Get out there and enjoy the last rush of winter birds, before spring’s tide of migrants makes you forget these cold weather wonders. Here are five birds to warm the cockles of your heart.
The Bittern is a bird that everyone wants to see. The reasons for this are that they are beautiful, rare and elusive, probably in that order. February is one of the best months to see one, as it can be the coldest month, forcing the reedbed skulkers out into the open. Look for them in flight, when they can sometimes look more like a large owl or a Buzzard at first glance, before you see that long heron bill! They often fly to and from roosting areas, then disappear again into the reeds. Though increasing in the UK, they are still pretty scarce birds and hugely enjoyable to watch, whatever they are doing.
Pic: Mic Clark Photography/Alamy
Sky Larks will have been flocking up and feeding in stubble fields and the like, during the winter, but as spring is on the horizon, sunny days may encourage them to start with their famous, renowned, varied and incessant song. Even more pleasant is the delightful chirrup of their flight call.
What a lovely little bird the Long-tailed Tit is. Tiny and with a ridiculously long tail and plumage which always seems to look soft and fluffy in pink, black and white, plus a tiny bill and an endearing habit of being fearless and approaching you as they flit past, feeding and blowing soft raspberries in equal measure! Great birds.
Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy
Great spotted Woodpecker
Even since December, Great Spotted Woodpeckers will be drumming (at least occasionally), which is their rattling, mechanical equivalent of a song. The speedy, quick blast of knocks on a resonant branch is not the same as the slower chiselling knocks they do to excavate nest holes, or extricate invertebrates or smash nuts on a tree trunk. Great Spots are about the size of a Starling or small thrush, and are the only British woodpecker to have red on their underparts.
The Raven is a bird on the move. Don’t believe the map on the RSPB website, as they have made considerable inroads to the east since that was compiled! Ravens are no longer birds of the western uplands, shunning man at all cost. They are now birds of some eastern cities, finding nest sites on radio and TV masts and cathedrals alike. They are not hard to identify, being huge (Buzzard-sized) crows, with much larger bills and longer wedge shaped tails than Carrion Crows, and distinctive tapering wings and shaggy throats in flight. And, of course, they are vocal birds, often betraying their presence with their various croaky and fruity ‘cronk’ calls.
Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy
Another new year has started in the heart of the first winter period of the year. It is a not a time of great change in bird populations, with a few cold weather movements making the bulk of the change in birdlife. However, it is a new year, a fresh start, another My200BirdYear list to get stuck into. Get out, go birding, find some great birds. Here are five to get you going this month.
Great Black-backed Gull
Another new year has started in the heart of the first winter period of the year. It is a not a time of great change in bird populations, with a few cold weather movements making the bulk of the change in birdlife. However, it is a new year, a fresh start, another My200BirdYear list to get stuck into. Get out, go birding, find some great birds. Here are five to get you going this month.
The northern, upland cousin of the Linnet is a classic Little Brown Job, but like many LBJs has its own charm. There are about 10,000 breeding pairs, but the numbers swell to a remarkable 100,000-150,000 birds in winter, with continental influxes, and gatherings near the coasts of Scotland, northern England, North Wales and eastern England. The size of the wintering population is remarkable as the Twite is often considered quite a scarce bird. They are flock-forming seed-eaters with apricot-buff faces (males have pink rumps) and a distinctive ‘twite’ twang of a call.
Pic: Evan Bowen-Jones/Alamy
The mountain breeding Snow Bunting is one of those wintering British birds which everyone wants to see. And rightly so as they are lovely little birds, even when not wearing their black and white summer finery. Large and long-winged, they shuffle along gravelly or sandy coastal beaches, unobtrusively, looking to pick up seedy morsels, before flushing to flash white in the wings and emitting delightful little twitters and pure ‘pews’.
Pic: Patrick Nairne/Alamy
Fewer than 200 Smew winter in the UK, and nearly all of these are south of the imaginary line between The Wash and the Severn Estuary. They are little sawbills (relatives of the Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser), which come over here in small numbers to avoid the deep freeze of continental Europe. Males are unmistakable in white with black markings. Females and youngsters are less so, but are still easy to identify. They’re small ducks (much smaller than a Tufted Duck), with a dark grey body and red-brown head with white cheeks and throat, and short black bill. Perhaps the easiest confusion with one of the smaller scarce wintering grebes (or the near extinct Ruddy Duck). Smew are usually painfully shy birds of lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs.
Pic: David Chapman/Alamy
The wild wintering populations of Barnacle Geese (from Greenland and northern Russia/Spitsbergen) total nearly 100,000 birds in the UK, but they are localised to the areas around the Solway Firth and Northern Ireland and the north-west of Scotland, including some Hebridean islands, such as Islay. They are distinctive little ‘black’ geese, with white faces contrasting against the black neck and breast; blue-grey-and-black backs and pale flanks and bellies.
Pic: Ann and Steve Toon/Alamy
It is one of those bits of unspoken knowledge that most non-birdwatchers don’t grasp: every month sees birds on the move. Yes, spring and autumn provide the most obvious changes and most notable migration, but even in mid-winter months, like December, birds will be coming and going. It may be cold weather movements, after feeding (and living) becomes very tough on the frozen continent, and our mild island climate becomes a better option. Or it may be other factors. But there are always birds arriving and departing. Whether they are newcomers or not, here are five species to look for this month.
The Goldeneye is one of those charming little duck species which everyone has affection for. There is a tiny breeding population of a couple of hundred pairs (in Scotland), but the Goldeneye is mainly a wintering bird, with some 22,000 in the UK at the moment. Males have black (glossy green) heads with a white blob near the bill and white stripes on the black back. Females are brown and grey. Both have a distinctive shape. Even in December, you will often see drakes throwing their heads back and squirting out a weird little call in quirky courtship display.
Pic: All Canada Photos/Alamy
October 2017 saw an exceptional influx of Hawfinches into the country, first picked up by ‘vis mig’ watches, mid-month. Indeed, in addition to individual birds seen heading west over Midland counties, there have been flocks of up to 40 birds seen. For a species which has in recent years become so scarce, these are exceptional numbers, revealing a genuine ‘irruption’. Although distinctive (huge, with a massive head and bill and a very obvious white wing panel), they can be painfully shy and highly elusive, blending with ease into backgrounds of dead leaves.
Although certainly a bird you will have encountered in the spring and summer, an increasing number of Chiffchaffs winter in the UK (especially in the south of the country), and it is always a pleasure to catch up with one during the ‘festive season’. They hang out in mature woods, sometimes joining tit flocks, but also favour warm, insect-rich micro-climates, such as sun traps along hedge lines, old sewage works and the like.
