I have a complex relationship with winter. Those cold, dark afternoons are an anvil weighing on my spirit and bones. But then, there are those dusks that feel like a gift. They compel me from the house and out. Out, into pale skies with streaky peachy hew, or towards those buttery light skies that shine from behind layers of silvery clouds, like the paint behind old wallpaper clumsily stripped. Winter dusk: it is my magic hour.
It is my time to be with the birds. As winter comes, my need for them shifts, becomes deeper. During the summer months, thick foliage and blousy flowers seduce my heart and obscure the birds from my eyes. This is how it is with that woodpecker, who drills away on the trunk of the Robinia outside my flat. I observe him with my ears; but my eyes are distracted by the joyous luminescence of limey leaves he hides behind.
So in winter, amid my seasonal stupor, it is time for me to embrace the freedom of looking. And a mid-afternoon walk to the lake near my house, naked of vegetation and surrounded by skeletons of bare trees, is my winter ritual. This lake is where the birds are, and where the light – reflecting off the water’s surface – lingers longest.
I get pleasure seeing the movement of all of my avian neighbours: the heron that glides low across the water’s equator, its broad wings beating slow and deep; the balletic looping of swans as they swim and drift; that family of moorhens, with their excitable bobbing heads. Webbed feet and wading beaks compel sleepy water into ripples, waves, crests and troughs. It is motion when all else appears still.
Twilight, I have learned, will reveal the most unexpected wonders, layers to my world that are inconspicuous on a blazing day, when the sun bleaches out all nuance. I am ashamed to admit that I once considered the mallard to be an unremarkable bird. But watching some ducks bustle near the water’s edge last week, I noticed something new. I saw a few straggling rays of a weakening sun playing with the water’s surface, and desperate to revel in these moments before dark, I followed the light as it fell across a mallard’s head. It illuminated the dark green feathers as emerald, purple and black. Birders wait for hours for a glimpse of a kingfisher, to be uplifted by a bolt of azure blue across the river. But observing the secret colours of this duck, I felt just as lucky and for way less patience.
One of the hardest aspects of winter for me, is that we are all more solitary. I turn in, friends turn in. Especially post-Christmas, when cash is running low and everyone is attempting to cling to the wagon. The birds, by contrast, are communing. They are together; moving down river in tribes, heading with purpose over fields and rooftops.
That moment of surge is energising. Mud may suck my feet down into the Earth, but the sight of geese rising as one arrests me. Even just a few; I like seeing them move from what looks like a disorganised, honking gaggle on the lake into a graceful line in the sky. Long necks outstretched, wings synchronised, they are somehow agreeing on some destination beyond the gloaming. It is no starling murmuration, but standing there, in my park in the city, I am captivated by this forward motion of a few creatures moving their mere 5kg bodies against the mighty, bitter cold darkness.
Best bird spots by you – North East
The River Ouse and surrounding water meadows are a fantastic habitat for winter birds. Head for the waters near Goole to see many species venturing from Hook Island to feed. You’ll find lapwings flocking on pasture and ploughed fields, feeding on wetland. Spy them in wavering flight – distinguishable by their black and white appearance and round wings. In winter, the lapwings are accompanied by golden plover, identified by a large flock in a tight formation making rapid wingbeats. Stay vigilant after rain; they emerge after a downpour.
See shovelers over the Aire & Calder. Look for the flashes of blue and green on their wings as these birds travel to breeding sites around the Ouse Washes and Humber. January is when to look for a white-fronted goose on migration from Greenland or Siberia. Or the black-tailed godwit – identifiable in flight by its black and white stripe on each wing and black and white tail.
Smudge, Flickr and Jonathan Woodward