January may mean frosty winter days, early dusks, and bare trees and hedges, but that also means it's easier to see flocks of birds and other wildlife.
Hone your detective skills and make the most of any snow with a spot of animal tracking, looking for signs of hungry mammals and birds.
Mice, voles, rabbits, brown hares, red fox, squirrels and otters will all be out looking for food.
Badger prints are similar to dogs, with the same rear pad and toe pads, although they have five instead of four.
Badgers also have longer claws than dogs that will leave a noticeable imprint.
Crossbills have a head start and will already be looking to breed because their food of choice – conifer seeds – is ripe and available throughout winter. As its name suggests, the upper and lower parts of its bill are crossed over (though you'll only see this through binoculars or at close range). The adult male is reddish in the upperparts and under parts. The female is greenish-grey, lightly streaked. Flocks can be seen feeding in pine forests like Boltby, Cropton and Dalby.
Also look out for:
- Redshanks on the shoreline as Icelandic birds join with British feeding flocks. Look for them wading on the shore, with their long orange/black beaks and bright orange/red legs.
- Winter aconites start to open early in January. These cheering yellow blooms, part of the buttercup family, can carpet a woodland floor. They may look delicate but they're pretty tough, frost-tolerant and readily survive fresh snow cover unharmed.
- Lichens as their mosaic patterns are really visible now on old stone walls, marker stones, and tree branches. There are more than 2,000 different varieties growing in Britain, and the cleaner the air, the more you'll find. They stand out really well on days when it’s rained. With so many stone walls across the North York Moors, you'll find them all over the place while East Moor Banks and Pretty Wood, both on the Castle Howard estate, and Yearsley Woods are good places in the Howardian Hills.
Walk of the month
Yorkshire Coast Nature tips
January is a great month to get into trees! They are almost everywhere we look, or at least should be… But which are the best trees for wildlife? The answer partly depends on where you live. The soil type will influence how well certain species grow in particular parts of the country and this can in turn influence the wildlife of that area.
On the chalky land of East Yorkshire, Ash and Beech are well suited to the alkaline rich soils. I remember working in Millington Wood near Pocklington in East Yorkshire and never seeing an Oak Tree. Just over the border in North Yorkshire, Ash is less common but Silver Birch and Oak are very common trees and well suited to the deeper and often peat rich, more acidic soils.
Telling some of our commoner native trees apart in winter can be easier than you think. It's all about shape, colour and structure. Look carefully at the twigs, buds and bark.
Oak trees have their buds arranged in an alternate structure running up a twig, often ending with several fat lumpy buds grouped together at the tip of the stem. The bark on the twig should be pale and smooth and covered with tiny but easily seen paler spots.
Beech trees have very distinctively shaped buds, very different to other native trees, they are long and sharply pointed, arranged alternately up the stem in a gentle zigzag fashion. Their cigarette like structure helps me remember their Latin family name Fagus! The bark is grey and smooth even in a mature tree.
To identify an Ash tree in winter all you have to remember is; black Ash, black buds. The buds are arranged oppositely on a stem and often sit on a tiny shelf like structure growing out from the stem. The twig often ends with a larger black bud at the tip. The bark is grey and smooth.
Silver Birch tree buds are similar to Beech buds in structure but much shorter, they lack the long thin structure of Beech. Look out for their red-brown colouring and the pointed tip. They are arranged alternately up the stem in a gently shaped zigzag form similar to Beech.
Some of our best loved birds can be influenced by the species and age of trees. In England, the Nuthatch loves to build its nest in a cavity within an Oak tree and often choose a mature tree with an old natural hole. They use flakes of bark to fill the base of the hole to just the right size for their nest and plaster the entrance with mud which dries to a size just big enough for them to squeeze into.
A study in Poland found they nested in more mature trees with holes too big for their nest which they can then adjust to the right size and shape. But these were Ash and Maple trees as opposed to Oak in England.
Therefore the species of tree which is the commonest mature species within an area, growing to a large enough size to develop cavities may become a Nuthatches favourite. So, if you want to attract these great birds to your garden hold onto those native, large, mature and gnarled trees with lots of cracks and holes, they are often the best places for Nuthatches and many other forms of wildlife.
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