Pic: Sandra Standbridge/Alamy
Contrary to what you may think (in the light of the publicity about their shameful, terrible persecution) the Hen Harrier is actually our most common harrier. Sure, if you hang out in, for instance, the fens of the east of the country, you may think Marsh Harriers are the normal harrier. But, across the country, there are in fact more Hen Harriers. Many leave the moorlands and head downhill and scatter over low-lying marshes and open country for the winter. Females and youngsters are called ringtails (brown with a white rump and barred tail), while adult males are exceptionally handsome raptors in pale grey, black and white. Lovely!
Pic: Aflo Co. Ltd./Alamy
Although a great looking bird in its own right, especially in the brick red of breeding plumage, Knots are one of those species that blow the mind as a collective. Like the swirling murmurations of Starlings, the huge flocks of Knot which use our rich estuaries for their winter feeding are a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Winter Knots are
a sort of halfway house between a Dunlin and a Grey Plover in size, grey, dumpy and somewhat nondescript. Put thousands of them together, though, and they become like cells of a new super creature!
Pic: Derek Watt/Alamy
November is an underrated month for birdwatching. Though it lacks October’s glamour, there are still many birds on the move, and many fine winterers to enjoy. Time to tick off those birds on your My 200 Bird Year list that slipped the net last winter. Here are five birds which may tickle your fancy this month.
Those speedy, dumpy, ghostly pale little waders that sprint along the tiny wavelets of the beach, like clockwork toys, are Sanderlings. Almost exclusively a coastal bird (with a few finding their way to inland sites on passage), the Sanderling is about the same size as a Dunlin, but with a shorter, straighter bill, paler plumage and that hyperactive shoreline running technique. In flight, the wings are obviously black and white, contrasting with the paler body. These are Arctic breeding birds which winter around the sandy and estuarine coasts of England and Wales (and south-eastern Scotland).
White-fronted Geese come in two styles in the UK. The largest proportion (about 13,000 birds) are birds from Greenland, which winter mainly in western Scotland, especially on the Hebridean island of Islay. These birds are slightly larger, with darker necks and orange bills. The remaining 2,400 birds, scattered mainly around East Anglia and south-eastern England, are European-bred birds, from Russia, and have paler necks and pink bills (below). Both subspecies are considerably smaller than Greylags and have a white facial blaze and variable, patchy black bands on the belly.
The Water Rail is one of those birds which are renowned for being much more frequently seen than heard. As a result of hiding away in reedbeds, it is probably massively under-recorded (surely, the ‘official’ breeding population of slightly more than 1,100 pairs is way off). They really are not uncommon birds, found in suitable habitat across much of the country. But they reveal themselves mostly by calling at dawn and dusk and only usually come out in the open at these times when they think they are not being observed. An exception is when there is a period of freezing weather, when they will emerge into the open in search of food and water. They are considerably smaller (and much slimmer) than Moorhens, with the same sort of cock-tailed ‘chicken-gait’. They are delightfully coloured in blue grey and streaked brown, with a long reddish bill and black-and-white zebra-striped flanks.
The tiny Teal is one of our most underrated birds. Drakes are really gorgeous looking ducks, from red, yellow and green head to black and yellow tail end (and with subtle vermiculations in between). And don’t forget that teal green speculum (panel in the secondaries of the wing). They also have a charming ‘breep’ call. Teal are even smaller than Tufted Ducks.
The most elegant of waders, the relatively scarce Spotted Redshank (which birders love to call the ‘Chewit’, not for its resemblance to sweets from the 1970s, but for its call) is really a lovely bird. In spring finery, they are (nearly wholly black (even the red legs go black at the breeding peak) and juveniles are densely barred in brown (with orange legs). But at this time of year, most are pale grey and white, with plain wings (no wing-bar) and an oval-shaped white lower back. The bill is longer and finer than a Redshank’s, and only has red on the lower mandible. The legs are longer, too, allowing deeper wading (often in freshwater).
5 to find Oct
October is many birdwatchers’ favourite time of year. It is very much one of the key migration months of the year, and, of course, migration brings excitement and the chance of something special or even very special, indeed. Here are five great birds to look for this month.
Not much bigger than a Goldcrest, this delightful little eastern ‘Phyllosc’ is going through a period of increase as an autumn passage bird in the UK, with more than 1,000 birds sometimes found during October (plus a few overwintering individuals). Most are found in the northern isles or the east of England or the south-west of England. Listen for the distinctive ‘pseeooeet’ call and look for the bold yellow supercilium and double wing-bars.
Great Grey Shrike
All shrikes are wonderful birds, but Great Grey Shrikes have the added glory of being big brutes, to boot. October sees a bit of a passage, particularly in the east as they migrate out of Scandinavia. And perhaps 65 or so birds will stay to winter, often at traditional sites. They are birds which like open areas to search for large insects as well as small mammals (and even small birds) to catch, impale on a thorn, and eat. They also require some height to view the hunting grounds, be it overhead wires or taller bushes.
American Golden Plover
A rare visitor from, you guessed it, North America, the American Golden Plover is similar to a Golden Plover (and often found within flocks of the European birds), but smaller, often greyer and with a bolder supercilium and grey (not pure white) underwings.
The cute little Siskin is a tiny little yellow-green finch which breeds mainly in the north and west of the UK, but from autumn onwards spreads further south and east. Listen for the familiar call as birds start to arrive on their ‘wintering’ grounds this month. Found near conifers or in areas with plenty of Alders or birches.
Ospreys are on the move in October, heading out of the UK on their way to West Africa and so on, for a change of scene and diet and some winter sun. Birds passing through can drop in to fish at pits, lakes, fish farms and reservoirs on the way. They are huge, very long-winged black-and-white hawks, quite unlike our other raptors. Catch up with them while they are still here.
Your summer rest is over! As far as many birds are concerned, it has been over for a while, with migration taking place in earnest for some weeks. But September sees a shifting of gears and a sizeable increase in movement. Birds of all sorts are on what is called ‘return’ passage, heading to their wintering grounds. Unlike spring migration, the autumn’s episode is a more leisurely affair, without the need to rush to claim a territory and find a mate. So, you may be lucky and see that birds can linger a while on their way through. Here are five species to catch up with this month, and perhaps add to your #My200BirdYear list. How many can you see?
