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.