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.
We have a fine crop of ‘summer’ bird visitors which come to the UK to breed. Most arrive during the spring, but relatively few turn up as early as March. Here are five of our early arrivers. How many of these harbingers of spring will you see?
Nearly always the first of our returning hirundines, the Sand Martin chances its arm that there will be flying insects around from March onwards (often staying until October). Sand Martins are usually first seen over water (where insects emerge), and soon head off to find suitable nest sites (these being banks of sand which they can tunnel out to make their breeding colonies). Brown-and-white Sand Martins are our smallest swallows. They are easily told from House Martins by their brown colour, breast band and lack of white rump, and from Swallows by their colour and much shorter forked tail, as well as their smaller size.
Little Ringed Plover
Since first breeding in the UK just before WWII, Little Ringed Plovers have flourished and spread, favouring gravel pits and similar rough semi-industrial inland habitats. There are now more than 1,000 pairs in the UK (mainly England and south Wales). LRPs are slimmer and more attenuated, than their chunky cousins, Ringed Plovers; with a more ‘falcon-like’ flight profile. They lack the Ringed Plover’s white wingbar and don’t have their bright orange bare parts. They do have a distinctive fine yellow eye-ring.
Generally, Sandwich Terns are the first of our terns to appear in the spring (from late March). These are big, pale, front-heavy terns with black bills (yellow tipped on close inspection). One of the giveaways that Sandwich Terns are around is their loud rasping ‘kirrrick’ calls. Like most of the Sterna terns, these are predominantly coastal birds, but they will pass over the country and can turn up at inland sites in the spring.
This elegant chat is a classic March bird in the UK, passing through the southern half of the country on its way north and west to the breeding grounds. These early birds are usually of the slightly smaller, paler-breasted subspecies, which includes our British breeding population. Later in the spring, larger, buff-infused Greenland-nesting birds will move through the country on their way north and west.
Wheatears are particular in their habitat requirements and have an amazing ability to pick out suitable areas of very short-cropped grass (for example grazed by Rabbits or livestock), appearing on-site in the very early morning. So, good Wheatear areas often get repeat visits in subsequent years. Males have the striking pale blue back and black mask and wings. Females are browner; but both sexes have the striking white rump and black-and-white tail.
Don’t listen to what tradition tells you, spring really begins the day you first hear a singing Chiffchaff. If this is not until April, then you should probably get out more! The second half of March sees the first wave of male Chiffchaffs proclaiming their new-found territories, and advertising for potential mates. The song is simple, hardly the most outstanding melody or tone, yet somehow one of the most evocative sounds of the season.
Of course we all know that owls are birds of the night. But a few of our five regular species can be seen readily in the daylight hours, during the winter months.
Though Tawny Owls (our predominant woodland species) are almost exclusively nocturnal, and the scarce Long-eared Owl is usually only seen perched at roost in wintertime, Barn Owls, Short-eared Owls and Little Owls are often active during the day.
Little Owls are most frequently seen around their roost and nest sites, which tend to be gnarly old trees with large holes, or around farm buildings, quarries, along fence lines etc.
Barn Owls are generally crepuscular in habits, but will, if the feeding is good, often come out during the day to hunt small mammals across rough grassland and along ditches.
Perhaps the most prominently diurnal owl is the Short-eared Owl. These long-winged birds have a buoyant flight style which is a delight to watch as they quarter, harrier-style over rough ground in search of voles etc.
For most owl-watching you are best-off visiting open rough grassland, coastal marshes and wetlands a couple of hours before sunset. Sometimes Short-eared Owls will only come out to hunt when the sun is low and on occasions the window will be narrow when you can watch them before they vanish into the murk of dusk.
Get wrapped up in raptors this festive season – how many can you find near you?
December is a month of finch flocks, Snow Buntings and Twite on the beach, great flocks of wintering geese, ducks and swans. It is also a wonderful time to look for birds of prey. Whether they are hunting or coming in to roost, or indeed roosting, or even just resting between meals, birds of prey are simply wonderful to watch. And now is perhaps the best time to see them in action. Just remember to wrap up warm!
Unlike the Short-eared Owl, the closely related Long-eared Owl is not often seen flying during the daylight hours. Your best bet for seeing one of these handsome owls at this time of year is to visit a known roosting site where you can watch the birds snoozing and perhaps occasionally opening an eye, often deep within the protective cover of a Hawthorn, or similar dense bush. Birds may roost communally and you could see several at once at some sites. Long-eared Owls are very vulnerable to disturbance, so only visit sites where you can watch the owls at a respectful distance where you will no cause disturbance.
Arguably our most beautiful bird of prey, the male Hen Harrier has a ghostly pallidity which seems to illuminate the frozen winter landscape with a cold light. Pale grey with jet black wing tips and white rump, it is almost unmistakable. Females and younger birds (known as ringtails), are brown and streaked with long barred tails and an obvious white rump. Hen Harriers quarter low over rough grassland on wings held in a shallow V, looking for voles or other small mammals.
A threatened breeder in the northern and western uplands, which comes to the south and east in the autumn and winter.