Stints are cute and desirable little waders. They are so small, they look about the size of pipits or wagtails, and it is odd to think of them as cousins of gull-sized giants like Curlews. In a mixed flock of smaller waders, you can pick them out as being the next size or two down from Dunlins (which are pretty small to start with). Most Little Stints we see in the autumn are juveniles on passage. But, remember, plumages among the juvenile waders are often among the most attractive, particularly in autumn, as the feathers are fresh and neat and even, and the colours are pure. Little stints have neatly golden fringed wing and back feathers with ‘braces’ of white on the back and a curious ‘split’ pale supercilium (eyebrow). The bill is short and straight, the legs are black. Most are seen around coastal sites, particularly in the south and east, but they also turn up inland in small numbers.
The magnificent, powerful, elegant Sooty Shearwater is a prize for seawatchers. It’s not the rarest shearwater, but neither is it at all common. This is generally a scarce bird, seen at sea or from coastal watchpoints, shearing over the water (of course). They are dark brown, looking black, with an elegant cigar-shaped body and long, straight-ish wings which flash silvery on the underwing. Beware the similarly patterned Balearic Shearwaters (another scarce seabird), which can also be dark (though not usually as dark as Sooties), but are smaller, less powerful, and look a bit more ‘pot bellied’.
Formerly a widespread breeder, this anomalous, cryptically patterned woodpecker, which looks like a warbler mixed with a Nightjar (and nothing like other woodpeckers), is now only found as a scarce passage migrant, mainly to the east and south coasts. They are odd birds, with beautiful, subtle plumage and feeding habits a bit like a Green Woodpecker (ie shuffling about on the ground, hoovering up ants with a very long, sticky tongue).
A scarce passage bird, the Red-breasted Flycatcher is a prize find for migrant seekers. They are small, usually buff and brown, rather plain flycatchers with a striking black-and-white tail (black with white bases at the side). Most lack the orange breast/throat of adult males. They can be quite elusive birds, disappearing in trees, even when you know they are in there. So, you will need patience as well as luck and timing.
The Bullfinch is one of our loveliest birds. Males are gorgeous and, close by, you will usually find the toned down female. Both have blackish wings with a single transverse wing bar of white, and a white rump, contrasting with the black tail. And with their black heads they are pretty unmistakable. At this time of year, though, look out for the potential confusion presented by juvenile Bullfinches. They are a bit like females, with similarly toned-down olive hues, but they lack the black on the head, so have a plain face and staring eye. The wing bar is buff rather than white, but they do still have the white rump.
August is always a curious time of year. Associated with hot summers and school holidays, it comes off the back of the often quiet month of July, yet holds so much promise, as autumn proper (at least in birding terms) starts to kick in. By the end of the month, chats, warblers, flycatchers and waders (and much more) will be passing through in good numbers. Time to put dragonflies and butterflies aside for a bit and go birding! Here are five birds to look for this month.
This month is a peak period for picking up Whinchats heading back south and east from their breeding grounds, or on passage from the continent. There is usually a mix of adults and ‘scaly’ juveniles. Remember, at this time of year, the plumage even of adult males is less clear-cut and striking than the bright spring plumage (which reveals itself after wearing of the buff feather tips which this season’s fresh birds sport). Whinchats, like Stonechats, like to perch high on small bushes and ‘weeds’. They love weedy fields and barbed wire fences.
Ospreys, especially unattached males, are prone to wandering the country throughout the summer. August sees them joined by juveniles starting their leisurely journey south, and they can turn up at inland lakes, reservoirs and so on. Juveniles have more even trailing edges to the wings and more obviously barred underwings, as well as having pale fringing on the upperparts.
Late summer is the season for noisy, hyperactive Greenshank juveniles to appear along the edges of gravel pits and other freshwater bodies. Often, you will hear their loud ‘tew tew tew’ calls as they panic, before you see them. Juveniles often seem to have ‘rough’ calls, like they are teenagers, just breaking their voices. Lanky and somewhat gawky, grey Greenshanks lack the brown tones of the smaller, slightly neater Redshank, as well as the red legs, of course (Greenshanks legs are grey-green at the greenest!). Note the plain wings in flight and the white rump which extends in a white V up the back.
A bird which is much less common on passage than it used to be, the Pied Flycatcher is a lovely little bird. Like Whinchats, don’t expect any you encounter to look like text-book, black and white spring individuals. Males, females and juveniles are all dark brown and white (rather than black and white). Often perched in full view on a small bush or fence line, but can also be perhaps surprisingly elusive, not so keen on obvious aerial sallies as Spotted Flycatcher, but more likely to glean from leaves or twigs. Can give itself away with repeated ‘echick’ call.
Ok, you can see Sparrowhawks in any month, but August is as good as any, and they probably won’t be quite as sneaky as earlier in the breeding season (when they seem to disappear into the foliage and are just glanced as speeding ghosts out of the corner of the eye). Sparrowhawks are usually seen soaring above or in low hunting flight, often near the ground then hedge hopping to surprise small birds. They have blunter wings and squarer tails than Kestrels and usually fly with a ‘flap flap glide’ pattern.
Yes, the best two months of passage (so far) are over. But fear not, return passage has begun! July is the early backwards extension of autumn, as far as migration is concerned. For instance, with waders, the failed breeding adults will soon be followed south by the first juveniles. There is no excuse to give up birding and turn to insect watching (though slotting some of that in, too, is always a mood lifter for quiet, warm, summer days).
Here are five birds to look for and enjoy this month.
The rare little Broad-billed Sandpiper is particularly unusual in being a northern-breeding wader which breeds in Europe (Scandinavia), yet is considerably rarer in the UK than some North American waders. Birds in May and June are regarded as spring migrants and from July to September as autumn birds! So, if one turns up this month, it is probably returning to the wintering grounds. Most (of the very few) are found in the east of the country. Broad-billed Sandpipers are notably smaller than Dunlins (though larger than stints) with similarly long bills with a slight kink down at the tip. The head has distinctive stripes, with a ‘split supercilium’ of pale stripes above the eye. They are dark and streaky, with white bellies and, of course, never the black belly of a Dunlin.
It is all about the flight with Spotted Flycatchers. They don’t go in for fancy-dan plumage, but look amazing when swooping from a perch in a smooth arc, snapping a flying insect, then gracefully back to the same perch. Spotted Flycatchers are birds of woodland glades among tall trees (with room to swoop and catch insects), mature gardens and even cemeteries. They are widely distributed but increasingly scarce summer visitors.
Smaller than a Redshank (but beware juvenile Redshanks which are not yet fully grown), the neat little Wood Sandpiper is the epitome of Tringa elegance. They are mainly freshwater birds, turning up at gravel pits and lagoons as well as flooded meadows. Note the bold pale supercilium, yellowish legs, brownish, streaked plumage (always paler than Green Sandpiper) and square white rump.
