Paul Stancliffe on what to keep an eye out for this winter

For much of our wildlife, winter is the time to batten down the hatches, find somewhere warm and dry to hibernate, roost, or just to keep out of the worst that a British winter can throw at them. While no British bird hibernates, all of them need to find a warm and relatively dry spot to spend every cold winter’s night.

Mistle thrush by Edmund Fellowes 

Photo: Edmund Fellowes 

Seeking shelter

Some will roost in nest boxes, put up to provide a home for a family in the spring – blue and great tits occupy these as solitary individuals during the winter nights, fluffing up their feathers and snuggling into a corner of the box, out of the wind, the rain and the cold. Wrens, on the other hand, will crowd into a box and share body warmth; the record number of wrens found huddled together in a standard-sized nest box is 63.

Not all birds seek the shelter of a nest box though – starlings, blackbirds and finches seek the shelter of vegetation. Starlings are known to gather together in large, thick leylandii trees, blackbirds seem to prefer thick hedgerows, while finches – greenfinches in particular – are drawn to ornamental evergreens. For all of these birds, a good roost site can make the difference between life and death during freezing conditions.

Brambling by John Harding 

Photo: John Harding

Finding food

It is not just about finding somewhere to spend the night; the days are all about finding enough food to provide the energy to keep birds warm through the cold nights. It is therefore no surprise that during cold snaps birds flood into our gardens in search of the food that many of us put out.

These times are the best to look out for unusual and beautiful visitors. Thrushes – including redwings and fieldfares from Scandinavia – often come in search of berries and fallen apples. Bramblings, also from northern Europe, come looking for seeds.

Seed mixes, sunflower hearts and black sunflower seeds can prove particularly important for survival around mid-winter, when some wild seed crops begin to run low. It is not just bramblings that will come in search of them; goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and siskins will all feed on these seeds, too – and if you provide nyjer seed, you might also see the odd redpoll.

Goldfinch by John Harding 

Photo: John Harding

Already thinking of spring

As we settle down to celebrate Christmas, thoughts of spring and the new breeding season probably won’t be high on the agenda. However, for some of our birds it will be right at the top. I have heard the mournful song of the mistle thrush on Christmas Day; mid-winter is the start of the breeding season for this beautiful bird. Out in our woodlands, another of our early breeders, the crossbill, will also be in song.

At a few rocky coastal sites, ravens will be enjoying their tumbling courtship display, and possibly even at some inland sites, too. Ravens have spread from their coastal strongholds to breed in some of our most landlocked woodlands. The tumbling display is always accompanied by the throaty ‘cronk’ call of this, our largest crow. As the light begins to fade each day, there is a very good chance of hearing the classic shivering ‘hoot’ of a tawny owl, our most common owl species. By Christmas, tawny owls will be paired up and will have already selected the breeding site. The first eggs for this species are always reported during January.

So, if you are out and about in the depth of this winter, keep your ears and eyes open – the first signs of spring might not be too far away. And, if you see goldfinches in your garden, you can take part in the BTO Goldfinch Feeding Survey and help us find out just how important garden feeding is for this species.

Magazine of the Ramblers