One of the greatest raptor success stories of recent decades, the Buzzard is now the most numerous diurnal bird of prey in the UK, overtaking the Kestrel. The population has spread from strongholds in the west to now cover just about the whole of the country. Buzzards are the largest birds of prey most of us encounter, being solid chunky units with broad fingered wings. They can be seen gliding on wings held in a shallow V, sitting on fence posts or trees and even scrabbling for worms in open fields. This is a must-see bird this month (and every month).
A flying Peregrine is a vision of pure power in motion. With long, deep-based pointed wings and a shortish tail, the blue-grey adult is a magnificent, muscular looking bird, which rules the skies with an arrogant stylish swagger. Like the Buzzard, this is a bird which has expanded its range in recent years and has embraced cities as rocky canyon breeding sites, with plenty of pigeon food. But they are also birds of wild open country, where waders and ducks are often the target species.
One of the great winter experiences is watching Starlings in collective pre-roost manoeuvres. Roosting birds favour reedbeds or bushes or buildings or any site where they can huddle together and feel safe for the night.
If you have an idea where to watch from, your best bet is to arrive at the site an hour or so before sunset. You may see individuals or small flocks arrive first, and as the sun drops, more birds will arrive and mingle in with the flock, which constantly morphs, wheels and moves around gathering numbers and seemingly jostling for position until the critical time to roost arrives.
Will one of these autumnal treats turn up on your patch this month?
The bulk of the autumn’s migration rush is through. But there is still plenty of movement and action in November. Wintering birds are settling in and there are still some dribs and drabs of returning migrants and off course waifs. Here are four birds to enjoy this month. See if you can bag the lot.
Never very common, this elegant wader is largely a passage bird through the UK, mainly at coastal sites, with perhaps 500 or so passing through. Some also winter at favoured sites. It is larger and slimmer than the Redshank, with a longer, finer bill with just a hint of a down curve and red only on the base of the lower mandible. The wings lack the white trailing edge of Redshank, but there is a clear white rump forming an ‘oval’ on the back. Winter birds are very pale grey with a prominent supercilium. Spotted Redshanks are often inclined to wade quite deep on their long legs. The call is a very distinctive ‘chewit’.
Pallas’s Leaf Warbler
A very scarce, bordering on rare, visitor from the east, the tiny Pallas’s Leaf Warbler is only a little larger than a Goldcrest. Similar to the Yellow-browed Warbler (which usually peaks in the previous month), the Pallas’s is even stripier, with a bright yellow supercilium, bold crown stripe and a yellow rump. The latter feature can be seen while the bird undergoes one of its Goldcrest-style hovers, in search of tiny invertebrate morsels.
Great Northern Diver
All divers are the sort of charismatic birds we all love to see and the Great Northern is a big one as well! In breeding plumage, they are unbelievable, but by November, most will be winter birds or juveniles, with fundamentally black and white plumage. The bill is big and heavy, the crown often looks bumpy and there is a ghost of the neck band to help distinguish smaller birds from often similar-looking winter Black-throated Divers. A few thousand winter every year off the UK’s coasts, particularly in the north. A handful also stray inland, particularly to big inland sea-like lakes, such as Rutland Water or the London reservoirs.
A rare breeding bird in the Scottish Highlands, the Slavonian Grebe is also a scarce winterer around our coasts, with just more than 1,000 birds around the coast, though some areas, such as the Moray Firth or parts of the Sussex coast, have more than their fair share. Very scarce inland. In winter, this small grebe is black and white (losing the spectacular orange plumes of summer), with some similarity to the scarce Black-necked Grebe but with a straighter, pale tipped bill, less black on the cheeks and a flatter crown. Even in this plumage, though is remains a very beautiful bird.
August is a summer holiday month in the UK, but for birdwatchers it is also the time when the migration wave of autumn really starts to get into full flow. There is a mix of juvenile birds, adults, British breeders and continental movers passing through the country. Meanwhile, birds like the Hobby are taking advantage of the glut of dragonflies. Go out and enjoy the sunny autumn!
Here’s four birds to try and see during August...
One sure sign that autumn migration is well underway is the appearance of the first juvenile Whinchats. More ‘scaly’ than their parents, they are neat, orangey little chats, usually perched on top of a weed, bush or barbed wire fence. Note the bold supercilium and white outer tail, which easily tell them from similar Stonechats.
August sees an explosion in the numbers of larger dragonflies and Hobbies are chief benefactors of this glut. They behave in much the same way as a hawker dragonfly, but on a large scale, grabbing the insects on the wing. But Hobbies use their talons to grab their dragonfly prey, then pass it to the bill consuming it while still effortlessly flying along. The striking adults are joined now by browner-fringed juveniles, lacking the red trousers of their parents.
Most Red-backed Shrikes which pass through the UK in late summer and autumn are juveniles or first-winters, though there may be the odd male in its incredible pale blue, black and rufous finery. Juveniles are altogether more stripy and scaly and largely brown. They remain, as do all shrikes, among the most charismatic passage migrants and a great find.
