Winter wildlife with Paul Wilkinson

Paul, our senior ecologist, shares his favourite ways to enjoy the wildlife this winter.

A robin standing by water underneath snowy branches A winter robin, by Mark Baker

As an ecologist I spend a lot of time out and about by the water over winter. While it may look like a quiet time there's so much activity taking place in the hedgerows and on the towpaths. I've put together my top five waterway-related sensory treats to help you make the most of your visit

Touch

holly leaves and berries Holly leaves and berries

Leaves! Whether it's kicking them up in the air or respectfully moving your hands over holly leaves, winter is a great time to appreciate the art that nature provides. Some leaves break down fast while others, like oak, hornbeam and beech leaves, can remain on the trees in beautiful shades of yellow bronze, smooth to the touch.

Sight

A fox in the snow A fox in the snow

Whatever your thoughts on the British fox, it is impossible to deny the splendour of a healthy red fox in its thick winter coat. Foxes are one of the very few large, predatory mammals that have been able to succeed alongside us. They have the intelligence and grit to find a way to adapt and survive in both urban and rural areas.

Winter is a great time to see foxes, as a glimpse of tail disappearing around the towpath corner, or a brazen fox sitting in a field watching you. They can be spotted around canals looking for opportunities to catch the odd bank vole or rabbit.

The other bold character at this time of year is the robin, another wonderful wildlife creature that has learned to thrive alongside us. Sitting on a fence post or branch, tilting its head as you go by, waiting for a scrap of food, or hoping you'll disturb an area of ground so it can grab the grubs and insects.

The robin's common behaviour of following people when gardening is thought to be a remnant of their past relationship with wild boar - the boar would root the ground up and uncover worms while the robin watched and followed. It's not just insects that they eat at this time of year, they also like the odd bit of discarded apple, elderberries or seeds.

Sound

Long-tailed tit Long-tailed tit

Our waterways are often close to trees and woodlands, connecting them across the landscape by our hedges. If you close your eyes, you may be lucky enough to hear a busy flock of mixed tits working their way through the hedges looking for hidden insects and their eggs.

Arguably the most exotic in the flock is the long-tailed tit, with its characteristic tsee-see call. A beautiful and delicate little bird with pink, white and black markings and the obvious long tail, used to balance on the ends of branches.

There might be a whole host of other birds in the winter flock, such as blue tits, great tits, coat tits, treecreepers, nuthatches and, if you’re really lucky, maybe a goldcrest or even a willow tit or marsh tit. Other birds you can hear singing from trees include the robin, blackbird and song thrush.

Stepping out at night from your home, you might hear the calls of redwings keeping in contact with each other in the dark as they migrate across the country, or a tawny owl setting out a breeding territory. If we have any snow, you will undoubtedly see the bolshy fieldfares dive-bombing the redwings and blackbirds to get the best hawthorn berries. Keep an eye and an ear our for a big migratory thrush, with a grey head and rump, and a chack-chack call.

Smell

Apples on a tree in winter Winter apples

Winter is a time for different smells in the air. From the pungent and not-so-nice aroma from a fox's territory, to the earthy fallen leaves as they start to decay, to the citrus smell of crushed needles if you find a fir tree.

Our sense of smell is heightened in warmer weather, but there are still areas of interest in the winter, particularly where a good crop of apples has fallen on the ground and started to stew, releasing that fresh apple smell for a while until they start bletting.

Leading me nicely onto...

Taste

A blackbird enjoying fallen fruit A blackbird enjoying fallen fruit

There is nothing like the sight of birds feasting on fallen apples on a cold winters day then going home to warm apple pie. The Trust is working hard to give more people access to fruit trees, so that they can increase their intake of these healthy snacks, even if you do put them in a pie.

Did you know the first apple trees were selected by bears? Focusing on the larger, more tasty fallen fruit and germinating it as they went along. This lead to trees producing much larger apples over time, catching the eye of early human settlers who went on to cultivate these trees, resulting in today’s modern varieties.

Hawthorn berries become obvious as the leaves drop off. They are edible, but lack the taste and size of an apple, and are best left for the birds and small mammals that really need them to get through the winter. Remember never to eat anything if you are not 100% sure of its identity and edibility, as there are many fruits and berries out there that can cause you harm if you don’t get it right. 

Share your photos with us

We’d love to see photos of the wildlife you’ve spotted on your local walks as part of your daily lockdown exercise. Please share them with us on social media @CanalRiverTrust #LifesBetterByWater.

Last date edited: 6 January 2021