Water Pipit (above)
The Water Pipit is an extraordinary bird. It breeds in high mountains, such as the Alps and Pyrenees, yet winters in low, wet areas (hence the name). It is a scarce winter visitor to the UK, and owing to its preferred habitat, most of the 200 or so individuals over here are found in the east of the country, around suitable flooded meadows, ‘scrape’ edges and so on. Once considered conspecific with the Rock Pipit, the Water Pipit is very similar in size and structure to that species, but quite different in appearance (as well as habitat choice), being altogether paler, with largely white underparts, which are only lightly streaked and whiter outer tail feathers. Like Rock Pipits, Water Pipits have a single strong ‘feest’ call. Unlike Rock Pipits, they are annoyingly shy, and will fly off a considerable distance and ‘disappear’ if flushed (perhaps returning later when the coast is clear).
There are about 11,000 of these stately ‘wild’ swans wintering in the UK. So, they are hardly exactly ‘scarce’, yet they have a magical presence which makes them instantly exciting. Part of this is their very wildness, as they are shy and easily disturbed, letting intruders know they see them with distinctive barking honks. And part of it is knowing they have crossed a substantial amount of the Atlantic, usually from Iceland, to be with us. They are about the same size as Mute Swans, but lack the latter’s flamboyant S-shaped neck and extrovert raised wings and fondness for duck ponds. These are stiff-necked, almost rectilinear birds, which feed in fields and usually come to water to bathe and drink etc. Look for the large size, the straight neck, the extensive yellow from the eye to the pointed V on the bill; and listen for that honk.
The cormorants of the duck world, these big, gorgeous sawbills are fish specialists, using their beautiful, narrow, serrated-edged, red bills to grab their slippery prey after diving from the surface. Unlike Red-breasted Mergansers, which are mostly found at the coast in winter, Goosanders have a liking for freshwater, patrolling suitable, fish-rich lakes, rivers and so on. Though they are largely Scottish breeders (with pairs also in northern England and Wales), the 12,000 or so which winter here are spread across the rest of the country at this time of year. Males are whitish or salmon pink with blackish-green heads and black backs. Females are grey bodied and red-headed, with a clean divide between the red-brown upper and buff lower neck.
The Glaucous Gull is a scarce winter visitor from the far north, with usually fewer than 200 individuals found across the country (most in the north, particularly the northern and western isles). Along with the Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull is a so-called ‘white-winged gull’, so named because at all ages the flight feathers are pale, and always lack black feathers. In the UK most birds seen in winter are juveniles, which very from milky coffee coloured to almost white, with a dark eye and a pink and black bill. Second-winters have pale eyes. Adults are like large Herring Gulls with no black in the wing. Check rubbish tips, gull roosts or coastal gatherings of gulls for these handsome/ugly, beautiful brutes.
There are two distinct subspecies of the Black-tailed Godwit which occur regularly in the UK. These are the nominate subspecies limosa, which breeds in continental Europe and in very small numbers in England (mainly at the Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire); and the Iceland breeding islandica. The latter are shorter legged, slightly smaller and, in breeding plumage, are notably darker red. The islandica birds are also the subspecies which makes up the bulk of the UK wintering population of some 45,000 birds. While Bar-tailed Godwits in the UK are almost exclusively birds of the coast, wintering Black-tailed Godwits will readily spend the colder months at suitable inland sites (particularly in east Anglia, as well as north-west England), such as partially flooded fields etc, as well as enjoying estuarine environments.