Snow – Perfect Weather for Wildlife Watching

With Christmas just around the corner, and the UK having its first snow of the season this weekend (although it was torrential rain for most!), I thought now would be the perfect time to write about the weather that excites me the most.

I’ve always been fascinated by snow. As a child, the sight of large downy flakes floating lazily down from the clouds filled my head with thoughts of snow days, building igloos, and having snowball fights on the field at lunch. But these weren’t the only reasons for my love of the wintry weather. Snow brings a whole new array of sights and sounds every time it covers the ground. When you wake up in the morning after a heavy snowfall you know instantly that something has happened; the light coming in through the cracks in your curtains has a softer hue than usual, and everything is deathly silent.

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Snow gives the landscape a whole new character.

Being the first person to walk across a fresh field of snow will always bring me great pleasure, and it’s these tracks that we create that make it the perfect setting for wildlife watching. Well, not technically the tracks we create, but the tracks made by wildlife. Animal tracks are only found where the ground is soft enough to be displaced by feet or paws, but solid enough to keep that shape once the pressure is removed. This sort of consistency is relatively rare in a landscape, with wet mud being the typical location for animal prints to be found. However, when snow falls, the whole landscape becomes the perfect consistency for spotting animal prints. There are so many different prints to be found, including those made by deer, foxes, and birds, but my favourite snow prints are left by rabbits, which perfectly show their hopping movement through the snow.

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Snowy footprints I was never fully able to identify. But they’d have never shown up on the concrete without the snow.

As well as snow being the perfect consistency for animal prints, it also makes a great blank canvas to show up usually camouflaged wildlife. There are very few animals in the UK that are less visible in the snow, and the majority of these are mountain specialists: mountain hares turn white in winter, and can be found in the Scottish mountains as well as the Peak District; and ptarmigan are a type of grouse found at high altitude in Scotland, that also turn white in winter. Stoats also have the potential to turn white, with those in the north of Scotland much more likely to moult into their “ermine” coat than those in England. So although you might not be able to spot these creatures as easily when it snows, for the majority of lowland areas, the wildlife will be much more visible. However, if you’re still not lucky enough to spot any wildlife, snow can make an industrial wasteland look beautiful, so I’m sure whatever view you do have will be fantastic.

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Snow can make it hard for wildlife, as this cormorant found out.

A further, slightly sad reason that snow makes wildlife watching so good is because it makes it much harder for animals to find food. This means that they’re more likely to turn to easily accessible food, such as seed put out in bird feeders. As well as food that we put out specially, animals have a habit of turning to gardens for more natural food when the weather turns bad. As most wild animals tend to keep their distance from humans when they can, the plentiful food found in our gardens is often left uneaten, so when the snows come, this is often a lifeline for hungry wildlife. An example of this was the late snows across the UK in March of this year. The fact that they came so late meant that the majority of the fruit in the wild had already been eaten, which drove migrant birds such as fieldfare and redwing into our towns and cities, where they took advantage of the plentiful fruit trees growing in gardens, parks, and carparks. This made for some great views of birds that you wouldn’t usually see at such close quarters.

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Fieldfare (top) and redwing (bottom) breed in Scandinavia, and overwinter in the UK. They are usually found in fields and hedgerows, but harsh weather conditions can push them into towns in search of food.

So, if you want to make the most of the plentiful wildlife watching opportunities that a heavy snowfall gives you, make sure you get out before the dog walkers, and look for fresh animal tracks or deer and foxes standing out against the white background. If you don’t fancy venturing out into the cold, put out bird feeders and fruit such as apples, which might attract winter thrushes into the garden. As well as providing you with fantastic views, it will also help the wildlife survive the toughest of weathers. But whatever you do, make sure you grab yourself a hot chocolate and keep warm!

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