Top tips for nature spotting in the North of England

Girl with magnifying glass looking for wildlife

Fancy yourself as the next David Attenborough? Start training close to home and learn to spot and identify British bugs, birds and other beasties and find out how to get up close to other wildlife. Here are our top tips for spotting nature and some ideas of places to try them out.

Looking for bugs

From many-legged millipedes and shiny-shelled beetles, to speedy spiders and slow-moving snails, bugs are not only interesting to look at, but they're also really useful creatures. They help to keep soil healthy, provide food for other animals, control pests and recycle dead plants and animals.

Great spots for searching for bugs include under stones and wood, the branches, bark and leaves of trees and in long grass, and you'll often find things hiding out in all of these locations.

When you're looking for bugs, a bug pot or small bucket can be useful to collect the creatures you find and you might want to take a magnifying glass too so you can take a really close look at them. A spotter sheet will also come in handy to help you work out what bugs you've found as there are thousands of different types of insect!

Be gentle when you handle creepy crawlies though as they're only small and don't forget to put them back where you found them afterwards so they can return to their homes. 

For more tips, check out our guide to hunting for bugs

Top places to try bug hunting: 

See what creepy crawlies you can find at Seaton Delaval Hall, find out who's checked into the bug hotel at Ormesby Hall, pick up a bug hunting kit at Rufford Old Hall or look for mini beasts at Wray Castle

What creepy crawlies will you find?
Young boy looking at bug
What creepy crawlies will you find?

Bird watching

There are many different bird species in Britain so when you're out exploring woods, gardens and parks, keep your eyes peeled to see how many different birds you can find.  

A bird's size and shape, its colours and pattern, how it behaves and where you see it will all give you clues as to what kind of bird it is. Binoculars are useful to have when you're bird watching so you can take a closer look at them, while a book or smartphone can help you identify birds by sight and also by their distinctive songs.

A wildlife hide is a good place to look for birds as you can see them clearly without getting too close and they'll be less nervous of you as you're inside. You'll probably see and hear more birds earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon but if you keep a good look out, you could see them at any time, especially if there's food nearby, like a bird table or feeder.

Top places to try bird watching: 

Head to the wildlife hide at Cragside, use binoculars to keep watch on the bird feeders at Allan Bank, discover the birdlife in the parkland at Nostell or look out for birds in the woodland garden at Hare Hill.  

Watch a bird
Girl in field looking through binoculars
Watch a bird

Discovering what lives in a pond

Ponds are great for wildlife. They provide water for birds to drink and wash in and give a home to lots of different creatures. Some of these creatures, like the great crested newt, can be very rare.

If you look carefully, you can see lots of creatures on and above the surface of a pond but for a closer look, try pond dipping.  You'll need a net to gently sweep through the water, ideally in a figure of eight pattern, and a tray to empty the net into - light coloured ones are best as the minibeasts stand out more. A magnifying glass will also come in handy as some of the creatures who live in a pond are really small, and an ID sheet will help you work out what you've caught. 

Be extra careful when you're pond dipping as ponds can be deep and don't lean out over the water as you could topple in.  Make sure you add pond water to your tray first for the critters to swim around in and pour the creatures back into the pond once you've finished looking at them too. 

Top places to try pond dipping:

Drop into pond dipping sessions at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal, see what you can find living in the mill stream at Hardcastle Crags and look out for wildlife in the pond at Washington Old Hall.

Try pond dipping to discover what lives in a pond
Boy looking to see what he has caught in his pond dipping net
Try pond dipping to discover what lives in a pond

Telling trees apart

Trees are very useful. They give us shade, wood, fruits and seeds and they also provide homes for birds, bats and insects.

You can identify trees by looking at their shape, the texture and colour of their bark, what their fruit and flowers look like and from the size and shape of their leaves. Even in winter, when the leaves have gone from most trees, you can still identify them if you look carefully. Take a look at some of the common ancient trees you might find, like oak, beech and lime trees, for clues to look out for.

When you're out and about, try taking a photo or doing a drawing of any trees that look interesting so you can look them up when you get home to find out what kind of tree they are. Or use a smartphone to identify them while you're out. 

Top places to find champion trees:

Check out the ancient beech, oak and larch trees at Wallington, follow the new tree trail at Aira Force, find ten interesting trees at Beningbrough Hall  or explore the avenues of trees in the parkland at Dunham Massey

The bark of a tree can help you work out what type of tree it is
A mother and child looking at a tree
The bark of a tree can help you work out what type of tree it is

Butterfly spotting

Anyone can have a go at butterfly spotting, whether it's in a garden, park or a nature reserve. If you relax and keep still and quiet, butterflies will appear when they’re ready, so don’t give up too soon.

There are over 60 types of butterflies in the UK so a spotting guide can help you identify them by their colour, pattern and where they are. A pair of binoculars can also help you see their colours and patterns without needing to get too close. 

Settled butterflies can be frightened by shadows so try to stand so your shadow isn't going to get in the way. Butterflies are delicate creatures and can also be startled by sudden, jerky movements. If you do spook a butterfly, just stand quietly and watch until it settles down - it will often return to the same plant.

Butterflies like to collect nectar from certain plants so look out for them around buddleia, lavender, dandelion, heather and honeysuckle, which are some of their favourites. 

Top places to see butterflies: 

See the rare Durham Brown Argus butterfly on the Durham Coast, look out for speckled wood and orange tip butterflies at Roseberry Topping, spot over 20 species of butterfly at Alderley Edge and discover rare species like Scotch Argus and High Brown Fritillary at Arnside Knott.

Look for butterflies around the plants they love, like buddleia
A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly on a buddleia
Look for butterflies around the plants they love, like buddleia

Rummaging in rock pools

Another great habitat for nature is the sea, which is home to fish and all sorts of other unexpected creatures.  The best way to get up close to them is to try rock pooling.  

Start investigating a rock pool by seeing what’s swimming under the surface. You might see small fish such as a goby, butterfish or blenny. At the bottom of rock pools you might see a starfish or its skinny, spiny relative, the brittle star. Sea hares (a type of sea slug) can often be found munching on seaweed and if you look carefully and you might even see a sea anemone waving its tentacles gently at you.

To get the best out of a rock pool you need to get your hands wet. Turning over seaweed or lifting up rocks can bring other creatures, such as crabs, into view. For a closer look, place a bucket in the water and see what swims in or gently push it through the water to scoop up any critters.  Remember to let them go again where you found them after a short time. 

As well as a bucket, a good pocket sized ID guide will come in handy and you'll need to know the tide times for the area you're going to explore, so you don't get caught out by the rising tide, so take a local tide table along with you too. Using a net isn’t recommended, as many rock pool creatures are small and delicate and being tangled in a net can cause them harm.

For more tips on rock pooling, check out our ranger Kate's rock pooling guide for families.

Top places to try rock pooling:

Join a seashore safari at Souter Lighthouse, rummage in a rock pool on the Yorkshire Coast, explore the sands and pools at Formby and peer into the underwater world on the Whitehaven Coast.

There's a world waiting to be discovered between the tides
Children finding a crab in a rock pool Yorkshire Coast
There's a world waiting to be discovered between the tides