Five birds to find in November

November is when things start to unwind a bit in autumn migration. But birds are still on the move and it is very much still possible to grab a few more species for your year list, or just enjoy birds for their own sake!

Twite

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The Twite is a hugely understated bird (if you will forgive the oxymoron). The upland equivalent of the Linnet, this little finch, like larger birds of its breeding range (think Merlins, Hen Harriers or Short-eared Owls), heads to the lowland coastal areas out of the breeding season. In fact, a surprising 100,000 to 150,000 Twite winter in the UK and Ireland (numbers boosted by continental visitors), mainly in the north (especially Scotland), as well as coastal north-west England and north Wales and the east coast of England. Like a Linnet, but with a peachy buff face and yellowish bill, lacking grey and pink on the head and breast (but males can show a pink rump) they feed in flocks on seeds on the ground.

Image: Sandra Standbridge/Alamy

Shag

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Though actually a much commoner breeding bird than the Cormorant, the Shag is less familiar to most people as it is an almost exclusively coastal species, favouring the rocky coastlines of the north and west of the country. Some individuals, mostly brown juveniles, do wander inland and can turn up on rivers and lakes at this time of year. But the easiest way to see a Shag is to head for a rocky coast.

Image: David Chapman/Alamy

White-fronted Goose

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The White-fronted Goose is a grey goose which comes in two distinct flavours. There is the Greenland subspecies, flavirostris, which has a longer yellowish-orange bill (hence the scientific name), a darker head and neck and a wintering population concentrated in western Scotland (eg Islay). And there is the Siberian breeding albifrons which are slightly smaller and with pink bills, which can be found in smaller numbers in England (eg north Kent). Both subspecies are considerably smaller than Greylags and have smaller bills and white ‘fronts’ to their faces (apart from juveniles) and variable belly bands or patches.

Image: Brian Kushner/Alamy

Spotted Redshank

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The Spotted Redshank appears in the UK in three distinct colour forms: nearly wholly black (breeding plumage) passage birds; neatly barred brown juveniles; and wintering birds in white and pale grey (plus intermediates). At this time of year, it is the pale, winter plumage that you are most likely to encounter. Spotted Redshanks are a little larger than Redshanks and an altogether more elegant looking bird, with longer legs (allowing deeper wading) and a long, fine bill (with red restricted to the base of the mandible, not the maxilla). The call is ‘chewit’. They are quite scarce birds, with only about 100 wintering (and about 500 on passage), mainly at coastal areas, with suitable freshwater or brackish areas.

Image: Mike Lane/Alamy

Mealy Redpoll

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Strangely, also called the Common Redpoll, this is the larger, scarcer, paler species of redpoll (though not as large and pale as the much rarer Arctic Redpoll). There are usually only a few hundred of these finches in the country, mostly on the east coast. Look for a notably larger, notably frostier redpoll with a white (not buff) wing-bar. Some birds are subtle, but a good Mealy should stand out easily from a flock of Lesser Redpolls.

Image: Christopher Cook/Alamy

Five birds to find in October

October has arrived. For some, this is the most exciting time of the birdwatching calendar. And with some justification, as many scarce and rare birds appear among the commoner species. Summer birds cross over with winter birds in this period of abundance and change. And it is getting to the ‘last chance saloon’ with respect to some birds you may need for your #My200BirdYear list. Here are five birds to be getting on with.

Starling

Mark Bretherton/Alamy

Mark Bretherton/Alamy


Like the Dunlin featured as our Bird of the Month, the Starling comes into its own when gathered in big numbers. From late summer and throughout the winter, Starlings gather in the evening, often in flocks of many thousands of birds to roost communally. These ‘murmurations’ of thousands or even millions of Starlings swirling like ever morphing smoke are rightly renowned as one of the most wonderful natural spectacles. Starlings start to gather as the sun sets, near their favoured mass roosting sites. Over some time small flocks and individuals gather into the mass, flying round forming magnificent amoeboid shapes until the time is right. Then the whole flock appears to be sucked by a vacuum down to the reeds or bushes in which they will roost.

