Waxwing, in snowy branches, eating red berry

10 winter birds to spot in UK towns

16 Nov 2017
Birds love towns and cities — even in winter. 'Urban Birder' David Lindo suggests 10 birds to keep your eyes peeled for in the cold weather.

 

Lesser redpoll, sitting on teasel plant in snow
Lesser redpoll, on snowy teasel, Warwickshire
Credit: iStock

 

I know birdwatchers who practically shut up shop during the winter months in anticipation of the distant spring. How wrong are they? Winter is an exciting time of year for nature and it's no different in a city. 

Birds usually become less territorial in the winter - unless you are a robin - and will flock together where food is available.

You should see plenty of birds on a walk around your local park at this time of year, especially if it contains a lake, as water birds take advantage of free handouts from visitors.

Really cold winter days are a good time to look. 

 One winter I saw redpolls in Soho. Anything can turn up, anywhere.

 

10 winter birds to look out for

1. Tufted duck 

Tufted duck, on water
Tufted duck
Credit: iStock

 

This familiar diving duck is a stalwart of urban lakes. The handsome males are easily recognisable due to their black-and-white plumage and long crest. The females are a drabber brown. Thousands of these birds travel here from as far afield as Russia. 

2. Woodcock 

Woodcock sat on its nest among fallen oak leaves
Woodcock on its nest, Derbyshire
Credit: iStock

 

Each winter thousands of woodcock cross over from the continent. Sometimes they end up dazed and confused outside office blocks, having knocked themselves out by crashing into windows.

They often hide in very small bits of woodland, sitting quietly on the ground and relying on their plumage for camouflage. A stroll through almost any size wood in a town could flush an unexpected woodcock from right beneath your feet.

3. Sparrowhawk 

Sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawk
Credit: iStock

 

The sparrowhawk is the stealth hunter of the avian world and is feared by any bird smaller than it. The female is a third bigger than the more colourful male and can take larger prey than him.

This magnificent raptor is currently the second most common avian predator, after the buzzard - and a regular visitor to town gardens.

4. Waxwing 

2 waxwings sharing red berries in tree
Waxwings sharing berries
Credit: iStock

 

This exotic looking wanderer from Scandinavia should really oust the robin as the Christmas card pin-up, in my opinion. The size of a starling, the waxwing heads south to Britain when there is a bad berry season further north.

In a good waxwing year thousands may descend on rowan and cotoneaster trees in the UK, to scoff berries in streets and shopping centre car parks. You can often get very close to them.

5. Fieldfare  

Fieldfare in frosty winter hedgerow, Cambridgeshire © Chris Gomersall/2020VISION
Fieldfare in winter hedgerow, Cambridgeshire
Credit: Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

 

Dubbed the royal thrush in Spain, this northern European bird certainly has a regal air about it. A tad bigger than the blackbird, it forms winter flocks with its cousin and travelling buddy, the redwing.

Throwing windfall apples on the lawn is a good way of attracting this and other thrushes to your garden.

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6. Redwing  

Redwing on branch with red berries
Redwing
Credit: iStock

 

Whenever you see redwings, fieldfares are never too far away. That said, it is the redwing that is most common in our gardens. They are very similar to song thrushes but are slightly smaller with a creamy eyestripe and a reddish ‘armpit’ after which they are named.

7. Chiffchaff  

Chiffchaff on branch
Chiffchaff
Credit: א Aleph CC2.5 commons.wikimedia.org

 

This common warbler is increasingly wintering in Britain instead of migrating to Mediterranean Europe and northern Africa. They are quite drab looking and announce themselves with their distinctive ‘pwheet, pwheet’ calls.

8. Blackcap 

Blackcap sitting on snowy fence
Blackcap
Credit: iStock

 

This warbler is so named due to the male’s black cap, which is reddish-brown in the female.

Research carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown that our British-born blackcaps all head to Africa for the winter — while an increasing contingent from Germany and Eastern Europe head west to us, instead of south.

9. Robin 

Robin on frosty crabapple tree, winter, Scotland
Robin
Credit: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

 

There must be few in the UK who haven’t seen Britain’s newly appointed National Bird parading in their garden. In fact many people only notice robins during the winter — but this is mainly due to the boldness displayed by this species, even in the colder months.

It comes as quite a shock to some people that robins rarely live for longer than 2 years.

10. Long-tailed tit 

Long-tailed tit on branch
Long-tailed tit
Credit: iStock

 

This little star has got to be the cutest looking bird to enter our gardens. A ball of fluffy feathers with a long tail sticking out, they are gregarious and normally travel in troupes, joined by other birds like tits, nuthatches and even chiffchaffs. Despite their name they are actually only distantly related to blue tits — and in fact belong to a largely Asian family of birds.

Birdwatching tips

  • See your town or city as a bird would. The buildings are cliffs and green areas are oases for nesting, resting and feeding.
  • Don’t stress about learning the names and songs of all the birds you see – just enjoy it. 
  • You don’t have to wear a green anorak – you can look cool and fashionable. I find the birds prefer it too. 
  • Find a local patch to regularly visit and get your friends involved. 
  • Don’t go out expecting to see anything – that way you’ll never be disappointed, but most likely be surprised.
  • My message is simple – look up!

 

David Lindo is The Urban Birder. He’s a broadcaster, writer, naturalist, photographer and public speaker with a love of city birdwatching. Look out for his book, Tales from Concrete Jungles.

(Article first published December 2015)

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