British wildlife in December

Whether out and about or hidden away in a sheltered spot, there’s plenty of winter wildlife to track down.

A mountain hare hunkers down in a snow storm in The Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. © Lyle McCalmont/Getty

If you are planning to see wildlife, please follow the latest government advice regarding coronavirus, and bear in mind that there are different restrictions in place between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in more localised areas as well.

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Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Goldfinch perched on a branch with berries. © Mark Hamblin
Goldfinch perched on a branch with berries. © Mark Hamblin
God knows the world needs allthe good it can get right now –Out in the gardens and fields,Goldfinches are gilding the land for free

The opening lines of Goldfinch, a poem in Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s new book The Lost Spells, remind us that garden birds are joy-bringers in difficult times, yet not something we can take for granted. Canaries in the coal mine, their fortunes should concern us all.

Perhaps this is why we feed birds, and the goldfinch is a perfect example of how doing so can change the populations and behaviour of individual species. In Britain, our relationship with this glittering gem with the tinkling voice is particularly close. Always a prized cage bird, it nowadays is better known as one of the most familiar visitors to garden birdfeeders.

The goldfinch population has soared in recent years, boosted by our winter offerings of countless tonnes of sunflower hearts (until three decades ago an exotic sight in British gardens), which the fine-billed finch adores. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the UK now has an estimated 1.65 million breeding TV pairs of goldfinches – more than carrion crows or rooks – a dramatic rise probably also assisted by milder winters.

The goldfinch’s scientific name, Carduelis carduelis, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.


Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starlings massing at a winter roost site at dusk.
Starlings massing at a winter roost site at dusk. © Andy Rouse/Getty

We tend to forget that Britain is the source, as well as the destination, of invasive ‘alien’ species. Take the starling. As revealed by BBC Radio 4’s fascinating documentary Shakespeare’s Starling, in the 1890s a US society had the bright idea of introducing many European species of bird mentioned by the bard – with devastating consequences. Now there are more than 200 million starlings in North America, and they’re wreaking havoc.

Back in the bird’s native range, however, we face the opposite problem – dwindling numbers. Starlings are on the Red List of species of conservation concern, due to steep declines in their breeding population. So the awe-inspiring aerial manoeuvres, or murmurations, that starlings perform before going to roost in winter are noticeably thinner on the ground than they were as recently as the 1980s.

Yet the dusk displays, which are swelled by migrant birds fleeing the harsher conditions in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia, remain a highlight of the wildlife watcher’s calendar.

The best murmurations usually occur on cold, still, clear evenings between December and February. An episode of Radio 4 series Naturebang explores the science of these spectacles… and how the starlings manage not to smash into one another.

Learn more about starlings: 


Brown centipede (Lithobius forficatus)

Brown centipede on a log. © Alex Hyde
Brown centipede on a log. © Alex Hyde

First things first: centipedes don’t have 100 legs. Some possess rather more, but the brown, or common, centipede gets by with just 15 pairs. It is among the most impressive of the 60 or so species of centipede in Britain, and mouldering bark and leaves can be a good place to find it.

Leaf litter creates a musty microclimate, substantially warmer than chilly winter air, so stays full of invertebrate activity. This is why so many animals, from blackbirds and robins to chickens and wild boar, love scratching about in leaves.


Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

Grey wagtail. © Colin Varndell
Grey wagtail. © Colin Varndell

Both wagtails present in Britain this season frequent built-up areas. Pied wagtails forage on the tarmac of car parks and roost in street trees, including at shopping centres and London Heathrow Terminal 5. Grey wagtails, in summer associated with rushing streams, swap uplands for urban canals and rivers and the puddles on platforms and office roofs.

In 1973’s The Unofficial Countryside, Richard Mabey describes “grey wags” overwintering in London, flitting about the rafts of debris that have built up at canal locks, and hopping between bits of floating polystyrene.


16-spot ladybird (Tytthaspis sedecimpunctata)

A cluster of 16-spot ladybirds. © Laurence Counter
A cluster of 16-spot ladybirds. © Laurence Counter

Winter is coming, and one of the consequences is the disappearance of insects. With searching, however, some can still be found. Ladybirds overwinter in huddles, occasionally dozens strong, and these may be seen in cracks in bark and walls, around window frames or under piles of leaves.

You’re most likely to meet seven-spot ladybirds and non-native harlequins, but others to look for include the black-on-yellow 16-spot ladybird. Some clusters seem very exposed, yet these beetles are toxic. The brighter the colours, the more toxic the species.


