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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 Richard Baines' pointers on what else to look out for this month.

February flirts

I can’t write about wildlife in February and ignore Valentine’s Day. The tradition of celebrating love in the middle of what can be a chilly and rainy month with few signs of spring may seem odd, but for many birds this is the best time to start courtship. 

As days lengthen and the first buds emerge on hardy trees such as willow and blackthorn, lots of our favourite birds get that loved up feeling.  

Male Bullfinch copyright Richard Baines

Male bullfinches really shine at this time of year. Explosions of shocking pink on dowdy twigs. Females are a beautiful mix of soft purple and grey. Like many other woodland birds, they like to travel together either in small groups or larger flocks, especially in winter. Sticking together means more eyes on the look out for food or danger. 

Female Bullfinch copyright Richard Baines

Bullfinches take this community strategy to another level by trying to stay faithful, sticking together in their breeding pairs throughout the winter. A recent study in Norway confirmed the long-held theory that these wonderful birds are indeed monogamous. Being together throughout the winter means it’s easier to breed earlier in the spring, taking less energy to find a new partner. 

Look out for small flocks of Bullfinches in your garden or scrubby woodlands and listen for their plaintive one note call or subtle song.

Male Goldfinch copyright Steve Race

Whilst bullfinches are busy being furtive in the woods, goldeneye are flaunting their wares on the water. February is a great month to watch these wonderful ducks. 

Everything was kicking off early at Hornsea Mere last week. I watched a group of male goldeneyes toss their heads back in glorious abandon, all pumped up with the joy of life. Goldeneye like many other waterfowl, couple up on their wintering grounds before flying away together, back to their breeding areas in the forests of northern Europe. The males are a dashing sight; black and white on steel grey water, sunshine on bottle green heads and a piercing yellow eye.

Look out for them anywhere there is a large and deep enough lake from Castle Howard in the Howardian Hills AONB to Scaling Dam reservoir in the National Park.