Wardens' winter tips

Guide

If anyone is an expert on warding off the winter weather, it’s the RSPB site staff who work outdoors to protect nature in all weathers. Our wardens, gardeners and ecologists gave their collective wisdom on staying warm, guidance on unmissable winter nature spectacles and told us their favourite things about nature this time of year.

We bet our wardens’ top tips on staying warm and their favourite winter nature spectacles will motivate you to get outside

It happens every year but acclimatising to 3.30pm winter sunsets can feel like a shock to the system.

Waking up even earlier than usual (and in the dark!) to scrape ice off your car, the constant struggle against chapped lips and skin and the truly harrowing experience of opening your heating bill are grim winter rituals that can leave you drained of that extra motivation you need to get outside in when the weather is at its coldest and least inviting.

Good intentions to spend more time in nature can quickly become more time in the pub and on the sofa (which to be fair, can be a pretty magical experience with the right biscuit selection and slippers) once the clocks go back.

Many people might think of winter as a time where nature is hunkering down for hibernation, but nature is buzzing with activity as animals need to hunt and forage more to keep energy levels up and wildlife is easier to spot as there is less vegetation. There are so many things to see if you venture out. However, preparation is key if you want to avoid soggy socks and cursing mother nature.

Read on to find out why one warden considers pyjamas important outdoor gear.

How to stay warm

Almost all the wardens emphasised the importance of “layers, layers, layers”. Even on the coldest days if you are moving around you will need to be able to adjust if you start sweating. A thermal base layer (not just a couple of cotton t-shirts) can make an amazing difference. Two pairs of socks are better than one. Wearing lots of layers on your legs is just as important as on your top half and long thermal underwear is essential. Coats need to be windproof and waterproof. And don’t forget a good hat and gloves.

 

"Wellie warmers! These changed my world. If like me, you like splashing around in wet places then keeping your feet warm is a must and these are just the thing."

David Anderson (Warden at RSPB Scotland reserve Baron’s Haugh)

 

"If I am going to be stationary (eg. bird ringing) I have been known to have a hot water bottle wrapped around my waist with a scarf. Being warm to start with is helpful. So have a nice big bowl of porridge and hot drinks. Keep re-fuelled. If staying still have a little move about to get the blood pumping and help warm up. Try and get a break from the wind as sometimes this is the most chilling thing (a screen, a hide, or natural windbreaks such as a tree will do)."

Kelly Thomas (Senior ecologist)

 

"If only we were like ducks and waders, have you ever thought about how they stand in almost freezing water all day? They have a counter flow in their veins. We don’t!

Get out of the wind, get down if you are on an exposed place like a beach, get into the sun, grab a warm drink in a flask, and some nice calorific food.

Keep those feet moving. Remember policemen rocking back and forth on their heels – it really helps move blood around. Try not to get cold as it’s hard to warm up again once you are cold."

Peter Bradley (Senior Site Manager, RSPB HQ The Lodge & Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire)

 

"A lot of outdoor clothing is geared for different temperatures and choosing the right clothing and layers helps a lot. For me, Rohan clothing has stood the test of time and has kept me comfortable through hot and cold weather. Its one weakness is fire though. The trousers may be really tough but have no resistance to a spark."

Nick (The Lodge Head Gardener)

 

"I swear by the three-layer method where you first wear a wicked material, then a fleece and a decent coat. I wear Paramo as they have proved the best in the uplands under some pretty trying conditions (beast from east). Don't knock it till you've tried it, but pyjama pants under regular walking pants in winter, if you don't want to get too warm with long-johns."

Ryan Lloyd (Assistant warden at Dove Stone in the Peak District)

 

"Out here on The Oa reserve, on the Isle of Islay, we get very wet and windy winters – with the occasional frost and rarely, snow. Being on the Scottish west coast we have a milder winter climate – mostly!

You could push the boat out and put a boiler suit over your clothes and then the waterproofs over that. Snug! Wellies are a must, wet feet in winter are the worst. Wear waterproofs over your trousers, reducing the windchill and keeping your legs dry. Coffee and ginger biscuits – both warming, both delicious!"

David Dinsley (Warden at RSPB Scotland reserve, The Oa)

Winter spectacles

Starling mumurations were a popular suggestion from the wardens. You can watch them over reedbeds at dusk, like our own Fowlmere reserve. Sometimes you’ll see a sparrowhawk circling the starlings too.

Flocks of winter visitors such as fieldfares and redwings feasting on fruit and berries, Kelly suggested.

Pink-footed geese overhead, and wheeling knot (on specific high tide dates at RSPB Snettisham, more info on which can be found here). Experiencing a winter tit flock moving through the trees as they contact call, and maybe catch a glimpse of a goldcrest or treecreeper amongst them.  Beautiful scenery, low light creating lovely atmosphere.

David Dinsley said his favourite winter encounters on The Oa are finding Jack snipe foraging in slow moving shallow watercourses when all other boggy areas have frosted over, or watching golden eagles scavenge a feral goat or seal carcass.

Warden Alan Kell said thousands of farmland birds feeding on the winter bird crop during the “beast from the east.”

Wildlife is generally easier to spot, Peter Bradley pointed out, as smaller birds move from bare tree to tree in search of food, sticking together for safety and thrushes pick through snow and leaves to find food.

Keep an eye out for thrushes feeding on yew, ivy and holly berries… reputedly as calorific as chocolate bars (don’t eat yew berries as their seeds are deadly poisonous.)

Snow can reveal a lot, Peter added. Yellow wee marks in snow show up. You can spot paw and hoof prints: rabbits, squirrels, foxes, deer; maybe even those of a badger or stoat. And you may see where the badgers go under a fence – look for tweaked bristles left on the wires.

Wardens’ favourite things about winter nature

"Dusk roosts of other birds, like reed buntings and yellowhammers, who come in to roost in willow and hawthorn scrub. I’ve seen that at Fowlmere and also Rye Meads (note that Rye Meads closes at dusk and is closed to the public on Saturdays November-December). Once when I was at our reserve in Crowhurst (Fore Wood) I saw at least 12 wrens leaving a nest box, early in the morning sun, one after another: they had huddled together overnight to keep out of the snow and freezing temperatures."

Peter Bradley (Senior Site Manager, RSPB HQ The Lodge & Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire)

 

"I am one of these people that love the winter. A sunny day in the middle of June is lovely but nothing beats a clear crisp freezing December morning. It makes you feel so peaceful and for some reason the wildlife you see at this time is just even more special."

David Anderson (Warden at RSPB Scotland reserve Baron’s Haugh)

 

"My favourite thing about nature in Winter at Dove Stone is watching the mountain hares moult from brown to white and how the landscape takes on different forms in snow."

Ryan Lloyd (Assistant warden at Dove Stone in the Peak District)

 

"The wind here is a problem for enjoying wildlife. So still, frosty days are special. We see more bullfinches here in winter than the rest of the year and coming across a flock high (often over 10) up on the moorland is fantastic. They are feeding on the heather seed and against the monochrome of the frosty landscape the colour of them really stands out."

Stephen Westerberg (Geltsdale site manager in Cumbria)

 

"First light on a sunny winter’s morning is just perfect for being outdoors and experiencing nature. Wildlife can be at its easiest to find during the winter months; there are less leaves on the trees to act as cover, the ground vegetation is very much reduced, and animals are required to forage and hunt more to sustain themselves during the cooler months. This can make nature much more tolerant of humans, birds will be more willing to come down immediately to scattered bird seed you put out whilst walking in the wild."

David Dinsley (Warden at RSPB Scotland reserve The Oa)