Feeling festive? Here are 12 ways to enjoy 12 days of Christmas countdown... Ready?
Holly, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
1. The holly, the ivy and the mistletoe
Now’s the time to deck our halls with this triumvirate of festive foliage - but if you’re out gathering it, be sure to leave plenty behind for the wildlife. All of these evergreens play an important role in supporting birds in winter. Red holly berries provide a snack for many birds, especially those from the thrush and finch families, plus goldcrests, robins, dunnocks and more. They seek out winter-fruiting ivy berries too, while a good thick growth can also provide shelter from the elements for overwintering insects and chilly sparrows and wrens. Mistletoe, meanwhile, has a business associate in the mistle thrush, on which it depends for the dispersal of its seeds among the branches of host trees.
2. My True Love Sent to Me: Two Turtle Doves…
The Twelve Days of Christmas includes a roll-call of once-common birdlife… but you are much more likely to hear this 1780 carol being sung at Christmas than you will the wonderful purr of the turtle dove in summer; UK numbers have fallen a massive 97% since 1970. If you have any unwanted cashmere jumpers, you can make a difference this Christmas by sending these to Turtle Doves Ltd. Check out the offer here – for every 100% cashmere jumper they receive, they will donate £5 towards Turtle dove conservation and as a “thank you” they will also give you a £5 voucher to spend on their RSPB collection.
Robin, Richard Brooks (rspb-images.com)
Here’s our little Christmas icon and the nation’s favourite bird - perhaps because he keeps us entertained all year round with a gorgeous song, often belted out while it’s still dark. Robins sing through winter to defend their territories and can launch into their even more upbeat spring song as early as mid December. So listen out now for a bit of Christmas cheer from the finest pair of lungs in the garden! Our RSPB Shop is full of robin-themed gifts, decorations and cards, too, so why not work this little redbreast into your Christmas shopping list?
4. Make a nature wreath
Talking of decking the halls, here’s how to make your own nature wreath. Head out with a pair of stout scissors or secateurs and snip off any overgrown bits of evergreen foliage from your garden or neighbourhood. Suitable boughs of laurel, bay, fir, pine and ivy will all work well. You can see stripped willow shoots into a hoop, or buy a ready-made hoop, then just poke your foliage through. Add found feathers and maybe even a nature-friendly decoration like the one here.
5. Pin badges - stocking fillers to help nature
Every time I visit an RSPB hotspot, I get a bit excited about the pin badges. I love rummaging through the box, picking out my favourite animals or the highlight of that particular visit as a memento of the day. But if you’re flat out Christmas shopping and can’t get to a nature reserve until after Christmas, our eBay shop stocks a wide range that will make handy last-minute stocking fillers - or thoughtful gifts to distribute to a group or club. And of course all proceeds help the RSPB help nature.
6. Take a winter walk
Aargh! The glittering lights and excited crowds can get a bit much as the season hots up. Luckily, nature offers the perfect antidote - there you can embrace the wild weather, blow away the cobwebs and escape the hordes. As my mum always said, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!” so rug up warm and head out to your nearest nature reserve to soak up the seasonal sights, from winter geese to waxwings and redwings, colourful berries and even winter fungus. f you’d prefer some like-minded company and expertise, you might be able to join a guided group walk around an RSPB reserve or other hotspot. Either way, you can warm up with a cosy cuppa and slice of cake at one of our fantastic reserve cafes.
7. Sort those last-minute gifts
Another way to beat the high-street hordes is to shop online. Encourage an appreciation of nature among your friends and family by browsing the RSPB Shop. Orders received by 3pm on weekdays are despatched the same day, so here’s still time!
Redwing, Richard Brooks (rspb-images.com)
8. Spot redwings and fieldfares
These winter visitors flock to our farmland from Scandinavia when things get too chilly over there. Both the redwing and fieldfare are Red-Listed members of the thrush family, both roam our rural fields and hedgerows in search of berries and worms, sometimes both species together, so it’s no surprise they are often confused with each other. If you see any sort of thrush in a rural setting, take a closer look to see whether it could be one of these two visitors. You may not even have to venture far from home - I spotted a redwing in my local park one winter!
9 Make a snug-as-a-bug hibernaculum
While we’re snuggled up indoors, enjoying some hygge and festive cheer, life is much less comfortable at this time of year for the wildlife on our doorsteps. They are in dire need of shelter from the elements; for them it can be the difference between life or death. So this year, give them the gift of shelter. There are lots of ways, from building a bug hotel to offering a toad a hibernaculum for the winter. Download more simple ideas here. They’ll repay you next summer by eating all your garden pests.
10 Make pine-cone decorations for your tree
While you’re out on your winter walk, look out for pine cones. Those of you with resident or visiting children can have a brilliant time turning them into fun, eco-friendly tree decorations. Use felt, ribbon, lace, paint, fabric scraps, anything you can find, for zero-waste, upcycled, biodegradable decorations… and hours of fun!
11. Enjoy blooming winter woodland
It’s the deep midwinter, and everything’s dormant… or is it? If you go down to the woods today, you might find a verdant plant surprise. Hart’s tongue fern is firm, waxy and vibrant green, poking skyward from shady woodland floors, while gorse bushes sprout crowns of gold. After a mild spell you might also find early primroses or snowdrops.
Starlings, Colin Wilkinson (rspb-images.com)
12. Mark midwinter with a solstice walk
Celebrate the shortest day of the year on Thursday, 21 December with a midwinter wander. Why not enjoy the chance of a starling murmuration? The birds gather at dusk (so about mid-afternoon on this day), swirling mesmerically through the sky before they come down to roost, and this is one of winter’s most uplifting and unforgettable sights. Try one of these RSPB reserves to enjoy the spectacle.
Why not make it an advent calendar?
The RSPB's Wildlife Gardening expert, Adrian Thomas, has 12 more ways to help wildlife in your own garden during December... click here to complete your 24-day advent countdown!
It seems to sneak up earlier every year, but around here the fairy-lights are going up, the malls are piping out Christmas crooners, and even my family has started rummaging in the attic for wreaths and swags. We have plenty of festive feasts marked on the calendar, too - from work team lunch to festive family fun days at the kids’ schools.
Although it’s a time for excess and gay abandon, as a nation we’re going to be getting through a lot of food over the coming weeks, and it’s worth thinking about how it might affect nature. With reference to these tips from the RSPB’s award-winning reserve cafes, here are a few tips for making your Christmas shopping basket kinder to nature.
1. Buy seasonal and local
Embrace the Brussels sprouts! They’re a natural winter crop (in fact, I have several stems of sprouts ‘fattening up’ in my vegetable beds as we speak, ready for the big day), so growers won’t have to deploy artificial techniques to grow them. Potatoes, parsnips, celeriac, swede, carrots, leeks, chestnuts, pears, red and white cabbage, kale and other greens – as well as turkey, mackerel, lamb and pheasant – are also good local choices at this time of year. They also won’t use up loads of fossil fuels by being transported long distances. If you’re near a farmer’s market, go there for great local produce - but you can also search for UK-grown produce in supermarkets.
2. Buy organic
Organic food is grown without artificial chemicals - basically as it was for thousands of years until the agricultural revolution of the mid-20th century. Organic arable land is often friendlier for wildlife, the lack of chemicals allowing for more insects to support birds and other wildlife. Look for certified organic labels and hallmarks such as Fair to Nature, Leaf or Pasture Fed - all produced in wildlife-friendly ways.
3. Reduce waste
Do you really need that plastic bag for your loose veg? Maybe you can just pop them all on the scales at the till and they’ll survive the journey home rattling round in your bag-for-life… or bring a little muslin bag along to scoop them into. Food wrappers are designed to be used for two seconds, but will last for centuries and, if not recycled, they could end up blown into waterways and thence the sea, where they kill seabirds and other marine life. It also uses up fossil fuel and adds to your food prices. If you can buy and transport your food without plastic, give it a go - and let the retailer know how you feel about it. I don’t know about you, but I get ‘cucumber rage’ whenever I have to do battle with a plastic cucumber wrap that’s snugger than Mick Jagger’s trousers, that I never wanted in the first place, and usually risk injury to remove just so I can throw it in the bin!
4. More veg, less meat
It’s healthier for you, healthier for nature. Animal agriculture is a leading contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change, and also drives deforestation of tropical forests. Did you know that the vast majority of the global soya crop is grown to produce animal feed, which is then fed to farm animals around the world? So, surround your centrepiece with a rainbow of interesting veg dishes. Our traditional Christmas table typically groans with super-crispy potatoes; chilli-roasted sprouts in pomegranate and maple syrup; honey-glazed parsnips; nutmeggy swede mash; braised red cabbage with apple, red wine and cranberry; carrots with cumin; leeks in creamy white wine, and anything else we can cobble together. I’m ravenous just thinking about it.
So there are four easy ways to do something good for the nature you love, while also enjoying the festive season to the full!
Look out for more festive fun from the Nature’s Home team in the weeks ahead.
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. A handsome finch, so secretive and scarce that even the keenest birders go years without catching a glimpse of one is invading the UK in numbers not seen in living memory. This big-beaked beauty is turning up literally everywhere, providing unprecedented opportunities to see one in the UK. My blog this week aims to help you do just that.
This classy bird has created a media storm, so perhaps you are already aware that autumn 2017 has been the autumn of the hawfinch. A seed crop failure on the continent seems to be the cause as large numbers have been seen elsewhere in Western Europe over the last three weeks, or so. Every day has seen flocks of hawfinches piling in and flying overhead in all sorts of locations as they seek to get to grips with their new, temporary home, find the best feeding spots and team up with others of their own kind.
I’m among the many birders that have already added it to their garden list, which is something I never would have thought possible. I was enjoying a morning cup of tea on our landing when I picked up their characteristic call and watched two drop into hawthorns in the garden. They spent a couple of minutes perched there before they zoomed off in opposite directions and that was that.
I’ve also been lucky to be able to enjoy several here at The Lodge. I’ve worked here for 12 years and have never even come close to even a sniff of one but tea breaks and lunch breaks have delivered more than once making coming to work even more enjoyable than usual!
The hawfinch is an absolute stunner - this one captured by Nature's Home wildlife photography expert Ben Andrew
Five steps to hawfinch successYou will probably never have a better chance to see a hawfinch, so here are a few tips to ensure you cash in on the current invasion now and over the winter as the birds stay in the flocks they are now forming in our woods. I predict that good flocks will be available for the next few months, which is very exciting news for the winter ahead!
1) Learn the call. Every hawfinch I have seen so far in the last couple of weeks, I have heard first. Listen out for the flight notes and keep your ears open at all times. If you hear the call, get your eyes to the skies and look for a short-tailed, “front-heavy” finch bounding over, flashing prominent pale patches in its wings and on the end of its tail.
2) Get to grips with your tree ID. Hornbeams are the tree of choice it seems with the birds feasting on the seeds. Apparently in some spots, you can hear them munching on the seeds via a constant “crackle” as those enormous beaks get to work! Yew trees are also worth a look and the invaders have also been seen munching on haws on hawthorns.
3) Get up early and watch the skies. New arrivals are still being seen in the first couple of hours after dawn as they finish their migration from the continent. Make yourself comfortable and watch the skies to see if you can get lucky. High ground is particularly good as the birds tend to hug it and follow lines of hills.
4) Find a clear viewpoint. Rather than standing in a wood, surrounded by trees and with limited viewing, stand on the edge or in a clearing so you get a clear view of the treetops and more sky in which to see them flying over.
5) Hang about in the afternoons. Hawfinches roost communally, so as well as trying an early morning stint for new arrivals and early "just got up" action, linger until late afternoon in woodland and parkland settings. You might get lucky with several birds heading over to roost, or better still perching up in the treetops before dropping down into thicker cover to spend the night.
Have you seen one?Have you seen a hawfinch this autumn? Please leave a comment below, or e-mail the Nature's Home team at firstname.lastname@example.org
There are lots more wildlife-watching tips in Nature's Home magazine every quarter and it is free to every RSPB member. We're now bringing you the action month-by-month, so you'll never be short of ideas and advice to help you make the most of each season and find the best wildlife!