12 Birds to look out for this Christmas
If you’re not on kitchen duty over Christmas, forget slumping in front of The Sound of Music – instead, pull on your thermals, grab your binoculars and go out for a bit of birding. Winter is an exciting time for birdwatchers, especially in the lowlands and around the coasts, as there’ll be visitors from the uplands and from countries far north and east of us. Wild swans and geese, Scandinavian finches, moorland raptors and roaming seabirds could all turn up. Here are a selection fo species to look out for – some pretty common, others scarcer, but all of them easier for most of us to find in winter than in summer.
You have to feel sorry for our resident Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. As autumn approaches they’ll be eyeing up the berry-laden hedgerows and ploughed fields full of worms, and thinking that surviving the winter will be a doddle. But then, around October time, the invasion comes – three-quarters of a million Fieldfares from Russia and north-east Europe. They come in big noisy flocks, with their sidekicks the Redwings, and together they eat the lot. Look out for these colourful thrushes anywhere in the open countryside. Sometimes a lone Fieldfare breaks away from the group and sets up home in a single garden, usually one with an apple tree, and fiercely guards the windfall apples from any other bird that goes near.
Heaths and moors are bleak and particularly chilly in winter, so most of their birds decamp to milder spots over winter. Stonechats tend to move to coasts and low-lying farmland in winter. They draw the eye because they like to sit at the tops of bushes, rather than skulking within like shyer birds. If you find one, you’re very likely to find another, because Stonechats defend their winter territories in pairs. Though these are invariably male-female pairs, the birds don’t actually stay together to breed next spring – they find new partners when back on their breeding grounds.
Seeing Razorbills in summer isn’t difficult – go to a cliff-face seabird colony and there they’ll be, rubbing shoulders with the Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags. In winter, the colonies are deserted, and Razorbills and other seabirds disperse much more widely, meaning that you don’t have to live near the northern cliffs to stand a chance of seeing them. Try your nearest bit of sea – if you have a choice, opt for the more sheltered place, and pass an hour or so scanning the water. Weather has a strong influence on seabird behaviour – if there’s a day of storms, it’s always worth checking the next day in estuaries, harbours and other sheltered places for traumatised seabirds recovering and feeding before heading back to sea.
Nearly all of the duck species that occur in Britain are easier to find in winter. Goosanders breed on fast upland rivers but in winter they turn up on lakes and reservoirs across the whole UK and seeing one (or more) is a highlight of any winter birding trip. Look out for a big, sleek, rather predatory-looking duck that makes frequent long dives (it’s busy chasing fish while it’s down there, to seize in its ‘saw-toothed’ bill). Males look black and white at any distance (though the head has a green sheen), while females are mostly cool grey with a chestnut head.
5) Brent Goose
About 100,000 Brent Geese spend their winter in Britain, mostly on the south and east coasts. These Arctic geese are small and very dark, and lack the tidy discipline of the bigger geese in flight – rather than neat V-shaped skeins they tend to travel in clumps or straggling lines like unravelled knitting. They’ll stop to feed anywhere where there is saltmarsh and tasty eelgrass to eat, but you could see groups on the move over the sea from any seaside.
6) Black Redstart
This little bird is an oddity – a real rarity in Britain, but one that shows a distinct fondness for urban habitats – the grottier the better. Most of the handful of breeding pairs we have nest in old buildings in city centres. In winter numbers rise (a little – it’s still a rare bird) as visitors from the continent turn up, and they are then most likely to be found on the coast. Again, they show a liking for urban set-ups, particularly in the south-west, and if you live by the sea you might even find one in the garden, looking for all the world like a black or smoky-grey Robin as it hops pertly about and poses on garden ornaments.
