Devon’s winter wildlife - five to watch out for in this unusually mild January

PUBLISHED: 12:02 28 January 2016 | UPDATED: 08:47 08 March 2016

Tom Rhys Williams

Tom Rhys Williams


Devon naturalist Tom Rhys Williams suggests five things to look out for if you’re out and about in Devon this month

I love to tap into the natural world throughout the year. It’s the real perk of living in a country where our seasons give us constant change.

Whether it’s the roaring of red stags or the shrill tones of the first nestlings, there is always something of interest.

It’s amazing how nature keeps the beat, year after year. Looking on and listening, you can pick us this rhythm so when you get a ‘weird’ month like we’ve had this January; it’s amazing how ‘out of time’ it can all feel.

If you are getting out and about in Devon, keep an eye out for these:

Fulmars glide effortlessly on stiff wingsFulmars glide effortlessly on stiff wings


Fulmars have always reminded me of little grey Spitfires. It’s the way they glide and manoeuvre effortlessly on little stiff wings. This distinguishes them from gulls, as do the tube structures on the top of their bills. They nest on sheer cliffs and I keep an eye on the colony nesting at Brownsham near Clovelly when I’m out that way.

This year the courtship behaviour began earlier than I’ve ever registered it. In the second week of January the noisy calls of birds strengthening life bonds was bouncing off the limestone and audible of the waves below.

Alexanders growing at Yelland, North DevonAlexanders growing at Yelland, North Devon


Move over snowdrops! There is competition for ‘flower of the month.’ Alexanders are in full bloom. This tall plant with yellow-green clusters of flowers comes from the Mediterranean. It thrives in Devon’s coastal areas where it will be slightly warmed through winter by the sea. It has had it pretty easy this winter and hence why it’s so far on. This plant was once commonly grown for food and it is making a bit of a come back in the kitchen with the current fashion for foraging. Long may this last. Just avoid the stuff on busy footbaths. Dog’s urine does little to improve the flavour.

The cherry plum gives Devon hedgerows their first flush of fragrant flowersThe cherry plum gives Devon hedgerows their first flush of fragrant flowers

Cherry Plum

Cherry Plum is not as well known as blackthorn or hawthorn but it gives the Devon hedgerows their first flush of fragrant flowers. Usually the sight of white bushes amongst gloomy February and March hedgerows is a real treat but I found my first blossoming bushes on New Year’s Day. Too early by far for the bumblebees that rely on them for a hit of early nectar and pollen. What’s bad news for the bees will also be bad for birds. They will have poorer cherry pickings later this year.


Wrens are singing and they have been all the winter long. It’s a distinctive song that seems too powerful and punchy for such a tiny bird. There is nothing unusual about songbirds singing through the winter. We hear robins, song thrushes and blackbirds to name a few. However, wrens are tiny little birds and in the cold short days of midwinter their call falls silent. Their calorie burn is high as their little bodies struggle to keep warm and hours to feed are limited so there is no time for energy sapping singing. But this January, their voices are the sound track to this unseasonal warmth.

Pippistrelle bats

Pippistrelle bats are the real shocker on this list. I hadn’t dreamt they would be on my list and they weren’t until one hour ago. I was letting my two dogs out the back for a toilet break when amongst the bare branches of the apple tree; a fluttering bat caught my eye. These tiny little mammals should be hibernating and I struggle to think there are enough insects in the sky tonight to make this flight worthwhile. Should the temperatures drop in coming weeks this little bat will be forced back into hibernation and this January disturbance will have taken a real hit on its reserves.

It seems the runaway train that is spring has left the station early. Walking around Devon this week, I was struggling to imagine anything slowing its pace. A harsh February may jam the brakes on. Whilst restoring the rhythm it would also hit hard the early risers. I’ll be watching this space.

Tom Rhys Williams is a naturalist living on the north Devon coast just outside of Barnstaple. When he’s not working as a veterinary surgeon, he’s exploring the stunning Devon countryside on his doorstep.

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