Unsurprisingly, plant cover at this time of the year is noticeable by its absence. However, in damp, shady places relatives of some of Earth's most ancient plants can be found. Thin tree cover now allows light into places it can't reach at other times of the year to pick out ferns, fungi and lichen. Here is a selection of notable sites around the country that should offer good photo opportunities:
- Derwent Gorge and Muggleswick Woods, Durham and Northumberland (NZ056490), map.
- Gailes Marsh, Ayreshire (NS324358), map.
- The Fernery at Tatton Park, Cheshire (SJ743816), map.
- Melincourt Waterfalls Reserve, Glamorgan (SN827015), map.
- Ebbor Gorge, Somerset (ST525486), map.
- Bovey Valley Woodlands, Devon (SX770804), map.
Love is in the air for grey squirrels. In my experience this is the best month for watching their courtship chases in parks and woodland. The female leads followed by any number of males. The girls exude a perfume that gets the boys all fired up and then she plays hard to get (a familiar story). The chase is vigorously athletic and can last for hours. Eventually only the fittest will succeed in mating with her. Due to the speed and unpredictability of the chase, photographing the action is almost impossible. However, the squirrels often stop and freeze for a few seconds before bursting into high speed again. This is the moment to get the shot. You can expect a lot of missed frames.
Badgers begin to clean out their set and become more obvious about now. The short days mean that they emerge early in the evening making it easier and more convenient to watch them. It's worth taking note of which entrance bedding is taken into, as this is often where cubs will emerge in spring. Beginning to acclimatise them to your presence now will certainly help with photographs later in the year. Do take the time to remove all signs of your visit whenever you leave, to prevent despicable badger baiters from finding the site.
Great Crested Grebes begin their highly complicated courtship dancing on lakes and rivers. Photographing the whole catalogue of performances is a lifetime challenge for many photographers. These are surprisingly nervous birds and can be easily disturbed. Use as long a lens as you can and stay out of sight.
This is the peak month for wildfowl populations. Many over wintering visitors bump up the numbers. Males will be sporting their finest breeding plumage and look absolutely splendid. Their bright colours not only make them stunning photographic subjects but also mean that identification is easy. It's worth checking out any of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust sites but here's some more specific details that you may find interesting.
- Montrose Basin (NO690571), map, a rich feeding ground for up to 30 000 pink-footed geese and 6 000 greylag geese and other birds.
- Tay, near Dundee (NO463304), map, many over wintering pink-footed geese and the largest flock of eider ducks in Britain plus goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers and goosanders.
- Alloa Inch, Firth of Forth (NS870918), map, Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve in the tidal section of the Firth of Forth. One of the few estuaries with more than 15 waterfowl species of national importance.
- Lindisfarne, Northumberland (NU124420), map, a wide variety of sea ducks, several thousand widgeon and more than 100 red-throated divers. Look too for red-necked and slavonian grebes around the harbour on Holy Island.
- Welney, Cambridgeshire (TL537934), map, the most important site for bewick swans in Britain. One of only two strongholds in the south for whooper swans.
- Slimbridge, Gloucester (SO720048), map, an outstanding site for all three swan species and many other wildfowl.
- Anglesey, Wales, map, a good place to see whooper swans and greylag geese. Llyn Alaw has a hide.
- Martin mere, Lancashire (SD424149), map, whooper and bewick swans, several thousand pink-footed geese and ducks.
Golden plovers begin moving back to the moors towards the end of the month, to once again seek out their breeding grounds. These stunning looking birds can be hard to spot among deep grasses and heather, until they move when feeding. Then their similarities to lapwings can be observed as they make short forward runs between stops to feast on worms and such like. Your best chance is to slowly cruise likely areas, patiently waiting for a subject to come close enough for you to get a shot with a telephoto lens.
In the same vein, curlews nest on the moors close to my home, so at this time of year I look forward to hearing calls of birds returning to their breeding sites. Heavy snows may delay their arrival a little but by early March at the latest I can count on them being around. Curlews are our largest wader so you stand a better chance of getting a frame-filling picture than you would with a smaller bird. Although they are less wary on moorland than when they are wintering on the coast, you will still need to make a careful approach.
Female bumblebees take to the air in search of a place to make their home and raise their young. All of the males died off when last year's cold weather came along, while the females went into hibernation. Once on the wing they will be looking for a source of nectar to top up their energy. Until their batteries are recharged they will be somewhat sluggish and can make excellent close-up photography subjects.
After spending the winter hibernating in sheds and outhouses herald moths begin to emerge this month. It is one of the first moths to appear and patches of orange scales on its forewings make it easily identifiable.