A bird which is always lovely to encounter, the Barn Owl is one of the most familiar British birds in books and magazines, but few of us are lucky enough to have them on our doorstep. At this time of year, you may be lucky enough to see one hunting in broad daylight.
The first adult Cuckoos may well have left the country by now, heading to Africa for the ‘winter’. In July and August their offspring will be being fed gigantic quantities of insects by their host families of Reed Warblers, Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and so on. The plump giants in the nest make anomalously high-pitched squeaks to stimulate their foster parents to keep feeding them more and more. Young Cuckoos after fledging can look particularly like Sparrowhawks, being browner and more barred and spotted than their biological parents, and with wings that are initially blunter than adult Cuckoo wings (until the primaries grow fully).
June is a month to unwind slightly from the rush of spring migration and enjoy some of our fine breeding birds, including the seabirds and heathland birds featured here. We also include a rare breeding bird among the five birds to go looking for this month. Remember, it may be summer, but some great birds are still on the move right now.
Arguably our prettiest auk (though Puffins may complain about this), the delightful little Black Guillemot is a bird of the rocky coasts of western and northern Scotland (especially the Northern Isles) as well as Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and Anglesey. Rather than being a cliff nester (like its larger cousins), it nests among boulders. There are nearly 20,000 UK breeding pairs. Black Guillemots are pretty unmistakable, with blackish plumage apart from a big white oval on the wing. The feet are bright red.
Another scarce breeder of the west, the Chough’s 250-400 pairs are found around the coast of Wales, Islay, Northern lreland and Cornwall; specialising in short-cropped grassy clifftops. They are handsome crows with broad fingered wings which allow them to be among the most spectacular aerobats of any of passerines.
A genuinely rare breeding bird, the Marsh Warbler looks very similar to the Reed Warbler (though a little less warm in colour). It comes into its own, though, in song. Marsh Warblers are top challengers for the prize for the greatest singers among British birds. The song is rich and powerful, but the real speciality is diverse and seemingly (to a human ear) incredibly accurate mimicry. Marsh Warblers incorporate songs and calls of birds they encounter on their travels (including African birds from the wintering grounds, as well as European species); usually scores of them! And they really do sound like the real thing. The downside is their rarity; there are fewer than 10 pairs in the country.
A couple of thousand pairs of Arctic Skua nest in the UK, mainly in the Northern Isles, but also in northern mainland Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. They are quite gull-like, but once you have had your head attacked by one near the breeding site, you will know they are much meaner birds than our gulls! There are two main colour morphs – pale birds, with largely white underparts, and dark morph birds, with largely dark brown plumage. The central tail feathers are long and pointed.
Despite recent declines there are still 1.5 million pairs of Sky Lark in the UK. The Wood Lark is nearer the other end of the abundance scale, with only about 3,000 pairs, all in the southern half of the country. They are much more specialised than Sky Larks in their choice of habitat, being almost exclusively birds of heaths in this country. So, they are found in such areas as the Surrey and Hampshire heaths including the New Forest, parts of Devon, and the Breckland and heaths of East Anglia. Shorter tailed than Sky larks, Wood Larks also have a more prominent pale supercilium (‘eyebrow’) and have a distinctive and beautiful ‘fluty’ song of descending ‘lululululu’ nots, delivered from a high point such as a tree top, or in a short song flight.
May is here. Arguably, the best month for birdwatching brings opportunities aplenty, with migrants still flooding in, while the last winterers are leaving and another range of species comes through on passage. Birds will be on the move everywhere, not just at coastal hotspots, but just about wherever you live in the UK. This is the time when working a local patch can really deliver the goods. Here are five rather special birds to kick off any May.
Many birds are looking particularly good now. This applies to the lovely Black Tern, a passage bird in the UK. They are ‘marsh terns’, at home feeding over freshwater (or seen on the coast). The flight is buoyant and they feed by graceful dips to pick invertebrate food from the water surface. In breeding plumage, they are black-bodied (white undertail) with grey wings, back and tail. A flock of Black Terns dropping in to feed over a gravel pit or small lake is an inland patch-watcher’s small slice of May heaven.
The beautiful Red-rumped Swallow is quite a rare (but regular) visitor to the UK in spring. For instance, there were about 20 seen in the country in April and May last year. They are similar in size and shape to Swallows, also sharing the long tail streamers. But these southern European visitors have a paler (rusty) nape and buff and rufous rump, a pale throat and black undertail coverts. Red-rumped Swallows also have a subtly different flight style, with sweeping graceful glides between bouts of flapping. Like our other hirundines, Red-rumped Swallows are often found feeding on emerging insects above water.
Cuckoos start to arrive in good numbers in April and in May are at their peak of singing and so at their most noticeable. They are shy birds, much more often heard than seen. It is not that they sing from deep within vegetation, often preferring to use exposed perches on the top of trees or on telegraph poles and lines and along fence lines. It is just that they are very wary of humans. Also, they are, by nature, rather individual birds, usually seen singly, which helps make seeing a Cuckoo a far from everyday occurrence. Many people, even birdwatchers, are not always aware that they have seen a Cuckoo, when one flies by. They look like something between a Kestrel and a skinny dove, whizzing along on flapping wings which don’t appear to rise above the horizontal. Sexes are similar, but there is an uncommon red-morph of the female; like a speckled juvenile but in a glorious rufous colour.
As with many wading birds, the winter plumage of the Knot is pale grey above, paler grey-white beneath. But, also in common with many waders, the breeding plumage is glorious. Knot have beautiful brick red underparts and spangled upperparts. This is a great month to catch up with Knot looking at their smartest, as they pass through on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds. Almost exclusively a coastal species, inland Knots are one of those unusual treats that are far from annual at most sites.
Everybody’s favourite auk, the Puffin, is an extremely familiar, yet curiously exotic looking beauty in a family packed with handsome birds. They are smaller than many expect, but unmistakable with their pale face and enormous colourful bill. Unlike our other auks, these are burrow nesters, so need grassy slopes, usually near or on the top of cliffs. They are famously tame and approachable and are simply superb birds to watch up close and personal. Go meet a Puffin!
April is one of the most exciting times of the year. Bird movement is building up to a maximum, with migratory species rushing back to the breeding territories to get on with the mating game. And bird song is in the crescendo phase, as new-in migrants join the resident birds in the dawn chorus, or throughout the day. What a time to be out birdwatching! Here are five birds to brighten any April day.