Merlin

FLPA/Alamy

FLPA/Alamy


Our smallest falcon is a speedy jet fighter of a bird, whizzing along on relatively short wings (for a falcon) in breakneck pursuit of small birds, such as larks and pipits. Merlins are birds of open country, in winter favouring coastal marshes, fenland and other suitable areas with plentiful prey. Most birds are youngsters or females, looking cold dark brown with a prominent pale supercilium (‘eyebrow’) and a banded tail (so somewhat like the falcon equivalent of a Sparrowhawk). Adult males are even better looking in steely blue with an orange flush to the underparts.

Stonechat

Giedrius Stakauskas/Alamy

Giedrius Stakauskas/Alamy


Just as Merlins come down from the uplands in the winter, so Stonechats leave their breeding grounds to spread out over suitable wintering areas in autumn and winter. The movement is primarily inland (as much of their breeding distribution is more or less coastal), but also with a certain shift to the south. Often found in pairs, Stonechats like weedy fields with plenty of caterpillars. They usually perch on the top of weeds, fencelines and gate posts, in search of their prey.

Great White Egret

blickwinkel/Alamy

blickwinkel/Alamy


Over the last 30-odd years there has been an egret revolution in the UK. Now, it is quite possible to see more Little Egrets than Grey Herons in the average day’s birdwatching. In the last few years, a new egret has snuck in with very little fuss. Though less than 20 years ago considered a bona fide rarity, Great White Egrets are now barely noteworthy in some parts of the country. It will not be long before they are regular breeding birds across the UK. That said, they are still great birds and if you don’t have one (or more) on your #My200BirdYear, you should get out and see one (or more), this month. They are much bigger than Little Egrets, often standing taller than Grey Herons. Outside the breeding season, they have orange bills. And at all times, the long neck has a distinctive ‘kink’ in it.

Water Rail

Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

Only a few British birds have a lower ‘sightings to hearings’ ratio than the Water Rail (Quail, Corn Crake and Tawny Owl come to mind). These beautiful little squealers usually scream out their piglet calls from deep in the cover of a reedbed or ditch. Unlike Quail or Corn Crake, though, they will also come out when the coast is clear and have a bit of a feed in the shallow edge of their reedy home, dashing back in at the first hint of danger. They are small, more wader-sized than Moorhen-sized and quite dark, with a blue-grey body and brown back, and black-and-white vertical stripes on the flanks. Unlike the other rails and crakes the bill is long and red.








Five birds to find in September

September is to autumn what April is to spring. Just as April hasn’t quite the same illustrious reputation as May, so September falls somewhat into October’s shadow. But both April and September are powerful players in the calendar. Indeed, some years, September can produce even rarer birds than the later month. For now, however, here are five birds to try for this month; five birds for which September is a peak period.

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper

Image: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

Image: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

In autumn, juvenile waders (ie those hatched this year) tend to greatly outnumber adults. This is certainly true of the relatively scarce Curlew Sandpiper. Many of us were, in our birding youth, brought up with field guides that didn’t even address juvenile wader plumages. And, as a hangover from this, there is still a lot of confusion about juvenile shorebirds, which are often strikingly different from breeding and non-breeding plumaged adults. Don’t fall for the trap of thinking that juveniles will be speckled, fluffy birds, like young garden birds! Juvenile waders are usually handsome, very neatly patterned birds, with much fresher plumage than their adult equivalents. Juvenile Curlew Sandpipers have neatly scaled upperparts and wings and a peachy wash to the breast (leading to confusion with juvenile Ruff); the flanks are ‘clean’ white (not streaked or spotted), the rump is white, and the supercilium prominent. Also, they are longer legged, longer necked and longer billed than somewhat similar juvenile Dunlins.

Juvenile Knot

Image: WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy

Image: WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy

One of the ‘forgotten juvenile waders’ is the Knot. Most birdwatchers know Knots as dull grey ‘winter’ birds in far-from dull super flocks, or (less familiarly) as gorgeous brick-red visions of breeding splendour. But the juvenile plumage is also pleasing and distinctive. The supercilium (‘eyebrow’) and breast have a peachy wash and the upperparts (back and wings) are finely ‘scaled’ with fine black-and-white fringing to the feathers. All Knots are mid-sized, dumpy and short-billed, with juveniles and non-breeders in particular having pale greenish legs.

