I have long struggled with the British winter. In my mind, it has always been dull, lifeless and cold. Defined by its opposition to summer and to the colour, vibrancy and warmth that I associate with my favourite time of year. A season of emptiness to be endured, rather than anticipated or celebrated. But, this year things have changed.
In 2020, I spent more time exploring, learning and enjoying British landscapes and wildlife than ever before. My focus as a nature enthusiast was redirected away from the uniquely-adapted creatures of Australia or the abundance of life in Africa, to a native cast of characters I had never taken the time to fully appreciate.
During the first lockdown, daily walks in familiar places took on new meaning as I afforded my full attention to tiny details and subtle changes around me. The industrious world of insects so easily overlooked, the explosive growth of spring flora. I started taking photos and videos as I would if I were travelling abroad and took great interest in learning the behaviours and territories of certain individuals.
I came to know that if I took a sunset stroll to a certain field I was almost guaranteed to see roe deer browsing the hedgerow, and after hearing rustling in the woodland at dusk, located a fox earth with cubs I could reliably visit. I have been enormously privileged with lifelong access to the countryside, but this marked an unprecedented level of connection for me to the nature on my doorstep. It made my heart soar and as the year continued, I started to lament the onward march towards winter, concerned it would take the bounty of summer and the plentiful activity in my local patch with it.
And, when winter came there was an inevitable shift, but what I didn’t realise was that there had been a notable change in my outlook too. I had become accustomed to finding wonder in what I may formerly have dismissed as insignificant or mundane and no longer needed the showiness of summer to appreciate, for example, the understated beauty of a buzzard’s feather patterns.
Another revelation was the light in winter. Now I was taking photos and videos more regularly, I suddenly realised how that resplendent golden glow (restricted to early mornings and evenings in summer) was possible throughout the day now that the sun was lower in the sky. Instead of focusing on how unappealing soggy rain can be, I find myself eagerly anticipating the atmospheric aura that radiant sunshine can have in its wake, illuminating moody clouds and sparkling landscapes. And don’t get me started on the colour, drama and feel-good factor of a sunrise all with ample time for stargazing the night before and more than eight hours sleep already in the bank…
Often I find these monumentally beautiful moments are mine to enjoy alone, as though I am now somehow smugly privy to some of nature’s winter secrets. In a similar vein, my favourite local beauty spots that become overrun in summer, are deserted in the depths of winter, allowing for unmatched solitude and space for some of their less conspicuous inhabitants to emerge from the background.
With the cliffside deserted of the raucous seabird colonies I delight in watching during the summer, I have found a love for the elegant fulmars that gracefully wheel overhead, gliding right in front of my nose in an exhilarating display of flying prowess. Where holidaymakers pack the coast in summer, I have rejoiced in seeing curious seals on the beach or playing in the shallows.
There is much made of us losing our summer birds as they migrate to Africa over winter, but it is only this year I have come to appreciate that actually many birds migrate here from the Arctic or Scandinavia for our milder winters. In particular, wading birds such as geese, bring life to our wetlands and estuaries, although their star-quality is perhaps not as widely acknowledged as their summer counterparts.
Taking the time to seek them out and discover their particular splendour, however, has brought me great joy. The eerie call of the curlew is an apt evocation of winter’s beauty to my ears. The stunning colour pop of shelducks on a grey day, makes me embarrassed to have taken so long to realise they were really there, thoughtlessly dismissing them as ‘just ducks’.
Beyond the migrants, those higher-profile resident birds can also be much easier to spot in winter, with no leaves on many of the trees. I’ve only ever seen the tell-tale flash of a kingfisher flying over rivers in summer, but this winter I couldn’t fail to notice that unmistakable blue perched among spindly brown twigs. I was able to observe it at length in a way I could only dream of on a 4am wake-up call in summer.
Other birds flock together in large numbers at this time of year and reflecting on this gives me a heart-warming sense of solidarity against winter adversity. It is the first year I’ve sought out large starling murmurations and stood completely mesmerised watching them dance together, as smaller flocks join out of nowhere to reinvigorate the surging waves of the mass. It was an at-once uplifting and humbling spectacle performed by a bird that seemed pretty unremarkable on its own.
My reassessment of British wildlife has even come to include perhaps the least glamorous family of all; the Corvids or Crows. I’ve observed them noisily roosting together at dusk or dawn this winter, but never before taken the time to delve beneath the ‘bad and ugly’ stereotype. Now I ask myself, how did I not distinguish the cuteness of the blue-eyed jackdaw from the powerful-beaked rook before?
It may be cold, but winter is no longer the dull and lifeless time of year it once was to me. It is a time to celebrate the unsung heroes of this unsung season. The shelducks and the starlings, the corvids and the kingfishers, the geese and that golden glow. I wonder, if I don’t take time to appreciate the beauty of winter, how can I expect others to? And more importantly, in the face of continuing habitat loss and mass species extinction, if we don’t learn to truly treasure it now, how soon could it all be gone?*
(*This blog is written by an independent writer. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)
Lauren is a keen citizen scientist and amateur photographer who is passionate about wildlife. She loves nothing more than outdoor adventures in wild spaces and can often be found snorkelling, trail running or dog walking along the Cornish coastline. All photos provided are by Lauren. Follow Lauren’s blog.
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© Lauren Holford 2021.