Someone lets out a low moan and one of the young ones opens an eye and rolls languorously in the opposite direction. “God, I’m embarrassed when I make eye contact with them,” my boyfriend says. “I feel like I should apologise for staring.”
We’re on a rocky beach in the biting cold in touching distance (not advised) of grey seals. In summer we’d take trips to the coast and be pleased if we saw a distant view of a seal, popping its head briefly out of the sea, but now, in winter, they pull their impressive bulk out of the water and come on land to give birth, rear their young and, alarmingly soon after, copulate again. The grey seal colony at Ravenscar on the east coast will be thinking about making moves back to the sea soon but I’d encourage anyone to go stare into the big, black eyes of a seal pup while you’ve got chance.
It’s not the only instance of big groups of animals getting together around now. While this bit after Christmas can feel like a bit of a comedown and there’s a good few months yet of long, dark nights, British nature offers up so many reasons to be cheerful through winter.
You’ve much more chance of seeing super-cute long-tailed tits and our smallest bird, goldcrests, as they range about in mixed flocks looking for food; if you suddenly hear high, tinkling calls, look up. Flocks of winter-visiting fieldfares and redwings knock about the countryside, stripping trees of berries, pied wagtails gather en masse in warm cities and the cacophony of pirates that heralds groups of rooks and jackdaws coming in to roost in woodland at dusk is a joy to hear and see. By very late winter, between February and April, you’ll be able to combine rookery appreciation with the evening exodus of toads, which use ancient migration routes to get back to whatever bit of water they were born in so they can mate.
Back at the coast now, leggy Arctic wading birds called knots fill up on shellfish and worms on Morecambe Bay’s mudflats. High tide forces them off their feeding grounds in great flocks, where they fly low over the water flashing their white bellies, then grey backs in a mesmerising display that looks like a shoal of fish has just taken to the air.
But it’s the starlings that put on the best winter shows. Like the crows, they meet up and fly around together before bedding down but there can be hundreds of thousands of birds in seething flocks called murmurations. You might have seen it on telly – a mass of starlings apparently dragged like so many metal filings around the sky in one hypnotic black cloud – but it’s even more awesome if you can experience it first hand. And you can, all over the north.
My closest encounter was last year when 30,000 starlings flew back and forth about 30 feet above my head as they swirled around the sky at Ripon Marina. I was one of only five (quite teary) people there. It’s sad to think of all the people who weren’t there, perhaps complaining about how this bit after Christmas can feel like a bit of a comedown and there’s a good few months yet of long, dark nights.
No matter how awe-inspiring 30,000 starlings murmurating above you is though, some advice: keep your mouth closed.