Redstart

Image: FLPA/Alamy

Image: FLPA/Alamy

Redstarts are summer visitors to the UK, and at this time of year, they are heading south to the wintering grounds. So, they turn up at coastal migration spots, as well as in smaller numbers at suitable inland areas, where they can find the magic combination of hedges, or lines of trees (or, indeed, fence lines with nearby cover) and short grass on which to pounce on insects. In the autumn, they are both in their freshest plumage and at their least striking. Like many songbirds, the freshly moulted plumage comes with buff tips to the feathers, which wear off before the spring to reveal the glories of the brighter feathers beneath. So, for instance, don’t expect autumn males to have black throats, but rather to have a ‘pale covering’ over that throat, so looking more like females. All ages have warmer underparts than Black Redstarts and all have the quivering orange tail that gives the bird its name

Sabine’s Gull

Image: All Canada Photos/Alamy

Image: All Canada Photos/Alamy


September is the month of high winds, gales from the Atlantic, often associated with the end of the hurricane season on the other side of the ocean. One spin-off from these high winds is the displacement of birds from the open sea to the inshore area or even the land. One such bird of the pelagic area is the Sabine’s Gull, one of the most sea-faring of ‘sea gulls’. They are lovely little gulls, half way in size between a Kittiwake and a Little Gull, with distinctively patterned wings (divided into ‘triangles’ of colour), and with a shallowly forked tail. Adults in breeding plumage have grey heads and distinctive yellow tipped dark bills. Juveniles have brown backs and forewings and black tips to the tail.

Barred Warbler

Image: Robin Chittenden/Alamy

Image: Robin Chittenden/Alamy

One of the most skulking members of a genus (Sylvia) which has some pretty shy members (think Lesser Whitethroat or Dartford Warbler), the Barred Warbler is often a very tough bird to see. They are also pretty scarce (borderline rare) passage migrants, which makes it even harder to see them! And don’t expect to see a well marked, beautifully barred adult, as just about all passage Barred Warblers which turn up in the UK are ‘this year’s birds’ (juveniles/first-winters). These look like big, robust, chunky, thick-billed Garden Warblers, with crescents of brown on the undertail coverts, a scaly rump and a couple of buffy wing bars.








Five birds to find in August

August is a time of wandering juveniles and returning passage. There will be adult waders coming back in their summer plumage, plus the first wave of juvenile waders. Seabirds will be raising the last of their youngsters and chats, warblers and flycatchers will be on the move. Here are five species to catch up with this month.

Sedge Warbler

Toby Houlton/Alamy

Toby Houlton/Alamy

The abundant Sedge Warbler is one of the easier Acrocephalus warblers to identify, being also one of the few streaked warblers we have in the UK. The key feature is the bold, broad, pale supercilium (‘eyebrow’), which is usually the first feature you see on a Sedge Warbler, even in a fleeting view. They are birds of reedbeds and other damp habitats, though will also appear in bushy areas and even visit gardens and garden ponds at this time of year, when especially juveniles start to wander from the nest area. These are the things that strike you, even if looking at a flying bird, before you notice the outrageous bill.

Puffin

Dan Mold

Dan Mold

Even in August, it is still possible to see Puffins around the clifftop nesting colonies, or on the nearby sea. Later in the year, they will head out to sea and become ‘rarely seen’ until next spring. So, see them while you still can. They are, of course, unmistakable, but to help you pick one out, look for a small auk with a pale face, for starters.

Gannet

Christina Bollen / Alamy

Christina Bollen / Alamy

Like Puffins, many Gannets will also be about at or near the colony in August. The youngsters, though, will be growing up, and the first juveniles will be on the wing. Juvenile Gannets are surprisingly handsome birds. From a distance they look uniformly grey, but closer, you will see neat rows of pale spots on the body and wings. As regards adults, they are pretty unmistakable, being much larger than other seabirds and even at huge range, their gleaming white plumage and large size stands out. Watching Gannets plunging for fish is one of the great spectacles of British birdwatching.

