What to see on a winter walk: an experts’ guide to spotting birds, fungi and fossils

Daylight is in short supply, paths are treacherous and the weather is both fickle and ferocious: winter is a challenging season for walking. And yet it is also the time when the landscape is laid bare, when we can appreciate the geology, spot the mosses, lichens and fungi, even see the birds more easily: especially the packs of fieldfares, redwings and waxwings hunting the last few berries in the hedge. The night sky is sharper for the cold, and celestial objects are seen more clearly. We asked six experts in different fields what to look out for on a winter walk, wherever that may be.

The weather

By Tristan Gooley
I like to head up to a location like Black Down in West Sussex for some winter weather watching, but you might try a high vantage point in a city such as Edinburgh or London to see how the urban heat affects cloud formations. There are always plenty of clues about what to expect. First of all: the more types of clouds you can see, the worse the forecast. Clouds that are tall and wide tend to be unstable, so that’s a sign of poor conditions on the way. However, rain from those same tall clouds tends not to last long: like hailstorms – they are never long-lived, although they can be accompanied by powerful gusting winds.

Cumulus fair weather clouds over the Pembrokeshire coast in December.
Cumulus fair weather clouds over the Pembrokeshire coast in December. Photograph: WLDavies/Getty Images

It’s when you see a grey blanket of cloud that gets lower before rain starts that you can expect bad weather to last for hours: that’s a new weather front moving in. Also, if you can see the base of the cloud and it’s jagged and blurred, you are about to get wet. A smooth, flatter base means you will probably stay dry.

If you need to shelter, look for a conifer tree. Spruces are the best umbrellas of all – notice how dry the ground is under them. If you can find a sun pocket under a spruce, you’ll be surprised how toasty it is.
Tristan Gooley is the author of The Secret World of Weather and an expert on navigation using natural signs. His books include The Natural Navigator and How to Read Water

Winter fungi

By John Wright

The spectacular scarlet elfcup.
The spectacular scarlet elfcup. Photograph: fotoco-istock/Getty Images

Among the many trials and joys of a winter walk through woods, or beside a hedgerow, are the puzzles that present themselves along the way. Why do dead beech branches always turn black? What is that golden yellow slime crawling on the forest floor, or all those twiggy masses high up in trees?

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind the scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights

Those twiggy lumps could be any one of several phenomena: a rook’s nest, mistletoe, a squirrel drey, a burr or a canker. If they are on birch, they will almost certainly be witch’s broom, with a single tree sporting a dozen or more. Their long, thin branches emanate from a central mass several feet across. While clearly made of woody material, this mystery is grown by the tree under instructions supplied by a parasitic fungus, Taphrina betulina, for which it is forced to build a palatial home.

Casting our eyes downwards, we might see one of winter’s great beauties, the scarlet elfcup. This fungus nestles in small groups among the fallen leaves, startling in its brilliance against the sombre winter colours. Surprisingly, it is edible, but it’s much too pretty to pick.

John Wright
John Wright

The rarest of winter mysteries is “hair ice”. At temperatures close to zero, thousands of long, hair-like ice crystals can be exuded from the pores of a fallen, dead branch which has been infected by an otherwise unremarkable fungus, Exidiopsis effusa. The overall effect is of a branch with a luxuriant, grey hairdo. A long-established woodland like the New Forest is a good location to search for these mysteries, but any hedgerow, park or cemetery will do.

My advice is to look up a professional teacher in your area via The Field Studies Council is also a highly respected organisation that teaches all aspects of natural history. I went on one of its courses 40 years ago and still remember it with enormous pleasure.
John Wright is a mycologist, forager and home brewer, and author of River Cottage handbooks on Mushrooms, the Edible Seashore and Hedgerows. His latest work is A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries


By Patrick Norris

The Milky Way arcs over Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland.
The Milky Way arcs over Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland. Photograph: Northern Nights Photography/Alamy

Nighttime winter walks on the Northumberland coast can produce good stargazing experiences. In the dark, walking on a beach is easier – there are fewer obstacles. Just walking out of a pub such as the Jolly Fisherman in Craster and heading towards Dunstanburgh Castle can be amazing on a clear night. The aurora borealis, northern lights, can be excellent on the coast, especially from Lindisfarne, but it is a fickle phenomenon, not to be relied on.

