One of the most underrated of all our birds, the shy Goosander is extremely handsome. Unusually (for a duck), the female is very attractive in her own right. But it is the drake which steals the show, having splendid black-and-white plumage on its large, streamlined body, with a bright red long, slim, hook-tipped bill. The narrow bill is hooked and serrated along it edge (hence the name ‘sawbill’ for the mergansers) all the better for grasping slippery fish, the main food item of these powerful diving ducks. Unlike the related Red-breasted Merganser, the Goosander is predominantly a freshwater species, particularly in winter (though the do occur in sheltered estuaries and the like). So, they can be found on favoured rivers systems, lakes and pits, where there are plentiful fish. They are widely distributed but very variable in their local abundance. Some 12,000 individuals spend the winter in the UK.
The Red-necked Grebe is a scarce bird in UK waters, with an average wintering population of just 50 or so. Most are found around the coast, but a few find inland waterbodies each winter. They look somewhat like a mixture between a Great Crested Grebe and a Little Grebe. They share the former’s longish bill, though in the Red-necked Grebe’s case it is black with a yellow base (like the tiny bill of the Little Grebe), but the Little Grebes, brown and buff plumage pattern. They are considerably smaller than Great Crested Grebes and a little larger than the black-and-white scarce grebe species Black-necked and Slavonian), with quite a thick-necked appearance. Note, that unlike Great Crested, there is no white feathering above the eye, so they look black-capped.
Here is a bird to bring any birding walk to life! The gorgeous little Kingfisher is a much more common bird than many people realise. In fact, it is remarkable how many people say they have never seen one. Perhaps this is because they are, to some, surprisingly small (smaller than a Starling), because they sit dead still on a low branch over a river or lake, perhaps in the shade, or that their colours do not give them away quite as much as people suspect from seeing close up photographs. Or it may just be that most non-birdwatchers don’t notice the shrill, piercing call which tips birders off of Kingfisher’s presence long before it is seen, allowing us to look over the water, and expect to see an electric blue bolt whizz by any moment…
Like the Goosander, the Shoveler is another ‘underrated’ bird. But just look at that magnificent bill, or the splendid colours of the drake, in particular. This is a strange and spectacular duck, a league above say a Mallard in terms of striking appearance. The behaviour is generally not ‘spectacular’ though, preferring to quietly filter the water near the surface with that bulky bill, which has a modified edge almost like the bird equivalent the baleen of whales. Take time to appreciate them if you see them this month (after all, like most of our ducks, they are looking at their fines in mid-winter).
More than twice as many Fieldfares spend the winter in the UK as Mistle Thrushes, yet for more than half the year we forget about them. Although a few pairs do breed in Scotland, these wonderful looking thrushes, along with Redwings are the real ‘winter thrushes’. They leave their continental breeding grounds and start pouring into the country in October; and by December, most of the 680,000 individuals will have arrived. They are gregarious birds of field and hedge, patrolling for worms and other invertebrates, like Golden Plovers and Lapwings, when the ground is soft, and guzzling on berries the rest of the time. They are beautiful and the ‘chack-chack’ calls rival any bird’s for being one of the most evocative sounds of winter.