Winter wonders: You don't have to wait until spring to enjoy nature's finest spectacles

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

From boxing hares to butterflies, there's plenty to see during the colder months – if you know where to look

A A A


Starling Flocks

Look up: one of nature's most dramatic air shows will happen this month. "Starling flocks are really spectacular," says Peter Brash, an ecologist with the National Trust. "They look like wisps of smoke, changing shape. You'll see them mainly around reed beds. The numbers of starlings have declined in Britain but the big flocks you see at this time of year are probably coming from as far away as Russia or Siberia." The best time of day to see group displays is in the late afternoon when they come home to roost: as they are vulnerable to predators at this time, they return together. A likely site is at Frensham Littlepond in Surrey, and the West Sedgemoor RSPB reserve can have flocks of up to 3 million starlings.

Herons

By February herons need to be sitting on their eggs, so now is the time for a spring clean. "You may see one flying with a big stick in its mouth, or standing up in trees," says Brash. You might also see them in stubble fields, looking for voles (they also eat eels, fish – and other birds). "Herons have very traditional nesting areas and there are even records of the same heronry being used from the 1940s," says Brash. See them at Morden Hall Park in London, at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire, and on the Dee Estuary.

Butterflies

No, really. If the temperature hits 11C, look out for the red admiral. "It has a reputation for being our standard ubiquitous butterfly, but it's actually migrant," says Matthew Oates, an entomologist and conservationist for the National Trust. "With climate change they are hibernating successfully in increasing numbers. Ten years ago it would have been rare to have the red admiral as your first butterfly of the year; now it's odds-on favourite. You need 11C-plus sunshine and a calm, sheltered spot. You'll see them around buildings because that's where they hibernate." Also look out for the bright yellow brimstone butterfly, best spotted in woodlands anywhere in England and Wales.

Seals

The British Isles are home to the common seal (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Low tide is the best time to see them. "Greys will haul themselves on to rocky coastline, while common seals are on sand bars or sand flats," says Brash. The best places to see them are Blakeney on the north Norfolk coast, Boscastle in Cornwall, Strangford Lough in Co Down and the Branscombe Estate in Devon (check before travelling, as there is reduced boat service in winter).

Knots

This wader breeds in the high Arctic but winters on the mudflats of the British Isles. Knots are best seen in spring at high tide; when the mudflats are covered, they look for farmland or an island in order to roost. Look around Morecambe Bay or the Dee Estuary in North Wales – but keep dogs on leads."Dogs can run out across a mudflat and chase the birds, and some of these birds need to feed constantly when the tide is low," says Brash. "Disturbance could make the difference between survival and death."

Bats

Horseshoe bats (the Rhinolophidae family) are a protected species well worth observing. "In the winter they're in caves and they're in torpor," says Brash. "But every few days they'll fly around a bit... On warmer nights, if the temperature reaches 10C or 12C, they'll come out and have a feed and water, and then go back into the cave. You need a bat detector to hear them – it slows down the sound so the human ear can hear it. They do a strange call, a bit like a bubbling sound." Greater horseshoes are the size of pears, lesser horseshoes the size of plums. Like other types of bat, the horseshoe has suffered from the overmanagement of hedges and trees. "Hedges were their motorways. That's how they navigated. Hedges used to be 25ft tall, but now they're shorter so they can't use them to feed from. They also feed on dung beetles, and because we don't winter cattle outdoors as much as we used to, and use nasty worming chemicals on cows, that's had a big effect on dung beetle populations." You're most likely to see horseshoe bats in Southern England and in Wales.

Hares

Forget Ricky Hatton: try agricultural fields in the early morning. "I often see hares, close to dawn, boxing in the fields near our office in Slough," says Brash. "The females stand up on their back legs and give the males a left hook. It's part of the mating ritual." See the big fight in open countryside, grasslands and stubble fields. Spot brown hares at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire; in the Peak District and Snowdonia you might glimpse the rarer mountain hare.

Red Squirrels

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is currently out feeding. "I'm afraid they are being pushed out by grey squirrels," Brash says. "The greys compete with them for food – they are slightly larger. But another factor is squirrel pox, which kills reds and is carried by the greys but doesn't affect them." Greys prefer broad-leaved woodlands, so reds are best spotted among conifers and on islands, where greys haven't yet reached. Try Formby Dunes near Liverpool, Mt Stewart in Co Down, and in Scotland, Northumberland, Anglesea, the Isle of Wight and the Lake District.

Trees and flowers

Warmer winters may also bring trees and flowers into bud earlier. Snowdrops are the keenest, and are prevalent throughout the UK, particularly in North Wales. But start looking too for the first catkins of 2008 dangling from hazel trees. Also blooming early are hedgerow and woodland flowers. Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) is a green perennial with erect stems bearing simple, serrate leaves: "It should be poking out of the ground about now, usually in hedges or ancient woodland," says Brash. And from February, look out for wild primroses in the woodlands and hedgerows of the South-west; try Watersmeet in Devon.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower