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.
Migration is in full swing and May is a time when rare birds go off course and come over here. Add the rush of bird song, the dawn chorus, the spring flowering and the warming of the weather, and this is a brilliant time to be out and about watching birds. Here are five birds to look for and enjoy during May.
Reed Bunting (above)
So much smarter than a ‘sexy sparrow’, the male Reed Bunting is a truly handsome bird, with
a neatly defined black head and bib, white moustachial stripe and collar and neatly striped upperparts. Females are more sparrow-like. Reed Buntings are well named, as they do spend a lot of time in reedbeds, particularly in the breeding season. Males may sing their simple song from a reed stem or a bush near their damp habitat.
This tiny, creeping calidrid looks like a mini Common Sandpiper, combining rather uninspiring colours with their dull greenish-yellow legs and a crouching stance and gait. Temminck’s Stints are always very scarce birds in the UK, mainly found at freshwater sites, creeping along the edge of shallow lagoons and gravel pits.
The song of the male Cuckoo is one of the most well-known bird sounds, yet few non-birders ever see the bird itself. Though very widely distributed across the whole of the UK, Cuckoos are not common birds (fewer than 20,000 pairs) and are painfully shy. They are most frequently seen by tracing the origin of the song of the male, which frequently sings from the top of a tree or bush or even a telephone wire. Females don’t make the ‘cuckoo’ song, but instead have a pleasing, excited bubbling call. Both sexes are quite similar, looking like a mix between
a slim dove and a falcon.
In North America, this wader is known by the much less demeaning name of Black-bellied Plover, and at this time of year, you get to see why. They are spectacular looking birds in full breeding plumage, combining spangled upper parts and jet black underparts. Though very much coastal birds, they will also cross the country, turning up at suitable inland sites.
Classically described as looking like a little clockwork toy running along the line where the smallest waves kiss the sandy shore, the Sanderling is a charming little wader. In spring, they sometimes wander inland, and if not inland patch-workers’ gold, are at least on the podium. They are particularly attractive as they attain their full spring breeding colours, when there are rich rufous tones, unlike the ghostly pale winter garb.
April is the month when the bulk spring migration really gets going after the pioneering hardy movers of March. Waders, terns, chats, hirundines and warblers lead the charge. Many arrive while our winterers are still present, making this month of change an exciting time to build a great day list.
The world’s smallest gull is a far cry from the vulgar beasts who live at the municipal dump or who steal your chips at the seaside. It is a neat and delicate beauty, more like a marsh tern than a larger gull, at least in its behaviour, but also in size. In the spring they pass along our coasts and may cross over land, turning up to pick emerging insects from still water bodies in a buoyant, elegant, swooping flight. Adults have clean upperwings, without any black, and dark underwings. First-winters have a Kittiwake-like W pattern on the upperwings, and second-winters have an adult-like plumage with small black dots in the wing tips.
A relative of the Reed Warbler, the Sedge Warbler also has a preference for waterside vegetation, including reedbeds. It is one of the earliest warblers to arrive and on arrival delivers its rambling, over virtuoso chattering, whistling, warbling song.
Sedge Warblers are one of the few warblers to habitually perform a song-flight (the other common one being the Whitethroat). So, any little brown singing warbler rising and parachuting from a reedbed is very likely to be a Sedge Warbler. They are easily identified if seen well, by the bold white (or off white) supercilium (‘eyebrow’) and the streaked upperparts.
So much more than a black-and-white mountain blackbird, the Ring Ouzel is a wild, untamed, very shy free spirit, which shuns the way of man. This only goes to enhance its beauty, as it can be tough to get a glimpse of its delicately scaled plumage and silver-lined wings when it can spend an eternity hiding in a bush or fly off at the first sign of human intrusion. Ouzels pass through the country during April, and love short-cropped grass with a bit of cover to hide in, often favouring higher ground, even on passage.
April is the month when a large proportion of our breeding Yellow Wagtails return to the UK. Look carefully at any Yellow Wagtails you encounter this month, as there may be a sneaky Blue-headed Wagtail there. These are scarce wanderers from the continental breeding population. Males have lovely blue heads with a clear white supercilium (‘eyebrow’). The throat is yellow on the purest birds (intergrades occur between the various subspecies of Yellow Wagtail).
The oddly-named Spotted Redshank is a pale grey and white bird in winter and almost all black in the breeding season. It is possible to see birds of both colours in April and everything in between. They are at their best in their black breeding finery, when at the peak, even the normally red legs go black! Spotted Redshanks are slightly larger, slimmer and more elegant than Redshanks, with a finer, straight-to-very-slightly downcurved bill, and no white trailing edge to the wings. They announce their presence (or your presence as they flush), with a distinctive loud shout of ‘chewit’.
