British birds to spot in winter

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Here are some of our favourite feathered winter sightings and some tips on how to spot them…

One of the few advantages of winter (apart from not having to mow your lawn) is that the lack of leaves on trees and bushes makes bird spotting a lot easier for the aspiring, amateur twitcher. Provided you keep your bird feeders topped up, leave seed heads intact in your borders and have provided sufficient fresh water, you should see plenty of avian activity during the cold winter months. There’s also the added bonus of winter migrants that flock to the UK in search of food which will increase your chances of seeing something extra special.

 

Redwing

These dashing winter thrushes migrate to the UK from Russia and Northern Europe and can be seen in the UK from October onwards. Look for small gangs of medium-sized birds bearing creamy stripes above the eye and a patch of red feathers on each flank. 

Redwings tend to gather where berries are bountiful, often staying in the same locale for a few days until their food stash has been fully plundered. The fruit of the Holy Illex is one of their favourites, so if you can’t find a nice berry-bound sprig for your Christmas wreath, these greedy winter visitors might be to blame. 

 

Waxwing

Waxwings hail from the Northern pine forests of Scandinavia and Russia and are identifiable by their dramatic feathered crest and multi-coloured wing tips. Most years, sightings are sporadic (the majority spotted in Aberdeen due to its proximity to their migratory path from southwest Norway) but occasionally an eruption will occur when waxwings arrive in their thousands and are found in relative abundance throughout the UK. 

This spectacle is also known as a “waxwing winter” and occurs when a poor berry harvest in their normal winter feeding grounds sends them further afield in search of sustenance. They are particularly partial to the berries of the Rowan Sorbus aucuparia, and are often spotted in car parks or municipal places where they feast on bright coloured fruit found on ornamental parkland trees.

 

Starling

Once a common sight in urban gardens, the European starling population has been on steady decline since the 1970s due to dwindling food supplies caused by dry summers and changes in farming practices. The iridescent feathers of this under-appreciated bird make them striking to look at up-close, but one of winter's greatest natural spectacles is when they join to form huge flocks before (and after) roosting, in order to deter predators. 

These vast gatherings are called murmurations, and the sight of thousands of starlings rolling, twisting and breaking in unison is certainly a sight to behold. You’ll probably have to venture out beyond your garden gate to witness a murmuration—they can occur in town centres, but for the most spectacular displays, either head for the coast (Brighton’s West Pier is a top location), or nature reserves with an abundance of reed beds, such as Ham Wall in Somerset, or Leighton Moss, Lancashire.

 

Tawny Owl

The cold, dark mornings of winter can be challenging for the most committed of early risers, but it does increase your chances of spotting an owl. There are five owl species native to the UK, but the most common (and most vocal) is the Tawny owl. 

The ubiquitous “twit twoo” owl call comes not from a single owl, but from two owls calling to each other—the high pitched “twit” coming from the female and the lower “twoo” from the male. The best time to spot owls is just before dawn breaks. Look out for their rounded silhouettes, perched upon fence posts, treetops and telegraph poles. 

 

Robin

Robins are omnipresent throughout the year, but the UK winter populations are boosted by migrants from Europe. Various stories abound on the reason behind their association with Christmas, but one of the most plausible is their link with Victorian postmen who wore scarlet tunics. Robins were depicted on Christmas cards as the bringers of mail, and the tradition stuck.

The Christmas card trope of robins chatting happily on a lovely sprig of holly is, however, a festive flight of fancy—robins are fearsomely territorial and will fight any rivals that move in on their patch. A treat of mealworms left on a plate in your garden should help placate their grumpy ways.

Read more: The science of birdsong

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