Discover winter wildlife close to home

As December draws the year to a close, the shorter days and colder weather can make it less appealing to venture outdoors. But there is still plenty to enjoy in nature to make it worth the effort. So what is our wildlife up to in December, where can you go to see it, and how do you stay warm outside?

While most wildlife is less active over the winter, birds are still busy hunting for food. One of our most engaging small birds is the long-tailed tit. This tiny bird weighs about the same as a pound coin. Long-tailed tits are especially obvious in winter as small flocks gather in parks, in gardens, and on nature reserves.

Long-tailed tits have a distinctive striped head and pink and black wing markings. They are acrobatic, often hanging upside down on branches. With a tail that is longer than their body, these little birds bear a resemblance to a fluffy teaspoon! Look out for them at Brandon Hill, Hellenge Hill, or Willsbridge Valley.

Long tailed tit

(c) George Cook

Now most of the trees have lost their leaves, we can see their shape and character much more easily. Look for woodpecker holes, ferns and mosses growing on dead branches, and the texture of bark on different trees. A mature oak tree can support a huge variety of wildlife, from insects that supply birds with a food source, to deer feeding on acorns and bats that roost under loose bark.

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(c) Steven Williams

If you’re in a woodland with hazel, there’s a chance that dormice are sleeping around you. After eating as much as possible over the autumn to store up fat reserves, these tiny mammals hibernate throughout the winter. A dormouse makes a cosy nest about the size of a tennis ball from leaves and moss, or buries itself just below the ground to keep warm.

Dormouse

WildNet - Danny Green/2020VISION

There is still plenty of fungi to see, often growing on dead branches or at the base of trees. See if you can spot the scarlet elf cup fungus in wetter areas. Bright red cups 4-5cm across grow on the woodland floor or on mossy branches. Enjoy a woodland walk at Browne’s Folly, Goblin Combe, or Prior’s Wood nature reserves.

February scarlet elf cup fungi

At Folly Farm, our Exmoor ponies have grown their thick winter coats. This consists of an insulating layer covered by a waterproof topcoat. They will continue grazing on scrub and rough grasses over the winter, making room for the wildflowers that will cover the hillside in spring and summer.

Exmoor ponies

Winter can be tough for wildlife. If you have a garden, hedgehogs, frogs, and butterflies are likely to have found some space to hide for the winter. Clearing leaf piles and dead vegetation can disturb them, so avoid the urge to tidy up until spring. Offer birds some extra food with seeds, peanuts, or suet and make sure there’s some clean water for them to drink.

If you have a pond, a few leaves getting in benefits wildlife but too many can reduce oxygen levels in the water. Taking some time to carefully clear these can benefit the amphibians and insects spending winter in your pond.

Hedgehog in autumn leaves

WildNet - Tom Marshall

With current restrictions, many of us will be planning to meet friends and family outdoors and thinking about how to keep warm. My job at Avon Wildlife Trust means being out on our nature reserves in all weathers. I’ve found that you don’t need expensive kit to stay warm and dry, just a breathable waterproof jacket with layers underneath.

I like to double up on everything – a thinner pair of socks under a thicker pair, leggings under trousers, and even two pairs of gloves if it’s really cold. Take a hot drink with you if you have a flask, bring some snacks, and keep moving!

We know that many people have found peace on our nature reserves in this difficult year. Find your nearest nature reserve here and enjoy some time outdoors safely within your local restrictions.