If you’re heading into the hills, maybe to a dark sky park or reserve, it’s good to check out locations in daylight. It’s vital to minimise light disturbance when you do arrive, so use red lights only. It takes around 20 minutes for your eyes to properly adjust, and any sudden white light will set you back. I take a reclining camping seat, but mats work well: they’re cheap and lightweight. Clear winter nights tend to be cold, so warm clothes, a hat, gloves and a warm blanket are essential, plus hot chocolate, coffee or soup if possible. I prefer 10×50 binoculars over a telescope – too fiddly to set up – but they can be heavy, so take lightweight pairs if you prefer. Once the excitement has settled down, especially if you have children, get ready for an extravagance of stars, shooting stars, satellites and planets. There are some useful apps, but watch out for phone-light spoiling your night sight; Night Sky and SkyView are both free.

Patrick Norris on a wintery walk in Northumberland
Patrick Norris

Another possibility is to visit an established observatory. In Northumberland we have Kielder, Battlesteads Hotel or the Twice Brewed Inn on Hadrian’s Wall. My favourite is the Breamish Valley in the Cheviot Hills. Other great locations are Walltown and Cawfields on Hadrian’s Wall: both are just off the B6318 and have plenty of parking, fixed stargazing information panels and toilets with good access.

For meteor showers, check out the Meteor Calendar. The International Space Station is also a reliable, and predictable, sight.
Patrick Norris was a Duke of Edinburgh awards volunteer before guiding walks with his own company, Footsteps. He works with Ingram Valley farm in the Northumberland national park, England’s first international dark sky park


By Martin Curtis

Ammonites. Photograph: Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

Fossil hunting is the perfect activity for the whole family, and you don’t need to be a palaeontologist or geologist. With simple techniques, you can easily find fossils with no need for tools – it’s all about training your eyes.

Winter is the best time of year. We get more storms, rougher seas and rain, vital for breaking up material on the beaches that has fallen from the cliffs. On the Jurassic Coast [stretching from Dorset to east Devon] we get material from the entire Mesozoic era – Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. It’s the only place in the world where you can find that.

Martin Curtis hunting fossils on the Jurassic coast.
Martin Curtis on the Jurassic coast.

When searching for fossils, look for unusual shapes, colours and textures, or anything that stands out from what you would typically find on the beach. It’s easier when rocks are wet, so walk near the water’s edge, if it’s safe to do so. For the same reason, fossil-hunting in the rain is often very productive.

The safest time to be on the beach is roughly two hours before low tide and no more than two hours after. Stay away from the cliff base at all times while on the beach, and you must not climb on to the mudslides, as they are dangerous. The foreshore is the safest place to be. I’ve found all sorts of things there: ammonites, trilobites, teeth and even coprolites – fossilised shark poo.
Martin Curtis is a mountain leader and guide at Jurassic Coast Guides, specialising in fossil-hunting walks along beaches near Charmouth and Lyme Regis. Britain’s best fossil sites are mostly coastal, and Martin’s insights apply equally to fossil locations as far apart as John O’Groats and Cornwall’s Maer Cliff. Get started on a guided walk

Mosses and lichens

By Dr Rebecca Yahr

Leather Tor, Dartmoor.
Leather Tor, Dartmoor. The national park is an ideal place for studying mosses and lichens. Photograph: Jonathan Hicks/Alamy

On bare trees, mosses and lichens are all the easier to spot – and these miniature wonders don’t fly away. For mosses, check at the base of a garden tree, or a shady lawn. In woodland you might find a whole landscape in miniature, made up of mosses. A 10x magnifying glass can transform your experience of something like a spiky forest of common haircap, Polytrichum commune. But my favourites are the lichens. There is something magical about these tiny ecosystems, actually fungi that farm algae or bacteria inside themselves to make food.