Hobby

FLPA / Alamy

FLPA / Alamy

King of the falcons in summer, the Hobby is almost exclusively an aerial feeder, specialising in picking off flying insects, but not averse to pursuing hirundines and Swifts which share its airspace. Hobbies look a little like small, slim Peregrines, but are much slimmer and relatively longer winged, giving them a famous ‘Swift-like’ appearance. At this time of year, summer’s dragonflies are reaching their peak numbers and, naturally, Hobbies treat this as boom time! They will even continue the aerial hunt to well after sundown. Despite the general decline in insect numbers in recent decades, Hobbies are flourishing, and there are now nearly 3,000 pairs in the UK, breeding across the southern half of the country, but largely absent from Scotland and the far west of England and Wales, and from Ireland.

Black Tern

AGAMI Photo Agency/Alamy

AGAMI Photo Agency/Alamy

Into early autumn, there is a return passage of Black Terns, along the coast but also at inland sites, dominated by juvenile birds. Juvenile Black Terns look quite different from breeding adults. The underparts are white, and the upperparts grey, including the wings and tail, with a scaly brown ‘saddle’ on the mantle. There is a black patch on the crown and behind the eye and another one (a ‘shoulder patch’) just in front of the wing, onto the flanks of the upper breast.

Five birds to find in July

July is here and, with a little luck, there will be some warm weather to go with the long days and short nights. Here are five species which it would be great to see on one of these lovely summer’s days.

Dotterel

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

There are only up to 750 pairs of these colourful plovers nesting in the UK, on high mountains in Scotland. They are famously confiding, but nonetheless vulnerable to disturbance on the breeding grounds. They are also famous for having reversed behavioural roles for gender compared to almost all other birds. After the brighter females lay their eggs, it is the duller males’ role to tend to the eggs and rear the chicks.

Dipper


Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

The ‘official’ population numbers for the Dipper in the UK are slightly bizarre. There are between 6,000 and 18,700 pairs in the UK. That is a huge variance, which presumably reflects the unusual habitat of these delightful birds. Dippers are birds of shallow, fast-flowing streams and rivers, which are not the easiest places to survey (especially when they are halfway up a mountain). They are the only British passerine which readily dives underwater in search of food, swimming as well as clinging to the bottom with strong clawed feet. They do this to seek out little invertebrates, as well as small fish. Famously rotund, a Dipper looks like a giant, cock-tailed, black Wren with a white throat and breast, bobbing on a mid-stream boulder or whizzing over the water on short, whirring wings. Brilliant birds!

Wood Sandpiper

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

Tiny numbers of Wood Sandpipers breed in the Scottish Highlands. But this handsome and delicate Tringa sandpiper is much more well known as a passage bird. They are seen on the way north in May, then birds start returning south again in July into August and early autumn (when juveniles dominate the passage population). Slightly smaller than a Green Sandpiper and more lightly built with longer legs, they are also paler and have a distinctive pale supercilium (‘eyebrow’). Wood Sandpipers are freshwater waders.

White-tailed Eagle

Papilio/Alamy

Papilio/Alamy

The king of British birds of prey is even bigger and arguably more majestic even than the Golden Eagle. These are the flying barn doors of the raptor world, with huge square wings and a short, wedge-shaped tail (white on adults). The 100 or so pairs in the Scottish Highlands and western islands are descendants of reintroduced birds, released some 40 years ago.

Broad-billed Sandpiper

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

Remo Savisaar/Alamy

Many of our rare waders are North American breeders which stray over here. The Broad-billed Sandpiper is unusual in that it is a northern European (and Siberian) breeder, with a south-easterly migration route, finding its way through the UK only rarely (a few per year), with a more or less regular late July passage occurring. They are little (slightly smaller than a Dunlin), dumpy, calidrid-looking waders, with dark plumage and longish bill with a down kink at the tip. The pale supercilium is notably ‘split’ into two.

Five birds to find in June

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.

Black Guillemot

Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy

Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy

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.

Chough

Green Planet Photography/Alamy

Green Planet Photography/Alamy

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.

Marsh Warbler

Victor Tyakht/Alamy

Victor Tyakht/Alamy

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.

Arctic Skua

All Canada Photos/Alamy

All Canada Photos/Alamy

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.

Wood Lark

Buiten-Beeld/Alamy

Buiten-Beeld/Alamy

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.











