A short history of stopping...
Watching wildlife in winter can be difficult for many reasons. The wildlife might be inactive (in the case of badgers sheltering from the cold), hibernating (in the case of bats and queen bumblebees), dead (as in the many insects including worker bees that die off in the autumn) or, most likely, it is outside… in horrendous conditions of icy paths, freezing cold air, driving rain, fog, perpetual darkness and dangerously far distances from a kettle and jaffa cakes.
Wintery conditions at Rawcliffe Country Park – Photo by Phil T.
But we cannot allow these excuses to get in the way! So, presuming we step out into everything the delightful British winter can offer, where can we look for wildlife? I would say in the usual places: gardens, parks, walks by the river, a local pond, anywhere that is not 100% concrete or Tesco.
Wandering along, frozen ground crackling underfoot, looking at the leafless trees, it might be difficult to imagine seeing anything at all, but this is where we will use our secret weapon. This is a technique that our glorious Ecotherapy leader Kathy (Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, complete Game of Thrones reference at your convenience…) reminded me of during our previous session. The technique is very simple and boils down to the following steps:
2. Don’t do anything.
Yes, it really is that simple. It can be easy to power through a winter walk, not seeing much, and presuming that the not seeing much-nesss will continue for some time. An hour later, you are back home and you haven’t seen anything: a bothersome self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to truly find winter wildlife, you need to slow things down, take a pause, stand for a few moments of peace and quiet beside an oak tree, holly bush or rushing stream, and see what happens. You don’t even need to scan furiously with your eyes. Simply listen and wait...
You might see nothing, I won’t lie, it’s certainly a possibility. But the simple act of stopping, slowing down, opening your senses, allows you to notice things that you might otherwise have missed. Perhaps you’ll see the black hoof-like buds of an ash tree, waiting to burst into leaf later this year. Maybe there will be the squishy remains of the once spiky robin’s pincushion, a gall caused by a tiny wasp (Diplolepis rosae) laying eggs into a rose stem, hijacking its systems to grow a home for the larvae. Or you might discover an old bird’s nest in the process of falling apart.
Ash buds – Photo by Phil T.
Obviously, these things were here regardless of whether you stopped or not. However, the act of stopping may introduce you to some more mobile lifeforms. I did the same thing recently, in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, stopping by a hedge, listening and letting my eyes lose focus, to see if there was any movement, any flitting between trees. I heard a high pitched squeaking noise, so quiet it might have been imaginary, or just the squeal of branches moving in the wind. As seconds ticked by, the noise became more insistent, more regular and was accompanied by a clockwork motion of a brown shape working its way around branches and then flying on to the next tree. I followed, and was treated to a view of a goldcrest, tiny sharp beak, pale faced with a beady eye, and I even caught a glimpse of the yellow stripe on its head!
Goldcrest photos from my pause-by-the-hedge moment.
In our last Ecotherapy session, it was these moments of stopping that allowed us to similarly meet other species of birds including blue tits, great tits and wrens. Perhaps simply stopping allowed us to hear bird calls and detect their movement, or perhaps by stopping we became part of the scenery, the birds untroubled by our presence as they travelled close by, finding food. In the case of many robins, often they will investigate you. Maybe they have learned through local gardeners or volunteers at St Nicks, that humans disturb the ground, exposing invertebrates, and are therefore a creature worth observing.
Robin taken on Christmas Day 2020 – photo by Phil T
The goldcrest was not my only wildlife encounter I gained through stopping. On a visit to Knaresborough Castle, I pause long enough by a bench to eat a sandwich while my feet slowly turned to ice, but it was just long enough to notice movement on a nearby tree. A slate grey shape walked along the underside of a branch, and when it turned, I saw a pale orange chest and a longish grey beak. This was a nuthatch, the only British bird able to walk down tree trunks, as well as up. It soon flitted away higher into the canopy and gave its insistent car alarm style call which, again, because I had paused, I could absorb and appreciate.
The only nuthatch I’ve ever photographed – Sutton Bank Visitor Centre from long ago.
If it is safe to do so, especially with regards to ice, I’d suggest you to go on your usual walk in search of wildlife, but take a few moments to pause in a quiet area, and see if any nature is revealed, or comes to investigate you…