Edinburgh puts a lot of effort into attracting tourists during the winter months, what with the German Market and other Christmas markets and all the Hogmanay celebrations. But Winter is also a big event in the natural world and over the past few years we have come to appreciate again the wonders of a white winter (though I’m not sure of the chances of a white winter this year!).
It’s easy to think of the natural world as being asleep in the winter. It’s true that many species of mammals hibernate and many trees lose their leaves. But skeleton trees have a particular stark beauty and grey squirrels and birds are very active even in the coldest weather.
Go to any of the wooded areas of the Lothians in the snow and you will be greeted with breathtaking winter scenes, bare trees appearing black against the white snow, the buds glittering with ice. Sometimes as well as (or instead of) snow, there will be frost, with branches, pavements and fences coated in crystals that glitter beautifully in the low sun. Ice too can be beautiful, with frozen puddles and icicles (but watch out for black ice underfoot!). A couple of years ago the Union Canal froze solid and cliffs by the River Almond in Cramond held magnificent displays of icicles (see photo).
Just as tourists flock to our winter activities in the city, so do migrant birds flock to our woodlands in the winter. Look out particularly for the waxwing. This pinkish bird the size of a starling visits Edinburgh most winters. This year though, is apparently set to be a bumper year with the birds spreading much further through Scotland than they normally do, due to poor berry harvests in their native Scandinavia. Look out for their punk rock ‘hairstyles’ and listen out for their call, which sounds like sleigh bells. If you’re very lucky you may find yourself caught up in a flock of waxwings, as they restlessly move between berry trees and roosting points. They are often found in supermarket car parks (due to the berry trees there) so keep an eye open when doing your shopping!
Winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares are also regular visitors, specially to the Meadows and Princes Street Gardens. Several species of ducks and waders visit the coast in the winter, look out particularly for teal, wigeon and long tailed ducks at Musselburgh, alongside the John Muir Walkway and at the Lagoons. Snow buntings also often visit Musselburgh (and one has been seen regularly on the top of Arthur’s Seat already this winter) and bramblings will often hide themselves away in flocks of chaffinches.
Although only robins and dippers sing in winter, many birds can be heard calling to each other â€“ specially the tits and finches that often form sizeable flocks in woods at this time of year. Some birds are even starting to think of breeding just now â€“ I’ve already seen jackdaws pairing up and every year there are stories on wildlife websites of birds making nests in December!
If weather forecasts are anything to go by, then this winter is likely to be mild and damp, rather than freezing cold and snowy. However, there’s a wealth of wonderful sights waiting out there and the walk will warm you up! Just remember to wear your waterproofs!
To find out about the birds mentioned in this article, visit the RSPB website.
You can find out about where waxwings are to be found on the Recent Sightings page of the Birding Lothian website.