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.