The onset of winter heralds a quiet time for much of the natural world. As temperatures plummet plants become dormant and animals must deal with a lack of food. Yet winter brings with it some new faces and new opportunities to see wildlife at Gibside.
Few mammals actually hibernate through the winter, although some, such as badgers, become less active in cold weather.
Most mammals are hard to spot, being small and elusive or nocturnal, but we can still see signs of their passing. With the wet mud and occasional snow, winter can be a good time to find prints. Look out for those of roe deer, badgers and foxes as you walk around the estate.
Bats are one of the few UK mammals that do hibernate, hiding themselves away inside small spaces in trees, buildings or one of the bat boxes installed around the estate. Even then, on warm days they may wake up and are sometimes seen heading out to forage or find a drink of water.
You may be lucky enough to catch a flash of white as a stoat in its ermine winter coat dashes across your path in search of a meal.
|A stoat in its winter ermine coat|
Gibside is home to good numbers of roe deer and they remain active throughout the winter. The best places to see deer are the quieter areas of the estate, such as the woodlands and particularly Snipes Dene. In winter their coats are a dark greyish brown and the bucks will have shed their antlers, so the males and females look similar. A good way to tell the difference between male (buck) and female (doe) is to look at the rump. Adult females have a tail-like tuft of hair called a tush, which is absent on the males.
Volunteer Assistant Ranger
Roe deer in their winter coats. In the background you can make out the tail-like tush on the females rump.
Birds remain active throughout winter and with food in short supply the wildlife hide is a good place to spot visitors fuelling up at the feeding stations.
In winter, populations of resident bird species are swollen by visitors moving in from colder climates to the north and east. Along with an increase of familiar species such as robins and blackbirds, some new faces arrive – look out for fieldfare, redwing and brambling.
Winter visitors include brambling, fieldfare and redwing
Winter is also a time when many species of birds form flocks and communal roosts. Whilst walking through the woodlands, keep your ears open and you may detect the ‘contact calls’ of these feeding flocks as they move around looking for food.
Look up at the late afternoon skies and you might see groups of red kites circling before coming in to roost together.
Finally, as winter moves into January, the first signs of new life begin to poke their heads above ground. Snowdrops are one of the first flowing plants to appear, a welcome portent of things to come. They can be found all over the estate, but the Ice House Wood is a particularly good spot.
Volunteer Assistant Ranger