Many pairs of Peregrines stay near their nest sites through the winter. But those that breed in inhospitable uplands, plus young birds that are yet to find a territory, will roam about more widely and turn up in places where you won’t find them in summertime – especially marshy coastlines where there are lots of ducks and waders for them to hunt. When you’re watching big flocks of birds on the marshland, a sudden uproar among them is a good sign that a bird of prey – very probably a hungry Peregrine – has just hoved into view, and you could be treated to a dramatic show of predator versus prey as the Peregrine tries to single out a victim from the swirling flock.
Most of our strictly insectivorous birds migrate thousands of miles south at the end of summer, to Africa where insects are much easier to find than they are in the depths of a UK winter. One that doesn’t is the Goldcrest, our smallest bird. Its size, agility and needle-like bill make it expert at finding and winkling out the tiny scale insects that shelter between pine needles, and so it scratches out a meagre living (though huge numbers of Goldcrests will die in very harsh winters). Look out for it in the garden and anywhere where there are conifer trees, calling incessantly in its squeaky-mouse voice and hovering at the tips of twigs.
If you’re still standing on that beach looking out to sea and trying in vain to see a Razorbill, have a look on the shoreline instead for our next bird. Most waders like squishy, muddy shores, but the Sanderling is happy to forage on all kinds of beach, from shingle to sand to rock. It’s also unusual in that it’s easier to identify in winter than in summer – if you see a small, hyperactive and pearly grey-and-white wader on a beach in winter, it’ll be a Sanderling (and probably it’ll be with a dozen or more other Sanderlings). They rush back and forth at the wave-line on sandy beaches to find morsels carried in on the sea, but on pebbles they search more deliberately, for flies, sandhoppers and other little seaside creatures. They are often very approachable and with a close look you’ll see another Sanderling trait – they have no hind toe. This helps make them extra fast when running after prey.
For many birdwatchers, this is the winter Holy Grail of birding – a spectacular, colourful, outlandishly crested bird that comes our way from Scandinavia and further afield. Part of the excitement is that Waxwings are ‘irruptive’ – in most years they are rather rare and more or less confined to the north and east, but in some years we get absolutely loads of them throughout the whole UK. An irruption happens when there is a serious shortage of berries in between here and their breeding grounds, forcing large numbers to move further south and west than they would like. They love mountain ash, pyracantha and cotoneaster berries, and often descend upon shopping centre car parks that have decorative stands of these plants. They will also come to apples, so if you have a garden apple tree keep an eye on it.
11) Snow Bunting
This is one of the most charming of all our ‘winter’ birds. In fact you can see Snow Buntings in Britain in summer, but only if you’re willing to climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm or other similarly huge Scottish mountains. In winter, though, the buntings descend the slopes (and more arrive from colder countries). Sandy and shingly beaches along the east coast are the best places to find them – in Northumberland you might find flocks 100 strong, while in Kent it’s more likely to be the odd one or two, but they are worth seeking out, being both very beautiful and almost totally unconcerned by human presence as they quietly pick their way along in search of weed seeds and other scraps among the stones.
So you didn’t fancy going out after all? Never mind – you probably need only walk to the nearest window to see the most Christmassy bird of all. Or indeed to hear it – the Robin is so invested in territorial defence that it sings even in the depths of winter when other birds are too busy finding food to bother. With nearly 7 million Robin territories in the UK, chances are there’s (at least) one in your garden. If you want to make your Robin’s Christmas extra special, the best thing you can do is offer it some mealworms, either dried or (even better) alive and wriggling. With patience you should be able to persuade even a shy Robin to take mealworms from your hand – a lovely bonding experience for both you and the Robin. Happy Christmas and good birding!
Happy Christmas and good birding!
This piece was written by Marianne Taylor, author of: RSPB British Birdfinder, RSPB British Birds of Prey, RSPB Nature Watch, Where to Discover Nature on RSPB Reserves, Owls, Dragonflight, RSPB Seabirds, Watching Wildlife In London, 401 Amazing Animals Facts, Photographing Garden Wildlife, Wild Coast, RSPB Spotlight: Robins