Best winter wildlife spectacles in Britain
The short, sparkling days and long, cold nights of winter are perfect for wildlife watching. But which species of animal can be seen and heard in winter, and where are the best places in the UK to experience winter wildlife spectacles?
Even in the deepest depths of winter there is life to be found in the British countryside, from bright-white mountain hares in Scotland and starling murmurations in Northern Ireland, to red squirrels in Wales and owls in England.
These incredible natural wonders can be experienced on a winter walk and offer the perfect excuse to practice your winter photography skills.
Keep an eye and ear out for these wild sounds and sights with our guide to unmissable winter wildlife spectacles. In each case we include details on the best months within the winter season to experience these events, as well as where to see them.
Wildlife spectacles to look out for this winter
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 been called the greatest wildlife spectacle in Britain and is remarkable to witness. Studies suggest that starlings congregate in these remarkable ‘murmurations’ to deter possible predators, which are confused by the swirling masses. Despite a recent drop in their overall population, you can still witness the mesmerising sight of thousands of birds performing their aerial dance at dawn and dusk.
It’s thought 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.
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When is the best time to see starling murmurations?
From November to March – better chance of seeing when it's colder.
Where to see starling murmurations in the UK?
Here is a small selection of well-known spots for seeing starling murmurations.
- RSPB Exe Estuary, Devon
- RSPB Dungeness, Kent
- RSPB Rainham Marshes, Essex
- RSPB Fairburn Ings, West Yorkshire
- RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire
- RSPB Saltholme, Middlesbrough
- Gretna Green, Dumfries and Galloway
- Aberystwyth Pier, Aberythwyth, Ceredigion
- Otmoor RSPB reserve, Oxfordshire
- Albert Bridge, Belfast
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.
When to see spawning pike in the UK
From mid February to April, as soon as the water reaches 9°C
Where to see
Lowland lakes and reservoirs across the country. Look at also around waterweed beds on slower flowing rivers.
White mountain hares
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 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.
When to see mountain hares in the UK
From November to April is the best time to spot mountain hares in the British countryside.
Where to see mountain hares
In England, only the Peak District and Upper Pennines. In Wales, Snowdonia. Relatively common throughout the Highland region of Scotland.
Can you tell the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Our expert guide explains the key differences between rabbits and hares, history of the species and the best places to see them.
Scurrying red squirrels
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.
When to see red squirrels in the UK
Your best chances of spotting red squirrels in Britain is between November and March.
Where to see red squirrels
These are just some of the well-known spots for spotting red squirrels in the UK.
- Loch Garten RSPB, Abernethy Forest
- Mount Stewart House, near Belfast
- Newborough Forest, Anglesey
- Kielder Castle Visitor Centre, Kielder Forest, Northumberland
- Whinlatter Forest Visitor Centre, Keswick, Cumbria
- Brownsea Island, Dorset
- Briddlesford Woods, Isle of Wight
Catching sight of the distinctive rusty coloured fur of the red squirrel is a special moment. Our expert guide to red squirrels explains the difference between the UK's two main species of squirrel – the grey and red, key characteristics and the best places to see them in the UK.
Soaring short-eared owl
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.
When to see short-eared owls hunting
Between October and April is your best chance of spotting short-eared owls hunting in the British countryside.
Where to see short-eared owls
- Slimbridge WWT, Gloucestershire
- RSPB Parkgate, Cheshire
- Aust Warth, South Gloucestershire
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.
When to see and hear woodlarks in the UK
From mid February is your best chance of seeing and hearing woodlarks in the British countryside.
Where to hear woodlarks
- North Warren RSPB, Suffolk
- Denny Wood and Beaulieu Heath, New Forest, Hampshire
- Padworth Common, Padworth, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire WT
- Chudleigh Knighton Heath, Devon Wildlife Trust
- Weeting Heath, Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Winter is the best time to listen out for the sound of foxes due to their three–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.
Twit-twooing tawny owl
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.
Laughing green woodpecker
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 hammering into deadwood, the laughing call of this bird can be heard during this season.
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.
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.
Cuddling grey Squirrels
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.
Robin red breast
This bird is one of the most traditionally associated with the Christmas period, and can be heard singing as locally as your own garden.
The robin's 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.
Spotting a robin redbreast in your garden is a cheering sight on a cold winter's day. Our expert robin guide looks at the best places to see, facts about the species, including diet, nesting and migration habits, plus how to attract robins to your garden.