory fish, the pike has spawned wonderful and sometimes chilling legends – including tales of monsters that eat pet dogs and bite swimmers. The largest ever caught in Britain weighed about 46lb though a huge head of a pike was found in Loch Etterick in Scotland – and was estimated to have come from a fish weighing over 80lb.
This time of year sees spawning of a different kind as the mighty fish gather in the shallows of lakes to lay and fertilise eggs. Several males will often pursue a much bigger female, each vying to get close enough to shed milt (sperm) over the newly laid eggs. Look out for sudden and dramatic splashing and thrashing around. If you keep still and the water is clear, you may even glimpse these cortege of long, green torpedo fish.
This excellent video shows all the action above and below water.
When: from mid February to April, as soon as the water reaches 9°C
Where: Lowland lakes and reservoirs across the country. Look at also around waterweed beds on slower flowing rivers.
If there is no snow, a mountain hare in its winter coat can be exposed. Getty Images/Wild and free
Only a handful of British species turn white in winter to blend with the expected snow and hide from predators. The mountain hare is perhaps the most impressive and by November will have shed its brown coat to become blue-ish white. Obviously, this isn’t much help as a defence if there is no snow, but as Ellie Harrison found on 13 December’s show, it makes them much easier to see.
Walk slowly but steadily along paths in upland areas and be prepared for a sudden burst of ghostly speed as the hare seeks a new place to lie low.
See running mountain hares being hunted by golden eagles here
When: from November to April
Where: In England, only the Peak District and Upper Pennines. In Wales, Snowdonia. Relatively common throughout the Highland region of Scotland.
4. Tame red squirrels feeding
Red squirrels can often be found on birdfeeders in winter. Getty Images/Mark Hamblin
Having retreated from much of lowland England, Wales and Scotland, the red squirrel is now quite an effort to find. But in winter, when natural food become scarcer, many of these delightful rusty-coloured mammals are tempted by peanut feeders and offer human watchers a wonderful chance for close-up views. In addition, with no leaves on the trees, these acrobatic climbers are much easier to spot.
Kielder Castle Visitor Centre, Kielder Forest, Northumberland
Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre, Keswick, Cumbria
Brownsea Island, Dorset
Briddlesford Woods, Isle of Wight
5. Short-eared owls hunting
A bird of open uplands in summer, the short-eared owl heads to wetlands and coastal marshes in winter where it can find a more dependable supply of rodent food. It has two small but distinctive ear tufts on the top of its head. Unlike more familiar barn and tawny owls, the short-eared regularly hunts in broad daylight and you will often find 2-6 birds in the same area. They fly slowly and silently above the marshes, dropping suddenly to snatch a vole before vanishing into a deeper tuft of rushes or reeds to eat it. Sometimes however, kestrels which hunt the same prey might muscle in and steal the owl’s catch.
The woodlark – sings very early in the breeding season. Getty Images/FrankMcC
Anyone who walks in the countryside will know the skylark’s song – an uplifting and seemingly endless fizzing song that cascades over moors, arable fields and coastal marshes. Far less well known is the delicate fluting song of its close relative the woodlark – its Latin name Lullula describes the song perfectly. Similar in looks to the skylark, the woodlark is more fond of the heaths of southern and eastern England and is particularly visible in February and March so late winter/early spring is the best time to set out on a mission to hear their song. Look for its deeply undulating flight – and, of course, listen for the fabulous song.
Winter is the best time to listen out for the sound of foxes due to their three to six day mating period occurring during this season. Their mating call can be described most accurately as a ‘howl’ or ‘scream,’ so needless to say this noise won’t be one you have to strain your ears for. Commonly found in wooded areas, among the extensive list of locations that foxes inhabit, including cliff sides and high mountains, the evident determination of survival for this creature is reflected in the intensity of the sound heard on a woodland walk when calling for their mate.
Hooting of tawny owls enlivens winter nights. Getty
The most endearing sound undoubtedly is vocalised by tawny owls, as the soothing twit-twoo is a familiar sound associated with an early morning walk. More charming is the call and response method of this mating call to seek out a mate for life, with the male tawny owl releasing a ‘twit,’ and the female answering with ‘twoo.’ In spite of the nocturnal nature of these animals, fortunately they are noisiest in December, which increases the chances of them being heard in daylight on a Christmas family countryside outing, most especially near dawn and dusk.
Listen for the laughing call – or ‘yaffle’ – of the green woodpecker. Getty
In comparison to the soothing sound of an owl hoot, the shrill pecking of a woodpecker on dead wood is a very different mating call heard during the winter season. The green woodpecker is the largest of the three breeds that habitat in Britain, and feed mostly on the ground which improves the chance of spotting them on a family festive wander through woodland or parks. Their noisiest period is generally January and February, and they habitat in wooded areas, nesting in trees. Alongside their hammering into deadwood, the laughing call of this bird can be heard during this season.
Lakes and river resound to the squabbling of mallards. Getty
Ducks and other wildfowl flock in their greatest number during the winter, which will exaggerate the volume of their voices to be heard during a woodland your. The unmistakable ‘quack’ is usually reserved for the female duck, with the male responding with a quieter and more raspy call, and for more information on recognising different calls of a duck, click here. Residing usually near lakes or ponds, the winter nesting season furthermore brings out the best plumage in the Mallard male ducks, or drakes, making them aesthetically pleasing when spotted.
Grey squirrels have one of two mating seasons between December to February and therefore they are an intriguing animal to look out for this Christmas period. These woodland creatures are noisy all year round, from a ‘kut, kut, kut’ sound warning of danger, to a gleeful whine and chatter their voices will be distinctive and heard by all. With habitats mostly in woodland areas, most specifically hardwood forests with nut trees due to their diet including fruits, seeds and tree nuts, these scurrying animals are most common to hear and sight during a woodland family stroll.
Robins are among the only birds to sing in the deep midwinter. Getty
This bird is one of the most traditionally associated with the Christmas period, and can be heard singing as locally as your own garden. Their song is utilised to mark territory and therefore it is an important sound to listen out for on a family woodland walk. Furthermore the robin is a more likely animal to spot due to its red plumage accentuated for warmth in the winter, and their fierce quest for worms on the ground result in them often being seen by visitors in woodlands and gardens.