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.