Xmas Presents & Winter Presence!

I've got mixed feelings about the approach of Christmas, it seems such a strange festival of indulgence at a time of year when nature is shedding the excess, and retreating into stillness and solitude. Despite the apparent barrenness and bleakness however, I would invite you nature lovers to create another kind of ‘Christmas list’, as late autumn/early winter can be surprisingly productive for wildlife encounters. The veil of summer is drawn aside, and the nakedness of winter reveals much for the discerning naturalist.

First of all let's create an ambient seasonal atmosphere.....

It is late autumn and there are the first few frosts garnishing the kaleidoscopic colours of fallen leaves, evergreen trees and red berries hanging on bare branches. Money spiders float through the air on threads of silk, ballooning down in vast numbers on dry days into the meadows and gardens. Bare trees roar with the chatter of starlings - vast flocks like football crowds suddenly startled, wheel like a circus act in the afternoon dusk, in both countryside and towns. As well as the Christmas carols, you might hear the soft twitter of siskins having flown south from Scotland, the golden breasts of the males glowing in the weak winter sunlight.

No sooner have the summer migrants gone and the grey skies fallen silent, V-shaped skeins of geese are heading back here from their summer breeding grounds in Greenland and the Arctic. In England you'll see the white-fronted geese flock to the estuaries and floodwaters to feed on clover and winter wheat, the pink-footed geese especially in the north, and in the west coast of Scotland the islands reverberate to the sound of barnacle geese yapping like dogs. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat!!

At the end of December the high street is full of customers exchanging unwanted or embarrassing clothes given as Christmas presents, and for some animals, this year's winter fashion has definitely come too early! For example not all hares undergo this seasonal costume-change but Mountain hares, from highlands of Scotland or even the Peak district (where there is an introduced species), are whitewashed with a new winter coat. A bright brand new pair of trainers for xmas can feel a bit embarrassing to wear until they are worn in and for the hares the timing can be all out as a new coat can emerge before the winter snows have fallen, so it becomes highly conspicuous and exposed to both predators and, fortunately, you wildlife enthusiasts. This can also happen to other creatures inhabiting the far north e.g. stoats, ptarmigan and upland grouse.

Just as your attention turns towards the visit of Santa, another 'red-coated' visitor shows up in the dark at this time of year, one that could conceivably frighten a small child lying in bed, a real 'nightmare at Christmas' if you didn't know what it was. The blood-curdling scream we hear at night, all too-human in sound, is that of the vixen, communicating her presence to any dog-foxes in the vicinity, who then give a 'bow-wow-wow' bark in response. Like those over-indulged small children under 3 at Christmas time, it's all pissing and pooing and screaming as the foxes produce multi-sensory sign-language to work out the who/what/where of the local population, ready for a brief window of mating - the vixen will be receptive for only 2-3 days. The mating season for foxes is therefore a good time to see them together. The dog-fox 'tagging' the female - make a note in your diary, for 7-8 weeks after this, when the cubs will be born.

There is surely no more breathtaking sight than watching red foxes move over a white-frosted winter landscape decorated with evergreens and red-berries.....reminds me of a Christmas cake!

Merry Christmas to you readers, and don't forget to indulge in the seasonal offerings from the natural world.......