The Mitchell Beazely Bird Watchers’ Pocket Guide described the Reed Bunting as having an “irritating, tinkling song”. The song is repetitive and simplistic, but it is so much part of the ambience of a reed-lined wetland scene that it is surely not ‘irritating’. A male Reed Bunting is
a bit like a dapper version of a House Sparrow, but with a neater black head and throat with a neat white moustache, collar, and outer tail feathers. Look in reedbeds but also small trees nearby. They are at their best perched proudly on a reed stem belting out that ‘irritating’ song.
Often one of the earliest warblers to arrive in the spring (along with Chiffchaff and Blackcap), the Sedge Warbler is mainly a bird of reeds and similar vegetation associated with water. They are often quite hard to see, but a glimpse is all that is needed to see the obvious pale supercilium which readily identifies them. Usually, it is singing which betrays their presence. You’ll hear that they have a crazy shambles of a song, showing elements of supreme mimicry and virtuosity interspersed with arhythmic ramblings and repetition.
Dotterels are famous for being fearless (of man) mountain dwellers and for having the normal sexual roles reversed (in that the females are the prettier ones and the duller males are the incubators). In late April and May they appear at traditional inland sites on their northward passage, including areas
in East Anglia and the Pennines. These include large, flat, ploughed fields with a hint of pea or onion growth, as well as some traditional hill tops, such as Pendle Hill in the county of Lancashire.
Redstarts mainly breed in the north and west of the UK, in a variety of rural habitats with trees. In April, they pass through the country and are a prize find for inland patch watchers. They are one of those birds which select particular patches of favourable habitat while stopping during migration. So, they may turn up at the same place year after year. Generally, they like quite dense bushes and trees (to bolt to for cover), often along linear features such as hedges and fence lines, adjacent to short cropped grass (for feeding on invertebrates by pouncing from the hedge, then returning to cover). Males are at their best in the spring, being bright orange, grey and black. Females are duller brown, but both sexes have quivering tails of glowing fire.
Essentially a southern species in Europe, the Black-winged Stilt’s breeding range now reaches to the French side of the English Channel. There have been a few attempts at breeding in the UK in recent years, in particular, but it remains largely a rare visitor. This bird almost defines the concept of ‘unmistakable’. The red legs are of comedy length, the bill ultrafine, the plumage as straightforwardly black and white as you could imagine. Look for them at freshwater or brackish sites. They could drop in anywhere.
March is the time when the first true summer migrants appear. Classically, these include Sand Martin, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Little Ringed Plover, Sandwich Tern and Wheatear. These are all great birds to look forward to this month, as are these five alternative birds to catch up with this month.
The Brambling is a bird of the north and east in Europe, with the tiniest possible breeding population in the UK (one or two pairs). It is essentially a winter visitor to the UK, also found on passage. So, we tend to see them in winter plumage, when they are very pretty but not quite as spectacular as the black and orange breeding garb. They start returning to the breeding areas in March, so now is a good time to catch up with them feeding in fields or in Beech woodland, often associating with Chaffinches. Bramblings are roughly the same shape as Chaffinches, but have white rumps, orange shoulders and wing bars, white bellies and a distinctive, nasal ‘dweeb’ call.
Though a very common and widespread bird across the continent, the Black Redstart only has a tenuous foothold in the UK as a breeding bird, with probably fewer than 50 pairs in the country. They are a bit more frequent as passage birds, being early migrants, passing through from March. Unlike Redstarts, Black Redstarts are birds of rocky terrain, which in this country often equates to buildings and other man-made structures. For instance, they can be found, in March, in cities, on house roofs, on farm buildings or at reservoir dams.
Garganeys are unusual among our ducks in that they are essentially summer visitors, migrating here to breed. Most of our ducks are much commoner in the winter time, but not the Garganey. They start to return to their breeding sites in March, but they are scarce, with fewer than 100 pairs in the country. Most are concentrated in the east, particularly East Anglia, and south-east England, but with localised populations elsewhere, including western Wales and the Scottish Borders. They are tiny ducks (about Teal-sized) and males are distinctive and very attractive, with a striking pair of long white supercilia. They are shy and retiring, disappearing with ease into flooded vegetation, in their shallow wetland habitat.
The large, dark pipit which gets ignored around the rocky coasts of the UK, has
a Scandinavian subspecies which regularly passes through the country in the spring and autumn. At least, that is the theory, as out of the spring plumage these littoralis birds can be difficult to separate from our resident petrosus birds. They can turn up at gravel pits and reservoirs or lakes with rocky or gravelly shores, in the spring. Larger and darker than Meadow Pipits, they have dark smudgy streaking on the breast and flanks, rather unstreaked backs, dark legs, dark bills and a harsher ‘feest’ call.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Our tiniest woodpecker is now scarce and localised, with fewer than 2,000 pairs scattered across England and Wales (not Scotland or Ireland). They are only sparrow-sized, with a tiny bill (for a woodpecker), and lack any red on the belly, so are not hard to identify. They can, however, be hard to see, as they are so small and spend a lot of time among the smaller twigs at the top of trees. So, when trees are fully covered in leaves, they can seem to vanish. Now is the time to search for them: there are few leaves and the birds will be drumming and calling in courtship and staking territories. Listen for the even and prolonged rattling drum and the Kestrel-like ‘kee kee kee kee’ call, which has been compared to a high-pitched Green Woodpecker call, at least in its cadence.
The short days of January are stretching slightly through the truncated month of February, giving more birding time. But this is a time of cold snaps and deep chills. Wrap up warm and head out to see some great winter birds. Here are five to warm the coldest birdwatcher.
Despite massive persecution, the Hen Harrier remains our commonest harrier. It is not common, though, and is all but extinct as an English breeder. In winter, the Scottish birds spread to the lowlands and are bolstered by continental birds, which can be found in eastern and southern England. Males are pale grey with white rumps and black wing tips. Females and juveniles are brown but also have a white rump and a banded tail which gives them the name ‘ringtail’. They patrol on wings held in a V, using their owl-like facial disc to help locate prey in rough grass. They are often easiest to see in winter when returning to a known roost site.
The Treecreeper is a classic example of a bird which is heard much more often than it is seen. Heard, that is, if you have ears to hear it. This truism arises for two reasons: firstly, the call is very high-pitched and many of us struggle to hear such notes. Secondly, many birdwatchers are unfamiliar with the high, thin calls and especially the warbled ditty of a song, which has been described as a little like a thin, shortened version of a Willow Warbler song. If you can tune into Treecreepers, you will note that they are common birds, if a little tricky to see sometimes. But once seen, there is nothing quite like a Treecreeper (at least among regular British birds). They really do creep up tree trunks and branches, before flying to the base of the next tree in their circuit.
