There's a piercing wind howling, your hands are numb with cold and you can hardly hold your camera steady. Yes, it's January...
It's the start of a new year and snowdrops begin to appear (usually towards the end of the month), bringing a hint of new life into the cold and empty winterscape. Some displays can be truly breathtaking. You will need to get down low to make the most of these so take a plastic bag to lie on. Try checking out the Durham Wildlife Trust reserve at Hawthorn Dene (NZ427458), map.
Red squirrels look their best about now. Showing off their characteristic ear tufts and deep red coats they are a revelation to anyone who has only seen these cuties during the summer months. The squirrels at Formby Point north of Liverpool (SD265085), map, are real suckers for hazelnuts and are very acclimatised to people.
Foxes will be wandering freely around their territories leaving tracks in any freshly fallen snow. Following them may lead you to one of their many marker posts where they sprinkle their urine. If you find a suitable one you can set up a hide, but expect some long cold waits.
In harsh winters deer, stoats and foxes will move closer to towns looking for food. Their hunger may override the usual levels of caution giving you a better chance of getting a good picture.
Snow buntings sheltering from the really harsh Scandinavian winter further north can sometimes be seen feeding among sand dunes and on shingle beaches. A good place is along the beach from Seaton Carew on the River Tees' North Gare Sands near Graythorpe (NZ539276), map. Sometimes they will head inland and can be seen on moorland and hills, particularly in North-east England and Scotland.
Kingfishers are easier to see now due to the lack of leaves. In an average winter it is quite likely that they will have moved down river to the lower reaches and estuaries.
This is a good month to take advantage of the sparse vegetation and lookout for signs of raptors such as sparrowhawks and goshawks. Their plucking posts (butchering blocks) will be easier to spot. Pay particular attention to prominent tree stumps, rocky outcrops and fenceposts smattered with blood and feathers.
If the ground freezes for any length of time Redwings transfer from feeding on invertebrates to fruit. They will flock to any natural stocks of hips that they can find. They will also eat as many apples as you care to give them. These birds are picky eaters and will not tuck in to fats, cheese or seeds like other thrushes. Because of this they can quickly starve to death unobserved. If you want to take photographs without snow, place a board or plastic sheet on the ground when snow is forecast, remove it after snow has fallen and put some fruit down. The birds will love you for this.
Make note of any holly trees that still have their berries and look out for hungry mistle thrushes. You may find more than one as these early nesters will already have paired up by the end of this month.
Tens of thousands of waders flock to Teesmouth (NZ525270), map, and other river estuaries to over-winter and the number will now be at its peak. Check out their high tide roost and get there a couple of hours early. Intelligent use of a hide and thermal underwear will give you excellent photo opportunities.
Ptarmigan should be in their classic winter white plumage. This is ideal camouflage among the rocks and snow of Cairngorms’ northern corries. It takes a resilient photographer to go for this kind of subject at this time of the year, as mountain weather can be notoriously unforgiving. Putting in the effort and going prepared for the worst can yield some stunning images of these hardy birds in a unique environment within the U.K. Look out for them among the boulders about half way up the corrie.
A freezing winter can bring with it opportunities to spot one of Britain’s rarest birds – the bittern. As water freezes and makes finding food impossible among the reeds bitterns will begin to venture out into the open. They are unusually faithful to their favourite spots so it’s always worth returning to where you have seen one before. Although they are large birds a long lens is usually needed to get the best shots. Here are a few sites worth checking out for wintering bitterns:
- Mere Sands Wood, Lancashire (SD447157), postcode L40 1TG.
- Leighton Moss, Lancashire (SD482750), map.
- Titchmarsh, Northamptonshire (TL001800), map.
- Minsmere, Suffolk, postcode IP17 3BY.
- Kenfig Pool, Glamorgan (SS802811), map.