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’.