Winter wildlife watching - Nene Valley Living

Winter wildlife watching - Nene Valley Living - Wildlife and photography articles
Don’t be fooled by the stark leafless trees and the eerie silence of a cold winter mist; there really are plenty of good reasons for getting outside and burning some calories, says local wildlife photographer Dan Waters.

If you know what to look for and where to go you will find that, far from being a cold, lifeless desert, the winter countryside can be surprisingly vibrant.

Short eared owls
Winter brings the largest number of these handsome raptors to the Nene Washes reserve, just outside Whittlesey. Mid-afternoon is a good time to spot them banking and gliding just above the ground, their exquisite yellow eyes searching for voles in the grass below. On a good day it’s quite possible to see half a dozen or more all meticulously traversing their patch. With hen harriers and barn owls also regular visitors it’s a wonder there are any small mammals left.

Wildfowl and waders
Many of our wetlands really come to life in the winter months. The numbers swell with winter migrants and the sheer volume and variety of wildfowl and waders can be startling. Anywhere you find a decent expanse of water you are almost guaranteed to see some stunning sights. Lapwings congregate in their thousands, turning the sky black when they take flight, their wings curved like a child has drawn them.

Local RSPB warden, Jonathan Taylor, visits the Nene Washes regularly and commented, “Lapwing and golden plover can been seen covering the horizon in vast flocks, closer inspection above these flocks often reveals a hunting peregrine.”Even around Hampton 1000 or more golden plover can be seen in the surrounding fields, taking flight with hasty, shimmering wing beats.

Little egrets are small white herons that are more common here in winter as breeding residents are joined by continental migrants. You may even be lucky enough to see the egret’s cousin, the bittern. This secretive bird is easier to spot in the winter with less cover to hide in. But even if you don’t see one you couldn’t mistake its distinctive ‘booming’ call, as it sounds like someone blowing over the top of a beer bottle.

Rare winter migrants are always worth looking out for too, especially after strong north-easterly winds that may have blown them in over the North Sea from Scandinavia.

Mating mammals
In the evenings listen out for a loud wailing cry; a noise that sounds like someone being murdered in the woods. Mating foxes are the cause and the sight is as disarming as the sound, as foxes mate while facing away from each other.
Squirrels don’t hibernate in winter and they, like the foxes, can be seen and heard mating as they chase each other, chattering in the treetops.

Starling spectacular
This is the best time to see the renowned aerobatic spectacle that starlings perform before roosting each evening. Starling numbers are healthy around Hampton, which is good news as their numbers have dropped sharply across the UK in recent years. At dusk throughout the winter huge numbers of starlings swirl and twist, creating moving shapes like a pulsating lava lamp. The reasons behind this mesmerising phenomenon are still not fully understood, so for now we should just be thankful that there are enough starlings in Peterborough for us to witness this breathtaking event.

Garden birds
If all this walking, waiting and spotting seems like too much effort then why not just watch wildlife from your kitchen window? In winter our gardens become a focal point for birds as they rely more heavily on the feeders people put out. Putting out food is a great way to bring the wildlife to you and can even be the catalyst for children to start taking an interest in the natural world. A more worthy and cost effective hobby it would be hard to find in these times of credit crunch and environmental concern.

Useful websites
- For local bird sightings visit
- For information about reserves and activities visit
- For some of the best reserves in Cambridgeshire and across the UK visit
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