December moth (Poecilocampa populi)

December moth. © James Lowen
December moth. © James Lowen

This handsome, if subtly marked, moth is drawn to buildings by artificial light, usually on December evenings, though it may also emerge in October or November. As befits a winter-flying species, its body is swaddled in thick fur.

The other key feature to look for is cream lines running across Bournville-brown wings. In common with other moths active in winter, the adult insect never feeds – the only thing on its mind is tracking down a mate.


Polecat (Mustela putorius)

Polecat. © Mike Lane
Polecat. © Mike Lane

In winter, wildlife often comes to us. So it is with the polecat – an exceptionally elusive nocturnal predator that, despite its ongoing comeback from persecution-driven decline, remains one of the hardest of all British mammals to see.

Like its domesticated ferret relatives, the polecat is a hunter of small mammals, and at this time of year it becomes a ratter, venturing closer to our outbuildings, chicken runs and allotments. It remains almost impossible to plan a polecat sighting, but you never know.


Brent goose (Branta bernicla)

Brent goose in the Netherlands. © Mike Lane/Getty
Brent goose in the Netherlands. © Mike Lane/Getty

The British Isles welcome internationally important numbers of this smart little Arctic goose in winter. In his Tweet of the Day commentary, Chris Packham says the bird is dressed for a funeral, but the excitable yapping of its flocks is far cheerier.

There are two forms – dark-bellied geese head to the saltmarshes and harbours of the Channel coast, Thames Estuary and North Norfolk, while pale-bellied geese gather in Northern Ireland, especially at Strangford Lough. All are here for the same thing – lush eelgrass in the shallows.


European robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin perching on a spade handle in the snow. © Getty
Robin perching on a spade handle in the snow. © Getty

Pictured among snow-dusted holly berries or on a garden spade or chair, fluffed up against the cold, or nesting in a discarded rusty teapot or battered boot, the robin enjoys iconic status in British popular culture. Especially so at Christmas, when this perky member of the chat family holds a special place in our affections.

The barn owl – its closest rival in 2015’s poll to choose a national bird, organised by the ‘Urban Birder’ David Lindo – never really stood a chance. Robin Redbreast romped home.


Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

A kingfisher on a frosty perch in the Midlands, UK. © Mike Lane/Getty
A kingfisher on a frosty perch in the Midlands, UK. © Mike Lane/Getty

When the ‘Beast from the East’ brought Siberian weather to much of Europe in March 2018, a photograph of an unlucky kingfisher frozen solid in the ice of a Dutch canal was widely published in newspapers and went viral on social media. Ice looks pretty, but it’s a killer. For some birds, freezing spells lasting any longer than a couple of days can be a major cause of mortality.

Kingfishers are particularly susceptible, as are grey herons, barn owls (because their rodent prey stays underground), and insectivorous species such as goldcrests and Dartford warblers. A big freeze sends their populations tumbling, though numbers recover after a run of mild winters.


Eurasian magpie (Pica pica)

A small group of magpies in a hawthorn tree. © Sandra Standbridge/Getty
A small group of magpies in a hawthorn tree. © Sandra Standbridge/Getty

Magpie counting rhymes have many variants and apparently date back at least as far as the 1700s. Strange, then, that gatherings of magpies pass most of us by. These members of the crow family roost communally year-round, but especially in winter.

Unlike other corvids, which favour tall trees, magpies like to roost quite low in dense, thorny trees and scrub. They turn up in groups, settling down after sunset. Usually, the roosts are small – a few dozen birds at most – though assemblies 200–250 strong are known.

The magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.


Brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

Brown hare in a snowy field. © Cristi Savin/Getty
Brown hare in a snowy field. © Cristi Savin/Getty

Long before brown hares were brought to the British Isles, most likely by the Romans, they lived in the vast grasslands of easternmost Europe and central Asia. As steppe animals, they evolved to survive extremes of weather with little or no shelter. This explains their remarkable hardiness – hares do not use burrows, but merely hunker down in shallow scrapes called ‘forms’.

In winter, they find food by scrabbling snow aside or, if necessary, resort to browsing shrubs, twigs and even bark. Flooding and cold, wet springs are probably more of a threat than snow.


Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus)

Great black-backed gull at the beach near the walled city of Saint-Malo in France. © Getty
Great black-backed gull at the beach near the walled city of Saint-Malo in France. © Getty

Easily larger than a buzzard, with a whopping, meat-cleaver bill, this is our most impressive gull. But it could do with a few more friends – pinching food from hapless cormorants, or wolfing down defenceless puffins, is not a good look. During summer, great black-backs are thinly spread around our coasts.