Five birds to find in May

And so May is here, the finest birding month of the year. Most of our summer birds are back with us, the dawn chorus is at its maximum; many of our winter and passage birds are still here or passing through; and there will be rare birds turning up in the country. Enjoy May, and see if you can see these five great little birds.


Spotted Flycatcher

Victor Tyakht/Alamy

Victor Tyakht/Alamy

Subtle, unobtrusive and declining in population at an alarming rate, the Spotted Flycatcher is an easy bird to overlook; toned down in plumage, but at the same time lovely to watch. Though a bird which will sit upright and still for quite long periods, it is at its best when swooping gracefully off its perch to catch a flying insect, then sweeping back to the same perch. They are found in a variety of wooded habitats, from mature woods with open glades, to cemeteries. Note that Spotted Flycatchers are often among the latest of spring arrivals, and may not be present until later in the month.

Crested Tit

David Sewell/Alamy

David Sewell/Alamy

No, you don’t have to wait until May to see a Crested Tit; they aren’t going anywhere. But why not take the opportunity to visit their only breeding area, in the pine forests of the Highlands of Scotland during the month? You can do a lot worse than looking for these wonderful little tits, while enjoying the riches the region has to offer.

Cirl Bunting

Simon Knight/Alamy

Simon Knight/Alamy

Our entire Cirl Bunting population is restricted to southern Devon and Cornwall (where they have recently established after reintroduction). They are similar in some ways to Yellowhammers, but males in particular have very striking face patterns, and greenish, not chestnut, rumps. Cirl Bunting songs are a bit like those of the Lesser Whitethroat, resembling the rattle at the start of a Yellowhammer song but without the wheezy ‘no cheese’ part.

Red-rumped Swallow

George Reszeter/Alamy

George Reszeter/Alamy

A rare but regular visitor in spring in small numbers, the Red-rumped Swallow is a southern breeder in Europe, which may sometimes migrate a bit far and reach the UK. Red-rumped Swallows are usually found in typical hirundine feeding habitat, which often means over open water, particularly when there is cloud cover, which tends to mean swallows, martins and Swifts skimming low over water bodies, gathering newly emerged flying insects. Look for the pale rump and nape and for the lovely, elegant gliding flight style of Red-rumped Swallow, subtly different from that of a (Barn) Swallow.

Grasshopper Warbler

David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

May is one of the best times to listen for (and to) the strange, insect-like ‘reeling’ song of the Grasshopper Warbler. They most frequently sing in the crepuscular hours of dusk and dawn, but will also sing during the dead of night and the middle of the day. Grasshopper Warblers are shy and often hidden and hard to see. They like areas of tangled wild roses or brambles or similar scrubby bushes or rank vegetation; or they may sing from reedbeds. Beware: the song is so high-pitched that you need a good range of hearing to be able to hear it at all!



Five birds to find in April

April is one of the great months of the birdwatching calendar. Many of our summer visitors start to arrive in numbers and the dawn chorus swells in volume and diversity. It is also a key month for catching up with passage birds such as chats, terns and waders. Here are five birds to look for this month.


House Martin

Alan Williams/Alamy

Alan Williams/Alamy

Usually the latest of our three swallow species to arrive, the House Martin is not a difficult bird to pick out or identify. Their most distinctive characteristic is the white rump, which is diagnostic. This contrasts with the very dark blue (often looking black) wings, back, head and tail. The underparts are mostly pure white. House Martins, like other swallows, catch insects in mid-air (often very high), but are also famed for their muddy nests under the eaves of lucky houses. So, they can be seen on the ground gathering wet mud from suitable places, as well as at the nest colony.

Cuckoo

Calum Dickson/Alamy

Calum Dickson/Alamy

They say that if you hear a Cuckoo in the first week of April you are very lucky and that if you haven’t heard one by the end of April, you aren’t trying hard enough! The most beloved and well-known of all bird songs is usually the first indication that Cuckoos are back from Africa; but it is a sound less frequently heard these days. Only males ‘cuckoo’, usually from a high perch on a tree, bush, telegraph wire or post. Females have a lovely, slightly weird ‘bubbling’ call. Females and males look quite similar, but there is also a much less common red or ‘hepatic’ morph of females only, where the plumage has a lovely rufous tone, as well as extensive barring on the upperparts.