We have a fine crop of ‘summer’ bird visitors which come to the UK to breed. Most arrive during the spring, but relatively few turn up as early as March. Here are five of our early arrivers. How many of these harbingers of spring will you see?
Nearly always the first of our returning hirundines, the Sand Martin chances its arm that there will be flying insects around from March onwards (often staying until October). Sand Martins are usually first seen over water (where insects emerge), and soon head off to find suitable nest sites (these being banks of sand which they can tunnel out to make their breeding colonies). Brown-and-white Sand Martins are our smallest swallows. They are easily told from House Martins by their brown colour, breast band and lack of white rump, and from Swallows by their colour and much shorter forked tail, as well as their smaller size.
Little Ringed Plover
Since first breeding in the UK just before WWII, Little Ringed Plovers have flourished and spread, favouring gravel pits and similar rough semi-industrial inland habitats. There are now more than 1,000 pairs in the UK (mainly England and south Wales). LRPs are slimmer and more attenuated, than their chunky cousins, Ringed Plovers; with a more ‘falcon-like’ flight profile. They lack the Ringed Plover’s white wingbar and don’t have their bright orange bare parts. They do have a distinctive fine yellow eye-ring.
Generally, Sandwich Terns are the first of our terns to appear in the spring (from late March). These are big, pale, front-heavy terns with black bills (yellow tipped on close inspection). One of the giveaways that Sandwich Terns are around is their loud rasping ‘kirrrick’ calls. Like most of the Sterna terns, these are predominantly coastal birds, but they will pass over the country and can turn up at inland sites in the spring.
This elegant chat is a classic March bird in the UK, passing through the southern half of the country on its way north and west to the breeding grounds. These early birds are usually of the slightly smaller, paler-breasted subspecies, which includes our British breeding population. Later in the spring, larger, buff-infused Greenland-nesting birds will move through the country on their way north and west.
Wheatears are particular in their habitat requirements and have an amazing ability to pick out suitable areas of very short-cropped grass (for example grazed by Rabbits or livestock), appearing on-site in the very early morning. So, good Wheatear areas often get repeat visits in subsequent years. Males have the striking pale blue back and black mask and wings. Females are browner; but both sexes have the striking white rump and black-and-white tail.
Don’t listen to what tradition tells you, spring really begins the day you first hear a singing Chiffchaff. If this is not until April, then you should probably get out more! The second half of March sees the first wave of male Chiffchaffs proclaiming their new-found territories, and advertising for potential mates. The song is simple, hardly the most outstanding melody or tone, yet somehow one of the most evocative sounds of the season.
Often the coldest month of the year for many of us, February is a time for catching the odd bird drawn inland by the freeze. But it is also a good time to enjoy the last real month of winter, when the leaves are yet to burst forth and start to mask the woodland favourites from view. Wrap up warm and get out there!
Over most of England and Wales, the Marsh Tit is the commoner of the two very similar brown tit species. Like the Willow Tit, though, they are also in decline. A woodland (rather than marshland) bird, Marsh Tits are best told from Willow Tits by their vocalisations, particularly the distinctive ‘piTCHOO’ call. Beware though, as Great Tits can do a very good impression.
The Wigeon is a dabbling duck, which can spend a lot of time out of water, grazing like a goose, on short vegetation. Nearly half a million winter in the UK. Males have an unmistakable combination of grey body, pink breast, brick red head with creamy orange forehead and brow, and a white forewing (particularly obvious in flight). Females are duller, but share the steep forehead and relatively small bill, giving Wigeons a ‘cute’ head shape. The male’s pleasant whistled ‘wheeooo’ is one of the most distinctive and evocative wildfowl sounds.
If ever there was a bird which destroyed the myth that ducks are dull, it is the handsome Goosander. These are big, streamlined birds with the elegant lines of a speedboat rather than the dumpy row boat of the duck pond Mallard. Males are outstanding, flushed with salmon pink with a dark bottle-green head and brilliant red bill, which is narrow, long and hooked. Females aren’t too shabby either, sharing the same lines as the male, but with a more generous crest in red-brown, and a grey body. Of our two larger merganser species, the Goosander is much more at home in freshwater habitats and can be found on fish-rich rivers and lakes in winter.
Iceland Gulls breed in the far north, in Greenland and northern Canada, though not in Iceland. Along with Glaucous Gulls, they are the two ‘white wingers’ so sought-after by British gull-watchers. They appear largely in mid-winter in small numbers (a few hundred birds), popping up at the coast or any inland site where larger gulls gather (mainly roosting lakes and rubbish dumps). Most of the birds we see are juveniles (first-winters), with ghostly white, pale-eyed second-winters occurring in slightly lesser numbers. Iceland Gulls are the smaller of the white-wingers, smaller than most Herring Gulls, and longer winged, with a relatively delicate bill, giving them ‘gentle’ facial expression, reminiscent of a Common Gull more than a Herring Gull.
