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.
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.