One deep midwinter evening by the River Ouse, I sat down on a fallen tree trunk and saw the moonlight sparkle on the icy lawn. I was attempting to remember a poem:
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold
The hare limp ‘d shivering through the frozen yard
And quiet was the flock in woolly fold
Something made me turn and I saw a fox standing right behind me, gazing intently.
Exist any wildlife encounters better than winter ones? The bare trees, hostile weather and cold, low light all hone the senses and add to the drama. No wonder Keats was motivated. Here in the UK there are a lot of experiences to be had, and although I’ve discussed specific locations for each types, there may be a chance nearer to you.
And don’t forget wildlife webcams, an excellent lockdown option: on long dark winter season nights, there is absolutely nothing better than viewing bears searching salmon in an Alaskan river.
Long-eared and short-eared owls
November is an excellent month to get out and see birdlife as winter visitors are arriving, often in vast numbers. The whole east coast of Britain receives migrants from Europe, however the East Yorkshire coast and Humber estuary are particularly busy, with flocks of starlings, and sometimes lapwings coming across from Europe and forming outstanding murmurations.
On the meadows around Flamborough Head, November sees the arrival from Scandinavia of long-eared owls, joining their short-eared cousins who came by a month previously. The short-eared likes to hunt for voles in the daytime, specifically on rough grasslands and coastal salt marshes the whole time the east coast.
Winter season at Flamborough offers minutes when nature impresses: more than 30,000 redwings can show up on a single winter season’s day. In October 2015, almost 10,000 goldcrests turned up one dawn: tiny birds, each weighing less than a 50 p piece, had flown almost 500 miles from Denmark.
Having a specialist along changes your experience– when you can get out once again. Yorkshire Coast and Nature does small-group one-day birdwatching journeys at Flamborough for ₤60 pp, as well as bird photography experiences, and they run each month.
Coasts all over Britain are the winter season house of curlews, other wading birds and even kingfishers. Inland, look out for groups of fieldfares moving through gardens and hedgerows and, best of all, waxwings. Keep field glasses to hand.
The decrease of wild salmon stocks continues, however all over Britain they can still be seen taking on waterfalls and dams to get back to where they hatched. The areas to head for are Ruswarp, Egton Bridge and Grosmont, villages all linked by the amazing, 37- mile Esk Valley walk, running from Castleton, up in the moors, to Whitby.
Scotland’s premier salmon-viewing place, the Falls of Shin, is at its finest in late September, but fish can be seen into November. As you may expect, Scotland has the most runs: practically 40,000 salmon were apparently captured there in 2018 (the majority of which were then launched) compared to less than 8,000 in England and Wales.
The Salmon Watching Centre, near Selkirk on the River Ettrick, has a cafe and a distillery close by along with a little visitor centre where, through an undersea camera, you may get lucky and watch the fish event before tackling the fish ladder.
Fantastic grey shrike
One of our rarer winter visitors is this voracious predator, familiar to African birders: the fantastic grey shrike has actually been known to kill young stoats and even toads (it impales them on thorns and strips off their toxic skin).
Look out also for he