A few years ago, after a couple of very cold winters, Stonechats appeared to be in a certain amount of trouble. But after a collection of successive mild winters, they seem to have bounced back. Stonechats are perky, pretty little birds. They have an endearing habit of perching high up on a dried weedy plant or a fencepost. And if you see one, you will often find its partner nearby.
The owl equivalent of the Hen Harrier, the Short-eared Owl, is many
a birdwatchers’ favourite. They are often seen hunting while the sun is still up, and have a lovely buoyant, bouncy flight style, aided by their very long wings (for an owl). The UK’s wintering population of Short-eared Owl, is extremely variable, with numbers being strongly controlled by the population of voles, their main prey. There can be just a few thousand individuals, but in a good owl year, as many as 50,000 may be in the country.
Many of our ducks are very handsome birds, and none more so than the drake Goldeneye, resplendent in black and white with a dark green iridescent head and, of course, a golden eye. Mid-winter sees these little beauties at their finest (in plumage terms), but also at their friskiest, carrying out their crazy, head-thrown-back display, accompanied by a nasal, squeaking, raspberry sound.
Another New Year has come around, and it is time to put on your warm clothes and go out to see some of the great birds the season has to offer. Here are five beauties to kick off the year. Shed a few Christmas pounds (weight that is) walking in the country, and start your #My200BirdYear 2018 list off in grand style by seeing and enjoying any or all of these five superb winter birds!
Great Northern Diver
Of the three British divers (White-billed are also ‘regular’, but are rare) the Great Northern is the largest; though there is some overlap of smaller individuals with larger Black-throated Divers. Unlike Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Great Northerns are not really UK breeders, but are non-breeding visitors and winterers: fewer than 3,000 birds. Most are found off the Scottish coasts, particularly off the Northern Isles; while in England, most are found off the Cornish coast. Some venture inland to larger water bodies. Big and heavy with a big and heavy bill, Great Northerns in winter usually look dark at the head end and slightly paler on the back (the other way round with Black-throated) and show a distinct half-collar on the neck.
The Waxwing is a famously ‘irruptive’ species. This means that every so often, bumper numbers leave the Scandinavian and Russian breeding grounds and we are blessed with good numbers over here in the UK. As it happens, it seems that our wishes have been fulfilled, and this appears to be a good Waxwing winter. This is particularly welcome as Waxwings are, quite simply, gorgeous birds! In addition to the crest (who doesn’t like a crested bird?), the dabs of bright yellow in the tail and wing (yellow) and bright sealing wax red in the wing (hence the name), the plumage has a softness and shape-shifting flexibility. And they even make a very pleasant ringing trilling call. Waxwings are famous for visiting supermarket car parks. But also look for them anywhere where there is a plentiful, ripe supply of berries or other fruit.
Many of our ducks are lovely, but few can compete with the male Smew for beauty. They are small, shy ducks, visiting southern and eastern England in times of chill on the continent in small numbers (usually fewer than 200 birds). Only adult males are white with fine black lines; females and youngsters (called ‘redheads’) are grey with red-brown heads and white cheeks and throats.
Our native partridges have declined greatly in recent years and can be tricky birds to see, being comfortably outnumbered by the imported and ‘released’ or ‘restocked’ non-native Red-legged Partridge. But Grey Partridges are much ‘better’ birds, subtly marked and in grey brown and orange and with a lovely rasping call, most often heard in the crepuscular hours. They are birds of lowland arable farmland and grassland, usually found in pairs or small coveys of up to a dozen or so birds.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Woodpeckers can start getting territorial from December onwards and a sunny January morning can be a good time to listen and look for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. The drum is longer and more even than the louder report of Great Spotted Woodpecker and the call is a ‘kee kee kee kee’ like a high-pitched Green Woodpecker or a Kestrel. LSWs are scarce these days and restricted to certain woodlands in England and Wales (absent from Scotland and Ireland). Though not particularly shy (for a woodpecker), they can be very tricky to see and it helps that there are no leaves on the trees at this time of the year. They are often to be seen high up in trees on the thinnest twigs. They are notably tiny, much smaller than Great Spotted Woodpeckers, being only about sparrow-sized. Only the male has red on the crown; otherwise there is no red elsewhere on the body.
Winter birding doesn’t have to mean freezing to death and moaning about how short the daylight hours are. That is part of it, of course, but there are also some great birds to see and enjoy. Here are five to look for in December. How many can you get on your Christmas walk?
The tall, graceful Crane remains a rare bird in the UK, though the breeding population is undergoing a distinct expansion. Now, in some areas of East Anglia, such as the Nene Washes, east of Peterborough or the area of Hickling Broad and Horsey Mere in West Norfolk, they are ‘reliable’ as winter birds.
The Velvet Scoter, is, like its more common cousin, fundamentally a seaduck in winter off the UK coast. They are much scarcer than Common Scoters, with only about 2,500 birds wintering. Scan at sea for black-coloured scoters with white wing patches and white around the eye on a male. Females are browner, but also have pale cheek patches and white in the wing. They are mainly east coast birds, being most numerous off the Scottish coast.
Though a breeding bird of uplands in this country (which largely means the north and west), these small, speedy falcons disperse in winter, hitting the lowlands of the south and east, especially near the coast. The British population is boosted by birds from Iceland migrating to our relatively mild islands. Merlins are small and, for falcons, relatively short-winged and short-tailed, almost like very small Peregrines in shape. They are dashing and agile, pursuing passerines with twist and turns and pure speed. Only adult males are blue, and golden below, while juveniles and adult females are dull brown, with pale supercilia (‘eyebrows’).
The handsome Brambling is a northern finch which is largely a non-breeding visitor to the UK, in very variable numbers. They are very similar in structure and size to Chaffinches, but have distinctive colours and a completely different voice. Bramblings have white rumps and orange breasts and shoulders and wing bars and white bellies with black spots. Even females are quite well patterned and coloured (unlike dull-coloured Chaffinches). Their most familiar and common call is a distinctive, nasal ‘dweeb’. They are found in similar habitat to Chaffinches, but these birds have a bit more of a preference for Beech woodland.
Everyone loves Long-tailed Tits. They are very cute, little ball-like bundles of cuteness, with an absurdly long tail just adding to their appeal. In winter, they are usually found in wandering flocks of several individuals, often mixed with other tits, and other small birds such as Goldcrests, Chiffchaffs and Treecreepers and perhaps spotted woodpeckers. Long-tailed Tits announce their arrival with thin ‘see see see’ calls as well as squidgy purred ‘raspberries’.
