It is one of those bits of unspoken knowledge that most non-birdwatchers don’t grasp: every month sees birds on the move. Yes, spring and autumn provide the most obvious changes and most notable migration, but even in mid-winter months, like December, birds will be coming and going. It may be cold weather movements, after feeding (and living) becomes very tough on the frozen continent, and our mild island climate becomes a better option. Or it may be other factors. But there are always birds arriving and departing. Whether they are newcomers or not, here are five species to look for this month.
The Goldeneye is one of those charming little duck species which everyone has affection for. There is a tiny breeding population of a couple of hundred pairs (in Scotland), but the Goldeneye is mainly a wintering bird, with some 22,000 in the UK at the moment. Males have black (glossy green) heads with a white blob near the bill and white stripes on the black back. Females are brown and grey. Both have a distinctive shape. Even in December, you will often see drakes throwing their heads back and squirting out a weird little call in quirky courtship display.
Pic: All Canada Photos/Alamy
October 2017 saw an exceptional influx of Hawfinches into the country, first picked up by ‘vis mig’ watches, mid-month. Indeed, in addition to individual birds seen heading west over Midland counties, there have been flocks of up to 40 birds seen. For a species which has in recent years become so scarce, these are exceptional numbers, revealing a genuine ‘irruption’. Although distinctive (huge, with a massive head and bill and a very obvious white wing panel), they can be painfully shy and highly elusive, blending with ease into backgrounds of dead leaves.
Although certainly a bird you will have encountered in the spring and summer, an increasing number of Chiffchaffs winter in the UK (especially in the south of the country), and it is always a pleasure to catch up with one during the ‘festive season’. They hang out in mature woods, sometimes joining tit flocks, but also favour warm, insect-rich micro-climates, such as sun traps along hedge lines, old sewage works and the like.
Pic: Sandra Standbridge/Alamy
Contrary to what you may think (in the light of the publicity about their shameful, terrible persecution) the Hen Harrier is actually our most common harrier. Sure, if you hang out in, for instance, the fens of the east of the country, you may think Marsh Harriers are the normal harrier. But, across the country, there are in fact more Hen Harriers. Many leave the moorlands and head downhill and scatter over low-lying marshes and open country for the winter. Females and youngsters are called ringtails (brown with a white rump and barred tail), while adult males are exceptionally handsome raptors in pale grey, black and white. Lovely!
Pic: Aflo Co. Ltd./Alamy
Although a great looking bird in its own right, especially in the brick red of breeding plumage, Knots are one of those species that blow the mind as a collective. Like the swirling murmurations of Starlings, the huge flocks of Knot which use our rich estuaries for their winter feeding are a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Winter Knots are
a sort of halfway house between a Dunlin and a Grey Plover in size, grey, dumpy and somewhat nondescript. Put thousands of them together, though, and they become like cells of a new super creature!
Pic: Derek Watt/Alamy