This small, exotic Asiatic pheasant is an established introduced species, now quite rare in the UK, with only up to 100 pairs, centred around isolated populations in East Anglia, the New Forest, North Wales and south-west Scotland. They live in dense woodland and are tough birds to see, as like many Asian pheasants they are very shy. A strategy of looking for them at woodland edges at the first hint of light can pay off.
Mid-winter sees the trees cleared of the last leaves, revealing seed-rich catkins and, with luck, flocks of tiny finches hanging from them. Now is a great time to look for wintering finches and help boost your #My200BirdYear bird sightings at the start of the year! These four are just a small sample of the riches on offer this month. How many can you see?
The Crossbill is an unusual finch in more ways than one. Even ignoring the uniquely crossed bill, it is also a bird which nests very early in the year. Indeed, juveniles may appear before many species have even settled down to nest.
Crossbills are tied to coniferous woodland, and can be found in family groups or larger associations, feeding quietly on cones. Bits of cone dropping to the forest floor are often the first indication they are around, as they can feed remarkably quietly for such a large, chunky finch. Once on the move, though, they are noisy birds, giving loud, distinctive ‘chup chup’ flight calls. Only adults males are gorgeous shades of brick red, while females are green and juveniles streaky brown.
Even smaller than a Lesser Redpoll, and with a shorter tail, the cute little Siskin can often form mixed flocks with its brown cousin to feast on Birch and Alder seeds. Males are very distinctive, with bright yellows and greens played again a black crown and bib and a black streaked white belly. Females are plainer but a greenish yellow wash and yellow wing bars should help identify them.
The main British ‘species’ (formerly subspecies) of redpoll is also the smallest and most brown. It is roughly the size of a Blue Tit and utilises this to dangle tit-like from Birch or Alder catkins. Note the red forehead (poll) and the black bib.
Adult males have more pink/red, especially on the breast. In all plumages, the wing bars are suffused with buff, not pure white as with the larger Mealy or Arctic Redpolls. If there is any yellow or green in the plumage then the chances are it is not a Lesser Redpoll, but more likely a Siskin.
Closely related to the Chaffinch, these wheezing northerners come from the continent and Scandinavia in the autumn and winter in variable numbers. In a good year, there are more than a million in the country.
Though similar in shape and general pattern to the Chaffinch, these beauties are liberally painted in orange (especially on the shoulders and breast, but also on the wing bars) with a white rump and buff-tipped black heads. They are essentially woodland birds, with a preference for Beech woods, but will also join mixed finch and bunting flocks on agricultural fields and may come to garden feeders.
The mighty Hawfinch is now a pretty scarce bird in the UK. It is also a very elusive bird, going about its business in a very unobtrusive way, often quietly shuffling around in leaf litter, which perfectly matches its rich autumnal hues.
So, they are easiest to see in flight or perched high in a tree towards dusk when they gather at favoured, often traditional, sites to roost. Seen well, the Hawfinch is an unmistakable finch, not least because of its huge bill on an oversized head.
Of course we all know that owls are birds of the night. But a few of our five regular species can be seen readily in the daylight hours, during the winter months.
Though Tawny Owls (our predominant woodland species) are almost exclusively nocturnal, and the scarce Long-eared Owl is usually only seen perched at roost in wintertime, Barn Owls, Short-eared Owls and Little Owls are often active during the day.
Little Owls are most frequently seen around their roost and nest sites, which tend to be gnarly old trees with large holes, or around farm buildings, quarries, along fence lines etc.
Barn Owls are generally crepuscular in habits, but will, if the feeding is good, often come out during the day to hunt small mammals across rough grassland and along ditches.
Perhaps the most prominently diurnal owl is the Short-eared Owl. These long-winged birds have a buoyant flight style which is a delight to watch as they quarter, harrier-style over rough ground in search of voles etc.
For most owl-watching you are best-off visiting open rough grassland, coastal marshes and wetlands a couple of hours before sunset. Sometimes Short-eared Owls will only come out to hunt when the sun is low and on occasions the window will be narrow when you can watch them before they vanish into the murk of dusk.
Get wrapped up in raptors this festive season – how many can you find near you?
December is a month of finch flocks, Snow Buntings and Twite on the beach, great flocks of wintering geese, ducks and swans. It is also a wonderful time to look for birds of prey. Whether they are hunting or coming in to roost, or indeed roosting, or even just resting between meals, birds of prey are simply wonderful to watch. And now is perhaps the best time to see them in action. Just remember to wrap up warm!