In some ways, November is neither one thing nor the other. It is still autumn, but migration is much slower than in October. And it is on the cusp of winter, but without the potential freeze of the turn of the year. Birds are still coming and going, though, so there will be a few goodies to look out for. Here are five.
Golden Plover (above)
Golden Plovers are upland, northern breeders in the UK. In the autumn and winter, however, numbers are greatly swollen by birds from the continent, until there are approaching half a million in the UK. Like many waders, they like to feed in groups. Unlike many waders, though, they are often found in large flocks inland on agricultural fields (often with Lapwings). Smaller than the seaside-hugging Grey Plover, Golden Plovers are also notably ‘golden’. Searching through large flocks can produce one of the rare ‘lesser’ golden plovers (Pacific and American).
Notoriously secretive, the Water Rail is, like the Cetti’s Warbler, one of those waterside birds which are vastly more often heard than actually seen. This is a shame, because Water Rails are delightful little characters, beautifully marked but also very pleasingly shaped. They are much smaller and slimmer than Moorhens and may occasionally creep out from concealment among the reeds, particularly in the crepuscular hours, revealing their subtle and beautiful colours. Otherwise, you are more likely to simply hear the weird and wonderful screeching calls, which can sound unnervingly like someone is pestering piglets in the reedbed.
Scaup are relatively uncommon winter visitors to the UK (c12,000 birds), with most birds coming to the north, such as the Moray Firth, the Firth of Forth, and the Solway Firth. Smaller numbers winter elsewhere and odd individuals or parties may turn up at inland water bodies during the month. Slightly larger and more rounded-headed than Tufted Duck, with no crest, restricted black on bill tip and often a white blaze on face, as well as grey feathers on the back, all help identify out of place Scaup.
November is a time when juvenile Shags tend to go wandering and may turn up at unusual sites, such as inland lakes, reservoirs and rivers. Juveniles are brown all over with a small white throat patch and relatively fine bill (compared to a Cormorant’s) and usually a steep, high forehead. They are much smaller than Cormorants which helps pick them out; and they are usually much less inclined to flight when they see humans, often being positively approachable and fearless.
Consistently one of the nation’s favourite birds, the Barn Owl is an instantly recognisable beauty. The Barn Owl is the only white owl you are likely to encounter in the UK and even a glimpse in your car’s headlights can be enough to identify one. However, they may also come out when there is plenty of daylight, so you may get to watch one patrolling field edges and rough grassland in the middle of the day.
For many of us, October is the very best birding month. The last of summer’s birds are leaving, the winterers are arriving and there is a wealth of migrating birds passing through, including scarcities and rarities in profusion. These five are not the rarest birds, but all have potential to be seen in October. Enjoy!
Lesser Redpoll (above)
The British breeding Lesser Redpoll is aptly named as the smallest of the redpoll complex. October sees birds move away from the breeding grounds, and they are frequently encountered during ’visible migration’ watches as fly-overs. They are tiny, tit-like finches with black on the bib, through the eye and just above the bill, before the red splash on the forecrown which gives the bird its name. Adult males are flushed pink on the breast, otherwise they are brown- and buff-streaked birds. Through the winter they will feed on the seeds from Birch and Alder catkins.
Rock Pipits are widely distributed birds, mainly found around the rocky coasts of England. In September and October birds turn up inland. Most, if not all, of these are of the Scandinavian subspecies littoralis, rather than local British birds from the coast. Rock Pipits are larger and darker than Meadow Pipits, with stronger darker bills and usually dark legs. The breast streaks are much heavier than Meadow Pipits’ and smudge together to form dark lines, giving the bird an almost ‘dirty’ look.
Inland passage birds can be found near water bodies, often on rocky or concrete shores. Unlike the closely related Water Pipit, Rock Pipits are relatively bold birds, often allowing reasonably close approach.
Sabine’s Gulls are very much ‘sea gulls’, spending much of their time out to sea. However, strong winds in autumn (especially from the north-west) blow southward migrating Atlantic birds in to our coasts and even inland, turning up at reservoirs, lakes and gravel pits. In the extreme, during the Great Storm of mid-October 1987, record numbers turned up across the UK. Seen well, Sabine’s Gulls are distinctive, with ‘triangles’ of black white and grey/brown on the wing. Seen distantly on seawatches, they can be confused with first-winter Kittiwakes.
Surely up there in the top 10 of every birdwatcher’s favourite bird, the Bearded Tit is a real charmer. Even the ‘ping ping’ calls are cute. Small, long-tailed and with stupidly short, rounded wings, they are not the sort of bird which you would expect to fly far. However, in the early autumn, Bearded Tits can rise up vertically in family groups and flocks and head off for reedbeds new. October is one of the best times for finding a Beaded Tit turning up at an ‘unexpected’ place (usually a reedbed or reedmace bed), where you may never have seen one before, at least not this year.
October sees the first returning Whooper Swans arriving from their breeding grounds in the north, particularly Iceland (birds often arrive with plumage stained from certain upland lakes). Whoopers are the size of Mute Swans, with a distinctive yellow triangle on the bill which leads up to the eye. They are vocal birds, with a pleasing deep ‘honk’ call. Whooper Swans are mainly wintering birds of northern England and Scotland, as well as Ireland; with a few localised wintering populations around the Wash, North Wales and the Severn Estuary.
Birds are on the move throughout the year, but spring and autumn are the times when migration is in full flow. September and October span arguably the most exciting time of the year for birdwatching. So, this month, we recommend a few autumn specials. Most are scarce, but all are very possible, with a bit of luck...
As both parts of this wader’s name seem to imply, the Little Stint is tiny. It is so small, that you almost believe it could run through a Dunlin’s legs. As such, it is relatively easy to pick out, at least as something different, in a flock of small dumpy sandpipers. Most autumn birds are juveniles, with neat plumage, well defined pale fringes on their wing coverts and white V on the back. The legs are black and the main potential ID confusion is with the very rare North American ‘peeps’. But that is another story…
A pretty scarce autumn passage migrant, this is one of the smaller flycatchers, much smaller than, say, a Spotted Flycatcher. They are also surprisingly elusive little birds, seemingly able to disappear at will. In autumn, most birds will not have obvious orange throats and breast, but look more brown and buff. All, though, have distinctive black and white tails and pale eyerings.
