Wildlife in the snow - beautiful photographs and top tips for photographers

Fieldfare in snow with fallen apples, Turdus pilaris, Peak District

Fieldfare in snow with fallen apples, Turdus pilaris, Peak District - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson offers advice for photographers keen to make the most of wintry weather

Red grouse in snow, Lagopus lagopus scoticus

Red grouse in snow, Lagopus lagopus scoticus - Credit: Archant

Feeling ‘toasty’, we glance outside to witness the silence as the tree branches hang bedecked with clumps of snow. The ground is carpeted white, with a solitary robin providing the only splash of colour, his scarlet breast contrasting with the Persil white of the snow. A line of footprints shows where a cheeky squirrel has been scampering over the soft surface back to his nest of sticks and leaves. It sounds idyllic, and for many of us it is – as long as we don’t have to drive or leave the house!

I am not a betting man but as I wrote this I did a bit of research to find out just how likely a white Christmas might be. It turns out it snows more in January and February than December, on average 7.6 days in January, 6.8 in February compared to 5 in December, so the odds are not so good. If betting shops had been open before 1752 – and I’m sure someone somewhere was running one – the odds would have been much better because Christmas was 12 days later then. We moved it in 1752 when we changed the calendar. Technically, from a bookie’s perspective, snow on Christmas day actually means one snowflake in the 24 hours of the 25th December in one specified location. This is often an airport, so the odds when I wrote this in October this year are 3/1 in Glasgow but 5/1 in Cardiff, although this will almost certainly change as the day approaches. A white Christmas actually means just that, a lot of snow lying on the ground on Christmas day. This is much rarer and has only occurred four times in the last 51 years compared to a snowflake on the day which has occurred 38 times in the last 52 years. This is very much about statistics but I admit to finding it all fascinating.

Mountain Hare, Lepus timidus

Mountain Hare, Lepus timidus - Credit: Archant

With a good splash of luck we might have a white Christmas this year, the last good one was in 2010 and when we do get snow I love it and immediately think about getting out and watching or photographing our local wildlife. To maximise your odds I would suggest that you prepare for snow and have a couple of plans ready to put into action.

I always feed birds in my garden and as winter starts to get a grip I set out a range of foods, hanging feeders of sunflower hearts, peanuts and mixed seeds in the trees on the edge of my lawn. If you like the idea of photographing birds in the snow think about where you will be with your camera. Try not to photograph directly into the sun and make sure that you will be comfortable. If it’s your first attempt at wildlife photography try to set the feeders near a window so you can shoot from the comfort of your kitchen or living room. However, you will need to open the window so be prepared to get the room cold. An alternative is to sit in your greenhouse or shed if you have one.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker - Credit: Archant

A natural branch set up next to the feeder gives a better image than the birds on the feeder itself. One of my favourite statements when I help others is ‘the background is as important as the subject’. So make sure there are no distracting twigs or objects that will show up in the final image.

Cameras have a bit of a habit of making snow seem grey, so you will need to learn how to use exposure compensation and over expose the shot. This does mean you will have to read the manual! Snow is quite bright so you won’t need to use a high ISO (again look it up). You don’t need a big flashy SLR, though they are good. With modern digital compact cameras really good images are not difficult to produce.

Grey Squirrel, in snow, Sciurus carolinensis

Grey Squirrel, in snow, Sciurus carolinensis - Credit: Archant

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Not all birds like to use feeders but when food is hard to find desperation drives many to try their luck on them. Try sticking lard in cracks in the bark of the trees in your garden. If you don’t have any trees or they are not in a good position get an old tree trunk and use that. With luck your local great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches will become regular visitors. When the ground is frozen apples and raisins scattered across the lawn will attract thrushes, blackbirds and, if the winter is hard, fieldfares.

Once you start to get the bug you will want to venture out and catch some of our local wildlife amongst the white stuff. If the roads are clear try heading for the hills and moors. Red grouse and mountain hares stay all year round and can be quite confiding in winter. You must though be prepared with good clothing, boots, a hot drink and a mobile phone. Often we don’t think that Derbyshire is like the Cairngorms but a windy, snowy day on the top of Kinder can be a killer so I always treat the tops with massive respect. Any of the big edges such as Derwent are reliable places to spot red grouse, and hares – although a little less predictable – are definitely around.

Blackbird, Turdus merula

Blackbird, Turdus merula - Credit: Archant

If you don’t want to travel too far to find wildlife to photograph, a few hours spent at your local park and pond can be very productive, especially if the pond freezes over. Take some mixed seed with you – certainly not bread – and work with the mallards as they slip and slide over the icy pond.

A white Christmas won’t be something you can ignore so why not enjoy the day from the comfort of your living room then use the rest of the break to work with, enjoy and (with food) help your local wildlife. It is a really rewarding thing to do.

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