Midwinter and the year's shortest day beckons, but the robins will still be singing and there's plenty of bird activity still. Wrap up warm and you'll still find lots going on or if you prefer a warmer option, we've bird watching facilities inside both our centres at Sutton Bank and Danby.
Waxwings: These colourful invaders from Scandinavia may well arrive in large flocks – or ‘iruptions’ during the winter here on the hunt for ripe winter fruit. A beautiful peach and russet feathered bird, with a pronounced crest, black mask round its eye, it has yellow wing tips which are visible once you get the binoculars on them. Busy and flighty, they will be in a flock, gorging on berries like rosehips, rowan, holly and hawthorn. Head into Troutsdale for a chance to see them. With a curious ‘bubbling trill’ of a call you’re likely to hear them before you see them.
Also look out for:
- Bramblings, fieldfare, redwings and chaffinches which also make themselves at home in Troutsdale.
- Snow buntings which will be overwintering on the North York Moors' coastline now, taking advantage of the good winter feeding grounds. Visit the Yorkshire coast and you may well see these birds making landfall as they fly in from over the North Sea. A busy flock of soft white snow buntings is a wonderful sight.
- Birds of prey out hunting during the short daylight hours, including merlin, buzzards, peregrines, sparrowhawks, barn owls, short-eared owls. It's worth heading to Wykeham Forest Raptor Viewpoint again to see what's around. Tawny owls are still very vocal at dusk. Listen out for their haunting hoots to one another. They will be well camouflaged against the brown barks of trees, but now is a great opportunity to see one, when the trees are devoid of leaves.
- Lapwings, mallard, teal, wigeon, tufted duck, coot, goldeneye, goosander and greylag geese at Scaling Dam.
- Red foxes as fox vixens come into season in December and January, you may well hear haunting screams and barks in the night as the foxes make their intentions loud and clear. Look out for dog and vixen foxes together, running across the fields.
Walk of the month
Hutton le Hole is as pretty as a picture in the snow, but even without the white stuff, this is a charming walk on country lanes and moorland tracks, returning across the Spaunton escarpment for some lovely sweeping views. A cracker for a crisp day, with a country pub in both villages!
Yorkshire Coast Nature tips
Here's what else experts Yorkshire Coast Nature say you should be looking for this month.
Winter sun is a precious commodity as daylight becomes shorter towards the solstice on 21 December. For the majority of wildlife, shorter days and colder temperatures mean less food so definitely not the month to be giving birth.
One exception is the Atlantic grey seal which is the most regularly seen species of seal off the Yorkshire coast. Grey seals give birth in the UK between autumn and mid-winter. The timing gets later the further north you go with grey seals in Scotland giving birth later in December. The first to be born in the UK are in the south-west of the country in autumn. Pups venture into the sea after suckling on dry land for several weeks. They need to put on a lot of fat to withstand the ravages of the North Sea. Soon after weaning the pup, the females become fertile again and can mate, starting their long 11 month pregnancy again.
A seal colony is collectively known as a rookery and the best rookery in Yorkshire is at Ravenscar in the North York Moors National Park where several hundred seals can be seen below the cliffs. If you intend to visit Ravenscar be aware of the following advice relating to the seals:
- Please do not get too close to the seals
- Never feed or pet the seals
- Do not take dogs near the seals
- Too much disturbance can lead to increased pup mortality
Another animal which starts its breeding cycle in the winter is the common crossbill. These fabulous birds use their scissor like bill to split a conifer cone and access the seed inside. Crossbills have the ability to vary their breeding season depending on the time of ripening of the cone crop. Ripe Scots pine seed is produced annually from as early as February so when the young crossbills fledge very early in the spring, the seed is ready.
In contrast to Scots pine, both species of spruce, the European native Norway spruce and the American sitka spruce have one good coning year (abundant seed production) approximately every four years, whereas the British native Scots pine sets its seed on an annual basis.
Scots pine and Norway spruce seed are also more nutritious than the smaller Sitka spruce seed. So when looking for Crossbills in Yorkshire you may want to concentrate on watching Scots pine trees but in a bumper spruce coning year you’re in for a crossbill treat!
Telling trees apart is an important skill to learn when wildlife watching. Sitka spruce has short needles with a blue-silver cast of colour especially on the underside of the needle. In contrast the Norway spruce has a brighter green needle with no obvious colour difference on the needle. Scots pine have larger bunches of needles hanging down from the tree, a very different structure compared to the Spruce. The best way to tell a Scots pine tree is to look for the orange colour-brown on the bark which is especially evident in older trees.
Feeding birds in our gardens is especially important in winter and over many years we have become better at judging what is the best food and which types of food are unsuitable. The worst food is bread and any cooked junk food such as potato chips. Cake and raw meat is also bad and so is honey.
The best foods are seeds such as sunflower hearts and easily digestible suet or lard mixed with seeds. If you get it right you may even attract one of our favourite garden birds, the song thrush. Song thrushes eat a wide variety of food from fruit to snails. Bird tables can be good for thrushes as can old apples on the lawn, which may have both the fruit and insects within the flesh, a superb Christmas lunch!
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