There’s a school of thought that ticking off the birds that you see has nothing to do with proper birdwatching, but, as we hope you are already coming to appreciate through #My200BirdYear, adding new birds to your list, first of all involves getting to know familiar birds well. Really well, we mean – appearance, flight style, songs and calls, behaviour, even their nest type.
Once you do, you start to realise there are certain species that you have overlooked. For example, if you’re lucky enough to live near an estuary, you may have spent the winter watching flocks of Dunlin. If you’ve watched them really closely, though, you’ll find that at some stage, you’re able to pick out the similar Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint. Two extra ticks, yes, but also two subtly beautiful waders you can then appreciate in their own right.
So, here are five species that slip beneath the radar of many a birder.
Shyer and a little smaller than the similar and ubiquitous Woodpigeon, and more tied to wooded areas and forest edges, this is nevertheless a common and widespread bird. It lacks its relative’s white neck patch and, in flight, also has more sharply contrasted colours than the Woodpigeon, with no white wing band – it also flaps its wings rather quicker. But to complicate matters, it is often found scattered among large flocks of Woodpigeons.
Although their numbers have sadly decreased alarmingly in recent decades, Lapwings are still easily identifiable in their winter flocks, because of their pied appearance and broad, flappy wings. But if you see them, look closer, because outside the breeding season, Golden Plovers are often close by. On farmland, they’re much more unobtrusive, generally feeding in a loose scatter that could be mistaken for winter thrushes, but a close look should reveal the gilded upperparts. In flight, they form large flocks, often flying high, but their pointed wings should be obvious on closer inspection, and the flocks ‘twinkle’ as they turn to and fro.
Beginner birders quickly learn to ID the Black-headed Gull, which turns up in any and every environment, and the Herring Gull and its close relative the Lesser Black-backed are also familiar to many from seaside holidays. But in-between, size-wise, is this subtle species. As well as being smaller than a Herring Gull, it’s daintier all-round, with a narrower yellow bill and a more rounded head. Look for it on ploughed fields, sometimes in company with other gull species – it’s far less likely than the others mentioned to turn up in urban environments.
Another farmland bird that has suffered declines, Linnets are, however, still numerous in many parts of the country. In spring and early summer, they’re harder to miss, because the male’s red forehead and breast stand out, and they tend to be seen in pairs. But at other times of year, they can become anonymous, with duller, largely brown plumage. If you see a flock of small finches feeding on weed seeds around field margins, check to see if they’re Linnets. Their ‘tigg-it’ flight call should confirm their identity.
Small, brown birds in open country in spring are often Sky Larks – once the males start delivering their rhapsodic song from high above, ID is easy. But what about those streaky brown birds that pop up on fence lines briefly, then fly away weakly, at times appearing to be blown by the wind? They’re Meadow Pipits, and once you get them firmly fixed in your mind, you can start thinking about finding Tree, Rock and Water Pipits, too.