White Wagtail

imageBROKER/Alamy

imageBROKER/Alamy

April is one of the best months for looking for White Wagtails, the continental subspecies of our familiar Pied Wagtail. Unlike our black-and-white or dark-grey-and-white birds, White Wagtails have neat pale grey backs, contrasting with the black crown (and nape of the male). These continental birds also tend to have cleaner looking flanks. Look for them where you may expect to find plentiful Pied Wagtails, such as gravel pit edges etc.

Ring Ouzel

FLPA/Alamy

FLPA/Alamy

The wild, mountain equivalent of the Blackbird, the Ring Ouzel is a migrant species, which arrives back in the UK in April. It is one of those birds which are treasured patch finds by inland birders; often turning up in favoured fields or hilltops on passage year on year. Ring Ouzels like short-cropped fields which are large enough to keep them well away from human disturbance. They also like some trees, bushes or a hedge to flee into at the first sign of disturbance. They are similar to Blackbirds, but with a distinctive breast gorget (white or pale buff), ‘scaly’ plumage and silvery wings (especially males). They are very shy, so don’t go blundering in, when you check out suitable habitat!

Firecrest

Tierfotoagentur/Alamy

Tierfotoagentur/Alamy

The Firecrest is a bird undergoing a quiet revolution in the UK. Sneakily, they are colonising from the south and east and now there are comfortably more than 700 pairs in the country; and some estimates put the number at more than 1,000 pairs. There are estimated to be about 100 pairs in Thetford Forest in Norfolk, for instance. April is a good month to catch up with one on the move, perhaps giving itself away with a snatch of its accelerating, high-pitched song. Firecrests are very similar to Goldcrests, but have a distinctive face pattern (with a dark eyestripe and pale supercilium), generally brighter more contrasting plumage and often a golden wash to the ‘shoulders’. Lovely little birds!

Five birds to find in March

March is the first month of spring, and the month when the first wave of spring migrants comes into the UK. It is very much a transitional month; still cold and largely leafless, with wintering birds starting to return to northern breeding grounds. The woodlands are dominated by the songs of Great Tits and the early courtship/nesting activities of our resident birds. Here are five birds to enjoy during the month.


Marsh Harrier

FLPA/Alamy

FLPA/Alamy

There was a time, not so long ago, when Marsh Harriers would be very tricky to encounter in midwinter. In this age of climate change, though, they regularly spend the whole winter in the country. March is one of the best months for witnessing the incredible skydancing display. You may first become aware of it, when you hear some weird yelping calls coming from above in the early hours of daylight. You look up and strain your eyes, and you may see, high above, a dancing Marsh Harrier, usually a male: with slow-mo rowing wingbeats, throwing itself into crazy dives and vertical recoveries. It is one of the great joys of spring!


Greenfinch

Ron McCombe/Alamy

Ron McCombe/Alamy

A resident finch, the much-declined Greenfinch is still a very common bird around the country, despite recent outbreaks of trichomonosis. Look for the butterfly-like display flight in spring, accompanied with the pleasing twittering song.


Sandwich Tern

Mike Lane/Alamy

Mike Lane/Alamy

One of the earliest returning ‘summer’ visitors, the first Sandwich Terns start appearing along the south coast as early as January. But March is the traditional month for birds passing through, heading north to their breeding grounds. Mostly seen on the coast, but several pass overland, turning up at lakes and gravel pits far inland, if only briefly.


Great Crested Grebe

FLPA/Alamy

FLPA/Alamy

Almost as soon as Great Crested Grebes start to grow the facial plumes of their breeding plumage, they can be seen doing their famous courtship ‘dances’. The male and female mimic each other’s movements while facing each other in the water, with little mock preens and head shakes and even simultaneous diving, perhaps to come up with weed and a bit of weed- or penguin-dancing.


