Migratory bird watch

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Pintail, by Andy Morffew

A guide to some of the evocatively named feathered visitors to see this winter, including redwings, fieldfares, bramblings, pintail and goldeneyes – as they pay a seasonal visit to the UK.

A winter walk can sometimes feel more like an expedition than a stroll. Venturing out on a cold day takes preparation: squeezing into layer upon layer of clothing, digging through drawers to unearth woolly hats and gloves, perhaps even filling a flask with a hot drink to raise your body temperature and spirits alike.

But for many of the birds you’re likely to spot on your winter outing, getting there was even more of an undertaking. In winter, our landscape is full of wild wanderers, travellers and tourists. Check their passports and you’d see stamps from Russia, Iceland, Norway and perhaps even Canada. They’ve flown miles, crossed seas and weathered storms all for the promise of a relatively mild winter in the UK, an escape from the truly freezing temperatures of their breeding grounds to the north or east.

Some go unnoticed, largely indistinguishable from resident birds of the same species. That blackbird hopping around your local park could have spent the summer breeding in the Baltic, or nesting in Norway. Others are more noticeably newcomers, as they’re rarely seen here in the summer months.

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Redwing, by Margaret Holland

If your walk winds past berry-laden bushes you may well spot a flock of redwings feasting on the fruit. These song-thrush-sized birds are best identified by the bold cream streak above each eye, sweeping backwards like an overgrown eyebrow, and the splash of rust-red beneath their wings that gives them their name. They’re shy birds and, if you surprise a feeding flock, they’ll take to the air with a chorus of sharp ‘tzee’ calls, regrouping and returning once you’ve safely passed by.

In summer, these are birds of northern forests. Most redwings that reach the UK in autumn come from Scandinavia or even further east, though some arrive from Iceland and the Faroe Irelands. In winter, they wander widely. You’ll find them plucking berries in hedgerows or probing grassy fields for invertebrates. They’ll often venture into parks, playing fields and even gardens.

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Fieldfare, by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

With a bit of luck, they may be feeding alongside a few fieldfares: larger, more stately birds draped in the cold colours of winter. They have an icy blue-grey head and rump, earth-brown back and wings, and an ochre bib above a snow-white belly. Their call is a chattering laugh, a throaty chuckle. They too come from the east, fleeing the forests of Scandinavia and northwest Russia.

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Brambling, by Margaret Holland

If you’re wandering through a woodland, or alongside farmland stubble, look out for flocks of finches. Large numbers of chaffinches can gather in areas where food is plentiful, and amongst them may be a brambling or two – winter visitors from the taiga forests of northern Europe. Their plumage resembles a chaffinch’s, but with warmer orange hues and a bright white rump – a telltale sign as a flock takes flight. They’re particularly fond of beech woods, with flocks feasting on the beech mast that falls to the forest floor.

A ramble around a reservoir, lake or even flooded field at this time of year should reward you with plenty of wandering wildfowl. There are dabbling ducks like wigeon and teal, sociable birds that feed in noisy flocks, their loud whistles carrying far through the cold air. Amongst them you might spot a pintail, a contender for our most elegant duck. Females are graceful, with a long, slender neck, small head and pointed tail. Males are unmistakable, with a white throat that sweeps up in a narrow curve around the side of their chestnut head, a blue-edged beak, and an incredibly long tail. They could have bred in Russia or Scandinavia, or perhaps right here in the UK – they nest in very small numbers each year.

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Golden Eye, by Fergus Gill/2020VISION

Deeper water can hold diving ducks, like tufted ducks, pochards, and perhaps even goldeneyes. Make eye contact with an adult and it’s easy to see where this bird got its name. A bright, golden yellow eye gazes out from a large, rounded head – brown in females but an iridescent green or purple in males. Small numbers summer in Scotland, on highland lochs and rivers, but many more visit in winter and can be found right across the UK.

Where to spot them 

There are many more winter visitors to look out for on your travels, from gaggles of geese to the wonderful waxwing – our most eagerly anticipated winter wanderer. Here’s a list of nature reserves that are great for taking a stroll around while watching for migrant birds.

Magazine of the Ramblers