So, it’s in winter, when many birds move inland and visiting migrants swell the population threefold, that you’re most likely to spot these gulls. One place they love is landfill sites, and nature writer Tim Dee explores this in his book, Landfill.


Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed tits on a winter branch, Durham, UK. © Andrew Howe/Getty
Long-tailed tits on a winter branch, Durham, UK. © Andrew Howe/Getty

One of Britain’s remarkable winter wildlife spectacles is rarely glimpsed by humans. On bitterly cold nights, long-tailed tits will line up on a branch deep inside a thick hedge or bush, nestled together for warmth. The roosts contain related individuals, often adults and their offspring.

By day, these family parties are much more public, drawing attention to themselves with high-pitched volleys of slurring ‘srih-srih-srih’ calls.


Ordinary moss (Brachythecium rutabulum)

Sporophytes of Brachythecium rutabulum. © Devon Cummings/Getty
Sporophytes of Brachythecium rutabulum. © Devon Cummings/Getty

‘Ordinary’ seems a rather unfair name for Brachythecium rutabulum. The more descriptive alternative is rough-stalked feather moss. This little damp- and shade- loving plant suddenly transforms into a mini forest when it produces its sporophytes – the delicate, stalk-like structures that disperse its spores.

Horatio Clare, in his book, The Light in the Dark, compares the effect to a “host of tiny green diplodoci standing together, their heads bent heavy on the ends of long necks.”


Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Turnstone. © Rebecca Gibson
Turnstone. © Rebecca Gibson

After breeding on High Arctic tundra, turnstones spread out across the planet, visiting coastlines of every continent except Antarctica. Our wintering population comes all the way from Canada and Greenland.

These tough, chunky waders busily work through tideline flotsam and jetsam, turning over seaweed and pebbles to snap up small invertebrates underneath. They’ll happily pick at the carcasses of seabirds, seals and cetaceans; some will even come to bread.


Red kite (Milvus milvus)

Red kite in the UK. © Kristian Bell/Getty
Red kite in the UK. © Kristian Bell/Getty

Extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland eight years later, the red kite just about clung on in mid- Wales. Reintroduction schemes have since transformed its fortunes, and now the raptor is one of the species that Mark Cocker, in his book Our Place, refers to as “wild British Lazaruses”.

There is no better illustration of the kite’s dramatic comeback than the spectacular gatherings at feeding stations, such as Gigrin Farm in Powys or Bellymack Hill Farm in Dumfries and Galloway. Expect to see dozens of kites, plus buzzards, ravens and crows. They look at their best in the low winter light.

The red kite’s scientific name, Milvus milvus, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.


Stoat (Mustela erminea)

A stoat in ermine, in the snow in Italy. © Fabrizio Moglia/Getty
A stoat in ermine, in the snow in Italy. © Fabrizio Moglia/Getty

In this all-white pelage, the stoat is perhaps Britain’s most attractive mammal, but predicting where you might spot an ermine is tricky. It’s more likely in northern uplands, though ermines do get reported further south, including in Cornwall and Suffolk in recent years. Various factors control the whitening, including an individual stoat’s heredity, falling temperatures and snow cover. Severe weather conditions one year increase the likelihood of a change next winter.


Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Holly in the snow. © Gregory Adams/Getty
Holly in the snow. © Gregory Adams/Getty

Since medieval times, holly has been gathered at Christmas to decorate churches and houses, the blood-red berries supposedly offering protection from evil. Back then, superstitious people may have wondered why only some trees bear fruit, but today we know the answer.

Each holly tree is male or female, a condition known as dioecious, and that makes self-pollination impossible. So although all hollies have pretty white flowers in spring, only female trees will go on to produce berries, which develop from fertilised flowers. They can only do that, of course, if male trees are nearby to supply the necessary pollen.

Technically, the fruit is the stone-like part in the middle; the scarlet skin is the exocarp, while the orangey flesh is the mesocarp. Of all our garden birds, blackbirds and thrushes are especially fond of holly berries.


Mountain hare (Lepus timidus)

A mountain hare hunkers down in a snow storm in The Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. © Lyle McCalmont/Getty
A mountain hare hunkers down in a snow storm in The Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland. © Lyle McCalmont/Getty
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“The nature of winter is one of simplicities…the wild world reduced to its barest essentials,” reflects Jim Crumley in his book The Nature of Winter. Perhaps the ultimate British example is a mountain hare hunkered down amid drifting snow. Milder winters and controversial culls have made this classic scene much harder to come by. You can still find these native hares in much of the Highlands, as well as southern Scotland, a few islands and the Peak District, but white-on- white encounters are something to treasure.