Though formerly a breeder, the charismatic Red-backed Shrike is largely a passage migrant through the UK in the autumn, in quite small numbers, and mainly found along the south and east coasts. The great majority of autumn birds seen will be juveniles/first-winters, which are browner than adults and barred below and above. Scan coastal (or even inland) sites, along fence lines and bushes, which the shrikes use to search for insect and small vertebrate prey.
Essentially a North American Arctic breeder, this neat Calidris sandpiper is the commonest wader from across the Atlantic each autumn (though it is still a pretty scarce bird). Most birds we see are juveniles, with neatly patterned warm coloured feathering and obvious white lines forming Vs on the back. They are roughly Dunlin sized (some are smaller, some larger) though slimmer and longer winged with a proportionally smaller head, pale (yellow-green) legs and a well defined dark-streaked breast. They also have a more creeping gait than Dunlins. Beware confusion with larger, buffer juvenile Ruffs, and even juvenile Redshanks. Pectoral Sandpipers have a preference for freshwater habitats, and could be at suitable wader habitat well inland.
One of the most spectacular looking waders in full breeding plumage, by the autumn, most birds in the UK will be juveniles, quite unlike their infinitely variable parents. Juvenile Ruffs are neatly patterned birds infused with warm peachy buff. Concentrate on structure for ID: Ruffs, especially males, look small-headed, long-necked and pot-bellied. Females (reeves) are much smaller and more conventionally proportioned, causing potential confusion with many other medium-sized waders.
In some ways, August is an intermediate time of year. The breeding season is coming to a close for many species; the rush of autumn migration is yet to take off. Birdwatching in August has a summer holiday feel to it. But, don’t be fooled.
There is still a mass of activity out there. Young birds are still being fed and reared and some, especially waders, have long ago left the Arctic breeding grounds and are still taking a leisurely trip south through the country.
It is also the start of southward migration of small birds, such as scarce warblers, chats and Wrynecks. Anything can and does turn up. Things are getting exciting, and here are a few birds to get your birding teeth into this month. See if you can find them to add to your #My200BirdYear tally!
Pied Flycatcher (above)
As birds start their southward migration in late August, the Pied Flycatcher is one of the birds we all want to catch up with on passage. Your best bet is at scrubby, bushy east coast sites; but birds will also occur in smaller numbers inland, at a suitable site or even in a garden or park.Don’t expect these birds to be black-and-white stunners, though. In autumn, Pied Flycatchers of all ages and sexes tend to be in their fresh brown-and-white garb. Despite this, they are still lovely little birds, though!
The long-winged, elegant Icterine Warbler is a scarce visitor, mainly to the northern isles and the east coast of England. Beware Willow Warblers, which are often very bright yellow at this time of year. Willow Warblers are fidgety birds with a dark eyestripe, while Icterines are more robust birds with an ‘open’ face lacking a dark eyestripe, and an altogether more ‘lethargic’ manner. Most UK birds will be first-winters, which lack the intense colours of a spring adult, but still have a touch of yellow and green in their plumage.
Juvenile Greenshanks are noisy, easily startled, waders, who take off shouting out their ‘tew tew tew’ calls in husky teenage tones at the slightest provocation. They are not hard birds to identify, with grey and white plumage and long, slightly upturned bill and long grey-green legs. The rump is white, as is the back, unlike the smaller Wood Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper, which both have square white rumps.
The lovely, chipper, dapper country cousin of the familiar House Sparrow is a bird which has undergone a drastic decline. However, there are still some 200,000 pairs across the country, mainly in England (though not the south-west), so it is not exactly a rare bird, yet. It is localised though, and in many areas takes a bit of local knowledge to find. One place where it is surprisingly easy to watch Tree Sparrows in the summer is Bempton Cliffs RSPB, where they ‘chip’ around while you relax at the visitor centre.
Crossbills are exceptionally early breeders in the early spring and seem to spend the rest of the year wandering around in flocks looking for the best feeding grounds. They are most frequently encountered in areas of mature conifers, but during August, they may also be encountered flying over in small flocks, repeating their famous ‘chup chup’ contact calls.
Only adult males are brick red, with younger birds being various shades of green, like the females and the streakier, browner juveniles. As devourers of much seedy material, they need to drink clean water regularly, and even clear puddles in suitable habitat can be a good place to look for drinking birds.
Though bird song is now dropping down to a minimum, there are still plenty of birds to look out for in July (and help boost your #My200BirdYear tally) They are just too busy doing other things to waste time and energy singing. While most of our breeders will have young families, the first returning juveniles of Arctic-breeding waders will be coming back south and passing through. Seabird colonies will still be busy and there are more than enough birds out there to keep any birder entertained.
Black Guillemot (ABOVE)
Arguably our most beautiful seabird (though Puffins would also have a case, and Razorbills and Gannets are not exactly ugly!). It is just that a combination of jet black plumage, striking white wing ovals and red feet and inner mouth is hard to beat! Black Guillemots don’t nest on cliffs like Guillemots, but among boulders, lower down. They are largely birds of the north and west coasts, with highest numbers on Shetland and Orkney.
In July, Scotland, including the western and northern islands, is the place to look for this most exquisite of waterbirds. The Black-throated Diver may have the more exotic pattern, but the subtle dark red throat contrasting with the soft, smooth matt grey of the head neck, and the filigree of the back of the head and that red eye, give the Red-throated a unique beauty. They breed beside lochs and, even surprisingly small freshwater lochans, and can be seen either there or flying back and forth from the sea to bring fish back for youngsters.
Although there is a tiny breeding population (of fewer than 30 pairs in Scotland), the small, elegant Wood Sandpiper is mainly a (scarce) passage bird in the UK. There is a first wave through in May, and then the first retuning birds start to return in July. Primarily a freshwater species, Wood Sandpipers are often very shy and flighty, revealing the small square rump, pale underwings (compared to the very dark underwings of the somewhat similar, but much more black-and-white and chunky Green Sandpiper).
Great Crested Grebe babies
Great Crested Grebes are ubiquitous resident birds across England and Wales, much of Ireland and southern Scotland (also breeding in north-west Scotland). Their youngsters are among the most delightful of any British bird, having black-and-white stripy heads like little swimming humbugs. This month is a good time to look out for them, though their squeaky begging calls will probably grab your attention first.
One of the latest arriving summer migrants, the increasingly scarce Spotted Flycatcher will have been in the breeding swing for the last month or more, benefiting from the glut of midsummer flying insects. Though hardly the most brightly coloured birds (the adults are not even spotted), they have an elegance and grace that lifts them, especially when performing aerial sallies and snapping up flying insects, before returning to the original perch. Spotted Flycatchers are birds of mature, open woodlands and mature gardens, as well as cemeteries.