Common haircap on moorland at Kinder Scout, Derbyshire.
Common haircap on moorland at Kinder Scout, Derbyshire. Photograph: Martyn Williams/Alamy

Lichens are everywhere, but the richest diversity will be found in unspoilt clear-air regions with little human impact. Ballachuan Hazelwood, in Scotland, is the jewel in the crown for lichen lovers, but the Lakes, Dartmoor and Trossachs are also excellent. For information, I’d start with the British Lichen Society website; there are good blogs, too.

Rebecca Yahr
Rebecca Yahr

Lichens form strappy tufts – the powder-dotted cartilage lichen Ramalina farinacea does thisor leafy rosettes on woodland trees, like oakmoss Evernia prunastri (which is neither limited to oaks, nor is it a moss). Oakmoss has a distinctly primitive-looking branching pattern, evenly in twos at every division and with white undersides. If you have old trees in clean air, you are almost certain to have these on the older twigs and younger branches. And, if you are in the west of Britain, where we have temperate rainforest, look out for the abundant “apple green” Flavoparmelia caperata, forming saucer-sized rosettes on trunks of trees, and the lettuce-sized lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria, named for its resemblance to human lungs.

In moorland you can search for the intricately branched cushions of reindeer lichen, Cladonia portentosa, and the glowing yellow-green map lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum, common on acidic rocks and roof slates.
Dr Rebecca Yahr discovered a passion for the fascinating micro-worlds of lichens while working at the Archbold biological station in Florida. She is now resident lichenologist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Birdwatching and painting

By Darren Woodhead

Sparrow painting by Darren Woodhead.
‘Hedgerows are very rewarding’ … Sparrow painting by Darren Woodhead. Photograph: John McKenzie/Darren Woodhead

Winter is by far my favourite season for birdwatching, walking and painting – and I do all my work outside. The limited daylight hours give a natural deadline and the low, watery sun highlights the most subtle of shades among skeletal natural forms. There can be challenges, however: will the paint freeze, or will the wind rip the page off again?

I advise going out alone, preferably before dawn. Try to walk silently. I carry a rucksack with a small selection of high-pigment tube watercolours in a folding metal palette, a variety of torn watercolour paper sheets clipped to a lightweight board, binoculars and a telescope.

Tune in to the birdsong and the energy of the environment while looking out for something that catches your attention: for me, it can be unusual behaviour from a bird, a striking burst of light, or the natural composition of some vegetation … I never know. When the moment arrives, get started with the drawing or painting. I kneel on a weathered sleeping mat and begin making marks, using a couple of beloved simple oriental brushes.

Smaller birds, such as this chaffinch, are easier to see in winter. Photograph: Rebecca Cole/Alamy

Hedgerows are very rewarding: all those gnarled hawthorns or coppiced beech hedgerows adorned with punky growths of rosehips, reaching out and waving in the bitter wind. Working direct in brush with watercolour requires an almost zen-like state for it to appear effortless. Watercolour, transparent by nature, hides nothing. When it works, the elation is majestic.

Go for regular walks and you will discover areas of solitude, where if you’re lucky, a favourite subject can emerge. At the moment, mine is tree sparrows. Pools of mixed burned umber watercolour are perfect for their soft brown plumage, warming up the wash with a touch of burnt sienna and yellow on their heads, then cooler grey tones for the chest and flanks. Sap green captures the moss on winter branches, alongside some crimson. Carrying a wet painting for the rest of the walk can be a challenge in itself.
Darren Woodhead is one of Britain’s leading nature artists and a lifelong birdwatching enthusiast. He has been artist-in-residence on BBC’s Spring-, Autumn- and Winterwatch. He lives and works in the Lothian hills


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.