5 birds to look out for in England this winter

There are so many avian creatures to see in the UK in the winter months, so get out there with your binoculars – and wrap up warm!

Mike Unwin
14 October 2022
Promoted by
Swarovski Optik

To birdwatchers, the English autumn heralds an avian changing of the guard. Since late summer, summer migrants have been on the move, the likes of swallows, warblers and flycatchers feeding up before the final push south. Come October, as the final stragglers depart, the first winter visitors are arriving. These are birds from the far north and east, escaping their harsher winters for our more temperate shores. Along the coast, restless flocks of waders and wildfowl soon throng marshes and mudflats, while wandering raptors patrol for prey. Inland, winter visitors such as redwings or bramblings join the more familiar thrushes and finches. Get out there with your binoculars – and wrap up warm!

1. Fieldfare

The fieldfare is a handsome northern relative of the mistle thrush. Similarly upright in stance, it is more colourful, with an orange flush to its spotted breast, plus a pale grey head and rump that contrast smartly with its brown back and black tail. This species breeds across Scandinavia, eastern Europe and Russia. It is one of our most abundant winter visitors, arriving from October, with numbers building up through the winter. Flocks disperse across the country, seeking out hedgerows and woodland edges where they can feast on berries – notably hawthorns. In colder weather, especially after snowfall, they may enter parks and gardens, where they are partial to fallen fruit. Come January and February, with the berry crop exhausted, they move into fields, where they hop about in search of worms – often alongside other thrushes. By late March, most have departed. Fieldfares are noisy birds: listen for their tell-tale ‘chuck chuck’ chattering calls overhead.

2. Great grey shrike

You’ll be very lucky to spot this rare winter visitor. If you do, however, it’s easily identified. Starling-sized, with a longish tail, it sports smart black, white and grey plumage with a black ‘bandit’ face mask, and perched conspicuously upright atop a bush or low tree. Though officially a songbird, this predatory species behaves like a raptor, capturing rodents and small birds, which it despatches with a hooked bill and impales on a thorn-bush ‘larder’ – hence its nickname ‘butcher-bird’. Great grey shrikes occupy a similar northern and eastern breeding range to the fieldfare (see above), but only a handful arrive on UK shores, taking up solitary territories before heading back to their breeding grounds in March. They typically frequent lowland heaths, such as those in East Anglia and the New Forest – I’ve been lucky on Surrey’s Thursley Common – but may turn up almost anywhere. Small birds, agitated by this unwelcome visitor, sometimes give it away.

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3. Short-eared owl

This elegant, long-winged owl hunts primarily by day, typically during early morning and late afternoon, when it quarters open ground in search of its favourite prey, voles. Though some breed in the UK, largely in northern uplands, many more arrive in autumn from Scandinavia to swell the resident population, crossing the North Sea when heavy snow back home makes hunting impossible. These visitors frequent marshes and rough, open terrain, often around the coast. Look out for their slow, buoyant flight, frequently changing direction as they wheel round to check out a rustle in the long grass, and sometimes perching on fence posts. A good view reveals mottled brown plumage, pale underwings (with a dark crescent mark) and piercing yellow eyes. Numbers fluctuate from year to year, reflecting conditions on their breeding grounds. Top spots include the North Norfolk coast, the Thames Estuary (including the Isle of Sheppey) and Hampshire’s Chichester/Langstone Harbour.

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4. Bewick’s swan

The Bewick’s swan, named after famous 18th Century artist Thomas Bewick, is the smallest and rarest of the UK’s three swan species. Like its fellow winter visitor, the whooper swan, its black and yellow bill quickly distinguishes it from our resident mute swan, whose bill is black and orange bill, with a large knob. It is also smaller than a whooper swan, with a relatively shorter neck. Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia, and migrate west in family groups to spend winter in western Europe, with around 5,000 reaching the UK. These arrive in October, taking up residence on a few freshwater wetlands across central England, notably around the Fens and the Severn Estuary. Top spots include the Ouse Washes (Cambridgeshire), Martin Mere (Lancashire) and Slimbridge (Gloucestershire). In the UK, Bewick’s swan feed in fields by day then fly every evening to their roosts on open water. Listen out for their dog-like yapping calls overhead.

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5. Bar-tailed godwit

This is one of several shorebird species that breed in the Arctic and head south to Britain in autumn, either passing through en route to more southerly destinations or spending winter on our coast. By the time it arrives, it has moulted out of its rich chestnut plumage into plain grey/brown winter garb – although by spring departure, the colours are returning. Either way, this is a medium-sized wader, identified by its long, straight bill (not curved, like a curlew’s). It differs from its cousin, the black-tailed godwit, by having shorter legs and showing no black and white wing markings. Flocks gather on estuaries, using their long bills to probe for food beneath mud. At high-tide roosts they may join other waders in gatherings thousands strong. Good numbers occur throughout winter in many large estuaries, including the Wash, Thames, Ribble, Dee and Humber. The bar-tailed godwit is one of the world’s greatest migrants: one individual was recorded flying non-stop 12,200km from Alaska to New Zealand in just 11 days.

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