Unlike the Short-eared Owl, the closely related Long-eared Owl is not often seen flying during the daylight hours. Your best bet for seeing one of these handsome owls at this time of year is to visit a known roosting site where you can watch the birds snoozing and perhaps occasionally opening an eye, often deep within the protective cover of a Hawthorn, or similar dense bush. Birds may roost communally and you could see several at once at some sites. Long-eared Owls are very vulnerable to disturbance, so only visit sites where you can watch the owls at a respectful distance where you will no cause disturbance.
Arguably our most beautiful bird of prey, the male Hen Harrier has a ghostly pallidity which seems to illuminate the frozen winter landscape with a cold light. Pale grey with jet black wing tips and white rump, it is almost unmistakable. Females and younger birds (known as ringtails), are brown and streaked with long barred tails and an obvious white rump. Hen Harriers quarter low over rough grassland on wings held in a shallow V, looking for voles or other small mammals.
A threatened breeder in the northern and western uplands, which comes to the south and east in the autumn and winter.
One of the greatest raptor success stories of recent decades, the Buzzard is now the most numerous diurnal bird of prey in the UK, overtaking the Kestrel. The population has spread from strongholds in the west to now cover just about the whole of the country. Buzzards are the largest birds of prey most of us encounter, being solid chunky units with broad fingered wings. They can be seen gliding on wings held in a shallow V, sitting on fence posts or trees and even scrabbling for worms in open fields. This is a must-see bird this month (and every month).
A flying Peregrine is a vision of pure power in motion. With long, deep-based pointed wings and a shortish tail, the blue-grey adult is a magnificent, muscular looking bird, which rules the skies with an arrogant stylish swagger. Like the Buzzard, this is a bird which has expanded its range in recent years and has embraced cities as rocky canyon breeding sites, with plenty of pigeon food. But they are also birds of wild open country, where waders and ducks are often the target species.
One of the great winter experiences is watching Starlings in collective pre-roost manoeuvres. Roosting birds favour reedbeds or bushes or buildings or any site where they can huddle together and feel safe for the night.
If you have an idea where to watch from, your best bet is to arrive at the site an hour or so before sunset. You may see individuals or small flocks arrive first, and as the sun drops, more birds will arrive and mingle in with the flock, which constantly morphs, wheels and moves around gathering numbers and seemingly jostling for position until the critical time to roost arrives.
Will one of these autumnal treats turn up on your patch this month?
The bulk of the autumn’s migration rush is through. But there is still plenty of movement and action in November. Wintering birds are settling in and there are still some dribs and drabs of returning migrants and off course waifs. Here are four birds to enjoy this month. See if you can bag the lot.
Never very common, this elegant wader is largely a passage bird through the UK, mainly at coastal sites, with perhaps 500 or so passing through. Some also winter at favoured sites. It is larger and slimmer than the Redshank, with a longer, finer bill with just a hint of a down curve and red only on the base of the lower mandible. The wings lack the white trailing edge of Redshank, but there is a clear white rump forming an ‘oval’ on the back. Winter birds are very pale grey with a prominent supercilium. Spotted Redshanks are often inclined to wade quite deep on their long legs. The call is a very distinctive ‘chewit’.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
A very scarce, bordering on rare, visitor from the east, the tiny Pallas’s Leaf Warbler is only a little larger than a Goldcrest. Similar to the Yellow-browed Warbler (which usually peaks in the previous month), the Pallas’s is even stripier, with a bright yellow supercilium, bold crown stripe and a yellow rump. The latter feature can be seen while the bird undergoes one of its Goldcrest-style hovers, in search of tiny invertebrate morsels.
Great Northern Diver
All divers are the sort of charismatic birds we all love to see and the Great Northern is a big one as well! In breeding plumage, they are unbelievable, but by November, most will be winter birds or juveniles, with fundamentally black and white plumage. The bill is big and heavy, the crown often looks bumpy and there is a ghost of the neck band to help distinguish smaller birds from often similar-looking winter Black-throated Divers. A few thousand winter every year off the UK’s coasts, particularly in the north. A handful also stray inland, particularly to big inland sea-like lakes, such as Rutland Water or the London reservoirs.
A rare breeding bird in the Scottish Highlands, the Slavonian Grebe is also a scarce winterer around our coasts, with just more than 1,000 birds around the coast, though some areas, such as the Moray Firth or parts of the Sussex coast, have more than their fair share. Very scarce inland. In winter, this small grebe is black and white (losing the spectacular orange plumes of summer), with some similarity to the scarce Black-necked Grebe but with a straighter, pale tipped bill, less black on the cheeks and a flatter crown. Even in this plumage, though is remains a very beautiful bird.