It’s about this time of year that I turn into an excitable child again. The moment we cross into November, my mind’s full of frost, knitwear and Christmas. I think it’s linked to the clocks going back. While getting up before the sun can be horrid, I love that my afternoon walks are in the dark now. I’m sure it won’t be long before Christmas lights start appearing up and down the village.
Last winter I was spoilt rotten with over a week of thick, persevering snow. It was unheard of in Burghead, seeing as we jut out into the Moray Firth and the salt air usually prevents anything more than frost from settling. I know I shouldn’t expect another wonderland like that again this year, but the aforementioned excitable child has her fingers crossed!
The natural world is stunning throughout the year but in winter I believe it becomes even more special. Here are some of the things I love most about the silver season.
Frost and ice
Frost is what first got me interested in macro photography. The sparkly sheets covering the ground look pretty even from afar, but getting right up close to shards of microscopic ice is completely addictive.
It’s not all sharp and jagged either – in the past I’ve photographed a huge range of shapes including swirls, ribbons and bubbles.
At this time of year the sun takes on a milky, diluted glow which is just delicious to photograph. I’m not much of a landscape photographer, but on my recent trip to Portknockie I spent hours on the beach capturing Bow Fiddle Rock as the light dimmed.
Initially the rock was bathed in gold but once the sun sunk below the horizon, the sky behind Bow Fiddle glimmered with pinks and blues. It’s a chilly image and I’m really pleased with how it came out.
I count myself extremely lucky to live in a part of the UK where the northern lights occasionally show up. The displays here aren’t as elaborate as they are in Norway or Iceland and they can be tricky to make out with the naked eye, but last weekend there was a particularly good show and I managed to catch a few pillars on camera.
The northern lights remind me of His Dark Materials, which remind me of witches and animal dæmons and all that good stuff. I also believe the aurora is the closest thing to magic we can physically see, and it’s one of my ultimate winter highlights. Even if you don’t live in an aurora zone, you can still watch it real time on this Shetland Webcam. There’s the added bonus of not having to get freezing cold!
Summer and winter are great times to be a birder as there are new faces to see. While I love the ospreys, swallows and whitethroats that accompany long summer days, I have a soft spot for the winter migrants. I managed to see waxwings last year and I’ve got everything crossed that we’ll get another royal visit from them this time round, but some years they just don’t show. Even without waxwings, we have redwings, fieldfares, bramblings, eider ducks and long-tailed ducks on the cards. So many photo opportunities!
I know a lot of people struggle with the long nights during winter and this is definitely a challenge, but I hope this list will provide some wintery inspiration. There’s plenty still to enjoy in the dark half of the year.
For the past few weeks I’ve been in such a wintery mood. I’m so excited for Christmas and have been itching to get outside into nature and see some new faces. A particularly exciting winter sighting this week has been the arrival of waxwings in my local town. I’ve been lucky enough to see them three times so far. I just love watching them gobble up the berries and seeing their crests blow in the wind.
Around the size of starlings, waxwings are winter visitors to Britain, arriving from as far away as Russia to spend the season feasting on berries in the UK. Although populations fluctuate each year, there are often gatherings of hundreds of waxwings, which are called irruptions. So far I’ve seen two so it’s been a slow start to the season, but even seeing a pair at close range is special. Before this week, I’d only seen waxwings once before and they were far off in the distance. This time, I could approach carefully and watch them right above my head.
This month I’ve also been looking for other winter specialists. I started a species list for the first time this year and so far I’ve recorded 114 birds, 29 mammals, two amphibians and two fish. And with seventeen days of 2020 to go there’s still plenty of time to tick off a few more! I’m particularly hoping to see mountain hares, snow buntings, fieldfares and maybe a ptarmigan if I’m really lucky. This weekend I tried to find my first mountain hares and snow buntings from the base station of Cairngorm Mountain but didn’t manage it. Still, these near misses will make eventually seeing them even more special. Who knows, maybe I’ll get to see mountain hares on my birthday on the 28th. That would be an incredible present!
During this time of year, many birds have migrated for the winter. Some, like Partridges, don’t stray more than a kilometre from where they were born, but most birds – at least 4000 species – will migrate to seek new pastures that will see them through the colder months. There are several different types of migration that British birds follow, due to food availability or sometimes their own adaptations.
In an irruption migration, large numbers of birds that do not usually visit the UK arrive in a short space of time. In some years, the population grows too large for the food that is available in the birds’ usual territories, forcing them to relocate. Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) migrate in this way; some years we are fortunate enough to see large groups of these striking birds feeding on berries high in the trees, while other years there are none at all.
While many birds travel from north to south or east to west, some make shorter journeys from low to high altitudes and vice versa. Even though this migration may not be as physically demanding, there are still new challenges that come with a change in environment. In the UK, various larks, pipits and buntings are altitudinal migrants, including the Skylark (Alauda arvensis). As well as an altitudinal transition, many Skylarks will change habitat in winter. Having spent most of the year roaming farmland and heathland, coastal marshes become more favourable during the winter months.
Other migrations aren’t as a result of finding new feeding grounds but simply to stay safe. While all birds shed old feathers to grow new ones, species such as the Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) lose all their flight feathers, making them very vulnerable to predation. In order to increase their chances of surviving while new feathers come through, Shelducks migrate to safer areas in late summer once the breeding season is over. A popular location for Shelducks is the island of Heligoland, situated in the North Sea. This allows the birds to moult with little disturbance.
On Friday Zahrah and I seized the day and drove out to Brampton, a town a short drive from Carlisle. We’d heard that the waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) had been sighted there and we both wanted to tick this incredible bird off our wish lists, do decided to try our luck finding them. Waxwings arrive in Britain in winter and spend their time feeding on fat red berries.
After getting briefly lost and befriending several old people who told us what they knew about the birds’ whereabouts, we spent two hours wandering around residential streets carrying tripods and a felled tree, more appropriately named the Canon 50-500mm lens. We saw chaffinches, goldfinches and several tiny wrens hopping between the fruit-laden branches, but not the jackpot we were after. The trees looked beautiful with their autumn coats, so we had plenty of other photo opportunities.
The car permit was soon to run out, so we started to head back. I’d just put the monster lens to bed in my bag when Zahrah noticed some dark dots at the very top of a nearby tree. On closer inspection, we were thrilled to discover we’d found our waxwings. A manic struggle to retrieve the telephoto lens ensued and I managed to take a few, slightly hazy shots. They didn’t come any closer, but I was mostly chuffed that we’d seen them. Decent photos can always come later.
After our success, we got lunch at Cranstons’ Food Hall and headed back to uni, just in time for our afternoon lecture.