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Short-eared owl by Mike NicholasShort-eared owl by Mike Nicholas

Winter may still be holding its grip, but it's time to start looking for those first signs of spring.

Badger setts become a hive of activity in February. As you wonder through woodlands or near hedgerows, you may spot old bedding including straw, bracken and leaves appearing outside their burrows as badgers carry out some spring cleaning and gather new bedding in readiness for the birth of cubs, which are due anytime now. The cubs will remain underground until April or May.

Our tip

Snowdrops line roadside verges, hedge bottoms, woodland tracks and gardens of great houses between January and March. They're a welcome sign that winter is nearing its end. Enjoy the brief but spectacular displays of these delicate nodding white flowers at Mount Grace Priory, Castle Howard and Burton Agnes Hall near Driffield.

Also look out for:

  • Wild primroses making their first appearance. Lovely clumps of cheery yellow flowers, clustered on roadside verges and woodland banks. Farndale and Rosedale are good places to see them.
  • Roe deer, as the vegetation has died down it's easier to see them at this time of year. Roe deer are relatively small, have a reddish, grey body with a grey face, and short antlers. You'll see them in most of the forests across the North York Moors, including Cropton and Dalby, picking their way through the mature trees or, on a bright and sunny morning, feeding amongst replanted young trees. 
  • While you're there, take the time to stop and listen too as there's a good chance you'll hear a great spotted woodpecker at work, the most common of our three native species. Listen for it drumming on dead wood – it's quite loud and has a hollow sound that carries through the woodland. With black and white plumage, and a deep red rump, the head of the male has a distinct black crown and red nape too.

Walk of the month

Head to Howdale Moor and Brow Moor, where short-eared owls feed along the coasts over winter and are commonly seen hunting during the day. You'll not forget your first encounter with one as it works low over the fields in the late winter sun. Where there are grassy areas, keep an eye out for finger-size grey owl pellets regurgitated and full of bones of their prey.

Yorkshire Coast Nature tips

The experts at Yorkshire Coast Nature are our eyes on the ground, here's their pointers, updated for 2017, on what else to look out for this month.

February is a great month to hit the coast; lots of wildlife and less people! Although colder weather has been slowly creeping into 2017, there isn’t much snow yet… This is good news for some birds such as kingfishers and barn owls which are particularly susceptible to low temperatures and snow cover.

Cormorant copyright Steve Race Yorkshire Coast NatureThe rocky shores and harbours of the National Park are great places to see two of our most familiar but often confused birds; the great cormorant and European shag. Yorkshire Coast Nature photographer Steve Race has recently captured some fabulous close up images of both which show the winter differences really well.

Shag copyright Steve Race Yorkshire Coast NatureGreat cormorant is a much bigger bird than a shag. When seen close, a shag has a much slimmer bill. Look carefully at the base of the bill. The gular patch, which is the coloured skin area on a cormorant, covers a much larger area than on a shag. 

The structure of this area is also different. On a shag the angle between the base of the bill and the end of the gular is much reduced compared to the greater angle of a cormorant. The skin also extends around the eye to a greater extent on a cormorant than a shag.

In flight, shags are slimmer with a shorter neck and wings than cormorants. Shags are pelagic birds. By this we mean they spend all their lives at sea only coming to land to nest at the base of high cliffs. It is very rare to see a shag inland even in winter. Cormorants however have no real landscape preference they are equally happy on inland water areas as they are on the coast.

While you are on the coast look out for short-eared owls as they hunt quietly often close to the ground, drifting over the grassland like ghosts. RSPB Bempton and the National Park coastline around Ravenscar can be great places for these birds; there have even been sightings occasionally around Scarborough Castle! They prefer open, rough tall grassland away from tall trees. Rough and uncut tall grass provides a home for small mammals which is their favourite prey. Open land is better because it often means there are fewer crows that can harass the owls.  

Short-eared owls often migrate across the North Sea in autumn. On one of Yorkshire Coast Nature’s seabird and whale boat trips in September 2015, a short-eared owl appeared above the boat, flying towards land 6 miles out to sea. These Scandinavian breeding birds then spend the winter with us. So the next time you see one in the winter you may be looking at a Viking owl!

Snowdrops copyright Dan Lombard Yorkshire Coast NatureIn woodlands large and small some of our most famous flowers of the year are appearing. 

Look out for snowdrops. A symbol of hope in many European traditions they were also once thought to bring death if a single flower was brought into the house. If it does snow in February look out for these wonderful flowers as the snow melts they can often be seen pushing their heads up through the ice crystals! A wonderful opportunity for a photograph.  

Dog’s mercury is also starting to appear in February, this plant is unspectacular but welcome none the less as it often bathes the woodland floor in vivid green. The small green flowers are foul-smelling and the plant can be very poisonous but with few medicinal uses there are few cases of poisoning.

One of my favourite flowers is Coltsfoot. One of the first to appear often before even snowdrops, coltsfoot is unusual in that the flowers appear before the leaves. This feature earned it an old nick name "son before the father". 

The aromatic flowers can be eaten and are especially good in salads. Look out for these wonderful plants on disturbed thin soils such as by the side of gravel tracks or on old building sites where they love to be a real pioneer.