Paul Stancliffe on exploring woodlands this summer

Jill Packenham photo 

As summer gets into full swing, Paul Stancliffe tells us why it’s the perfect time of year for birdwatching in Britain’s beautiful and abundant woodland…

During the summer months, visiting British woodland can offer a delicious, cool respite from the heat of the day. The dappled light is instantly easy on the eyes and the green canopy seems to give a feeling freshness that can awaken the senses, but at this time of the year seeking out the birdlife that lives there can be quite a challenge, albeit a challenge worth taking.

Denny Wood

The New Forest is our largest lowland forest and has a huge amount of ancient woodland. One of my favourites is Denny Wood, close to Beaulieu. The extremely shy Hawfinch is a regular breeding bird in the wood but a sharp ear and a keen eye are needed to find this starling-sized finch, whose presence is often given away by its short, sharp ‘tic’ call, uttered from high up in the canopy.

Willow warblers abound, their cascading, liquid song echoing around the wood. Blackcaps are also common here but as with all woodland birdwatching, patience is needed. It is worth using the stand-and-wait technique when looking for woodland birds. After five minutes or so of standing still, taking in the surroundings, things miraculously begin to appear as you become more attuned to small sounds and movements.

Edmund Fellowes photo

Sherwood Forest

Further north, Sherwood Forest is one of my favourites, with its huge ancient oaks and the feeling that Robin Hood is around every corner. The forest here never disappoints. The old oaks with their bare crowns and snapped-off branches hold redstarts, great spotted and green woodpeckers, and in the felled clearings, nightjars.

Nightjars are a summer visitor to Britain, spending the winter months in equatorial Africa. It is best to look and listen for nightjars in the half-light of dawn and dusk, when the male bird utters an evocative ‘churring’ sound, like a slow, loud cricket. The males can also be heard ‘clapping’ their wings as they display flight over their territory, at these times the female utters a throaty ‘cuick’ call.

Caledonian Forest

Heading further north still, Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest is home to some very special birds indeed. The crested tit, capercaillie and Scottish crossbill are found nowhere else in Britain. All three can be difficult to find but Abernethy Forest in Strathspey, and nearby Loch Garten, are two good places to start.

Sometimes the Crested Tit can be seen in the car park at the latter location but a very early start along the tracks and paths in the forest is the best strategy for the Capercaillie, which is most active during the first few hours of daylight. The crossbills are best found by listening out for their call, a ringing ‘chip’ giving away their presence.

John Robinson RA photo

Coed Crafnant

Welsh oak woodlands have a character all of their own, often on steep-sided valleys, damp and full of midges, they are probably the best place in Britain to see the classic trio of Welsh summer visitors; pied flycatchers, redstarts and wood warblers.

Coed Crafnant, Gwynedd, is one of my personal favourites, but the walks through the wood aren’t for the faint-hearted, they are in the main, steep, rocky and at times very slippery – qualities that make it so special. Head out of the wood at the top of the valley and ring ouzels and red kites add to the list of amazing birds on offer.

Irish woodlands

Crossing the Irish Sea, Irish woodlands are home to a sound that has only recently been heard there for the very first time. Ireland has long been famous among ornithologists for its total absence of woodpeckers, but back in 2006 great spotted woodpecker were found to be breeding there for the first time. Now, ‘drumming’ birds can be heard from the north to the south in woodlands along the east coast.

Irish woods also hold large numbers of willow warblers, whose collective singing provides a fantastic spring orchestral backdrop to any walk. So, get out this summer and enjoy the great British woodland!

Discover ways of identifying some of the birds featured in this article.

Magazine of the Ramblers


Great blog, but such a shame that the feature in the printed magazine was accompanied by a picture of a North American Nuthatch, rather than the British one.