Pied Flycatchers migrate through the country on their way to the wintering grounds, starting this month. Don’t expect them to look strikingly black-and-white, though, as autumn birds are brown and white, in their ‘fresh’ plumage (which wears by spring to reveal the black of the male). Smaller than a Spotted Flycatcher, but equally inclined to perch on exposed branches and fence lines.
Spring has just about run its course, but it is not time to hang up your bins, yet. There are still plenty of birds on the move, and even if they are not migrating, there are lots of birds worth watching this month. Whether they are resident species, or rare breeders or indeed birds in one of the country’s great seabird cities, there are great birds to find everywhere in June!
The Honey Buzzard fits into that dodgy category of ‘notorious beginner birds’. Their similarity to the much more abundant Buzzard means this bird, with a breeding population of fewer than 70 UK pairs, is often over-claimed by birding ‘newbies’. Your best bet for seeing one is to visit a known watchpoint such as in Norfolk or Devon.
They are Buzzard-sized with a distinctive flight style (without the shallow V glide of Buzzard) on long wings. A long, barred tail and smaller head give a different structure. Like Buzzards though, they are highly variable in plumage.
Britain’s favourite seabird is also one of the nation’s favourite birds. Cute and unmistakable, it is a great sight to see. And summer is the best time for that, as they have now returned to their breeding burrows. At some clifftop sites they can be very confiding and let you get close up views and photographs of this most charismatic of birds.
Even rarer than the Honey Buzzard as a breeding bird, with a handful of birds established in East Anglia, the elegant Spoonbill is more regular as a scarce passage bird in spring and summer, mainly around the coast.
It is larger and chunkier than the Little Egret and any view of the extraordinary bill should make ID straightforward. Spoonbills, unlike egrets, fly with the neck (and bill) outstretched. They have a reputation for sleeping most of the day, which is probably well founded, but a Spoonbill in full feeding action, sweeping with that great spatulate bill, is a great sight.
The Yellow Wagtail is a summer migrant, the Pied Wagtail an attention-seeking playground and supermarket favourite. But the Grey Wagtail is often forgotten about and yet is arguably the most attractive of the three.
The grey part of the name only refers to the back. They are lemon yellow below with a handsome black bib and a super-long tail. Look for them especially near water, including fast-flowing streams.
May is the time of maximum diversity of birds in the UK. Many of our ‘winter’ birds are just about still here, while just about all the ‘summer’ visitors are in.
Then again, there are many birds moving through on their way to their northern breeding grounds out of the UK altogether. Add in some fine weather and long hours of daylight and you couldn’t ask for more. There are many, many great birds to look for this month, but here are four of our suggestions. Go get ‘em.
Hard to find:
Large and just about unmistakable, the White Stork is one species which could be soaring overhead on a warm May day. Note the contrasting pattern, extended white neck and long red bill. A certain amount of caution is always appropriate with White Storks, as several free-flying birds have escaped from captivity. Check carefully for rings on the legs.
This bird is perhaps most familiar from the Icelandic subspecies which gathers in significant numbers in the UK in early spring on the way to the breeding grounds. This subsecies is darker, more intensely coloured and slightly shorter legged than the nominate European birds. The latter breed in very small numbers in the UK, and at selected sites (notably the RSPB Nene Washes, Cambridgeshire) they can be seen and heard doing their rocking display flight, while whining ‘godwit, godwit, godwit’.
The lovely Turtle Dove is a once-familiar bird on the fast track to no longer being a British breeding bird at all, such is the rate of its recent decline. This is a huge pity, as it is a very attractive bird, soft and gentle looking, with a purring song which is the epitome of warm summer sounds. Turtle Doves are smaller than Collared Doves, with scalloped orange-and-black backs, blue grey heads and pink breasts.
Once a very scarce breeder, the Hobby is a recent success story in the UK. Hobbies are long winged and slim, built for speed and agility so they can catch their prey of insects and perhaps hirundines while on the wing. In May, flying insects are the main prey, such as the abundant St Mark’s Flies out now. Later in the summer, dragonflies will become the main prey.
Arguably, one of our most attractive ‘seabirds’ the delightful, buoyant Black Tern, unlike its cousins, is not really a bird of the sea at all.
Along with the rare Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns, it is what is known as a ‘marsh tern’. These three small tern species breed in shallow freshwater or marshy habitats (hence the name) and feed by dipping and picking or hawking for insects.
Though the Black Tern has bred in the UK, it is essentially a passage bird, passing the coast and inland water bodies on the way to the breeding grounds on the continent.
They pass in late April and May when they are generally looking much more handsome than they do on their autumn return. In spring, they are silky black of body and silky grey of wing (sometimes with some retained winter white specks until later in the season).
So, they are easily picked out by plumage, and also by size, as they are much smaller than for instance Common Terns, closer to the tiny Little Tern.
Individuals and groups (of varying size) stop by at inland lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs to dip and pick insects from the surface, before moving on.
They are not common birds in the UK, numbering in hundreds on passage in total, rather than thousands. But they can turn up anywhere and can make your May day.