Little Gull

LittleGullDC9C2P.jpg

Gulls are much maligned birds; dismissed as all looking the same and being rubbish-tip-loving, chip-stealing, noisy, ugly birds. None of these accusations could be applied to the lovely Little Gull. It is tiny, looking half the size of even a Black-headed Gull, and more like a marsh tern than a typical gull. They behave like marsh terns, too, floating gracefully over water, and sweeping down to pick morsels from the surface. Adults are like minuscule Mediterranean Gulls, with dark underwings and a tern-like black bill. First-winters resemble small first-winter Kittiwakes. Second-winters are like adults but with a few black spots in the upper primaries.

Five birds to find in February

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.

Bittern

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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 Lark

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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.

Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Long-tailed Tit

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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

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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.

Pic: imageBROKER/Alamy

Raven

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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

Five birds to find in January

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

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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.

Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Twite

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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

Snow Bunting

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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

Smew

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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

Barnacle Goose

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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











Five birds to find in December

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.

Goldeneye

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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

Hawfinch

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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.

Pic: imageBROKER/Alamy

Chiffchaff

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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

Hen Harrier

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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

Knot

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













Five birds to find in November

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.

Sanderling

Kevin Elsby/Alamy

Kevin Elsby/Alamy

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 Goose

tbkmedia.de/Alamy

tbkmedia.de/Alamy

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.

Water Rail

Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

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.

Teal

David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

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.

Spotted Redshank

Saverio Gatto/Alamy

Saverio Gatto/Alamy

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).






Five birds to find in October

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.

Yellow-browed Warbler

INSADCO Photography/Alamy

INSADCO Photography/Alamy

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

Duncan Usher/Alamy

Duncan Usher/Alamy

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

Simon Stirrup / Alamy

Simon Stirrup / Alamy

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.

Siskin

imageBROKER/Alamy

imageBROKER/Alamy

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.

Osprey

Brian Kushner/Alamy

Brian Kushner/Alamy

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.
















Five birds to find in September

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?

Little Stint

Emil Enchev/Alamy

Emil Enchev/Alamy

 

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.

Sooty Shearwater

Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

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’.

Wryneck

Kit Day/Alamy

Kit Day/Alamy

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).

Red-breasted Flycatcher

WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy

WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy

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.

Juvenile Bullfinch

blickwinkel/Alamy

blickwinkel/Alamy

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.

Five birds to find in August

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.

Whinchat

FLPA / Alamy

FLPA / Alamy

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.

Osprey

Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy

Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy

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.

Greenshank

Buiten-Beeld / Alamy

Buiten-Beeld / Alamy

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.

Pied Flycatcher

FLPA / Alamy

FLPA / Alamy

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.

Sparrowhawk

Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy

Nature Photographers Ltd / Alamy

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.

 

 

Five birds to find in July

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.

Broad-billed Sandpiper

Mike Lane / Alamy

Mike Lane / Alamy

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.

Spotted Flycatcher

FLPA / Alamy

FLPA / Alamy

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.

Wood Sandpiper

Mike Lane / Alamy

Mike Lane / Alamy

 

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.

Barn Owl

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

 

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.

Juvenile Cuckoo

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

 

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).

Five birds to find in June

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.

Black Guillemot

Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy

Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy

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.

Chough

Green Planet Photography/Alamy

Green Planet Photography/Alamy

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.

Marsh Warbler

Victor Tyajkt/Alamy

Victor Tyajkt/Alamy

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. 

Arctic Skua

All Canada Photos/Alamy

All Canada Photos/Alamy

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.

Wood Lark

Buiten-Beeld/Alamy

Buiten-Beeld/Alamy

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.

Five birds to find in May

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.

Black Tern

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

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.

Red-rumped Swallow

GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy

GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy

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.

Cuckoo

Calum Dickson / Alamy

Calum Dickson / Alamy

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.

Knot

Gregory Gard / Alamy

Gregory Gard / Alamy

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.

Puffin

David Tipling Photo Library / Alamy

David Tipling Photo Library / Alamy

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!

 

Five birds to find in April

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.

Reed Bunting

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

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.

Sedge Warbler

Pic: David Tipling/Alamy

Pic: David Tipling/Alamy

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.

Dotterel

Pic: Nigel Blake/Alamy

Pic: Nigel Blake/Alamy

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.

Redstart

Pic: Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

Pic: Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

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.

Black-winged Stilt

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

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.