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British winter birds: who to spot this season

Winter may bring cold weather and darkness, but it’s still a great time to see wildlife. Some birds fly hundreds of miles to visit us for winter. Others are here all year round, but seem more noticeable in winter when fallen leaves and the quest for food make hungry birds easy to spot. Follow our handy ID tips and brighten your winter with a bit of bird spotting!

Winter arrivals  

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Fieldfares are from the thrush family and about the same size. The fieldfare has a grey head and tail, with brown across the wings and back. They have orange colouration around the throat and chest. The flanks of the fieldfare are pale and spotted in the same way as the chest. Their underwing is white if you see it during flight.

The fieldfare returns from Scandinavia, once the swallows and house martins have left.  This bird is apparent in large groups with a distinctive rattling chatter (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
The fieldfare returns from Scandinavia, once the swallows and house martins have left. This bird is apparent in large groups with a distinctive rattling chatter (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

Redwing (Turdus Iliacus)

This bird has distinctive red patches on the underside of the wing. Redwing are also similar in size to a thrush. They have a brown head with a pale stripe above and below the eye and brown back and wings with a pale mottled front.

When and where to see them: Fieldfare and redwing are often seen together once they arrive in early autumn. You’ll find both species around hedgerows and orchards, parks and arable fields. In harsh weather they may seek shelter in gardens. Redwings can also be found in woodland edges. Both birds are regularly seen in flocks with thrushes too. Learn how to tell the difference between redwings and fieldfares.

The redwing is a smaller member of the thrush family which returns to the UK in winter from Europe and Asia (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
The redwing is a smaller member of the thrush family which returns to the UK in winter from Europe and Asia (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulous)

The waxwing is distinctive with its silky grey pink plumage and crest and reedy call. They have a black bib under their beaks and a black eye mask which resembles big eyeliner flicks. Their wing and tail tips are also black with some yellow highlighting. These birds are about the size of a starling - from a distance the two can be mistaken for one another.

When and where to see them: We don’t always see a lot of waxwing in winter, but some years we have a real influx if the berry crop in their normal wintering grounds is low. They breed across Scandinavia and Siberia, then move south and west for the winter.

They are fond of rowan, hawthorn and cotoneaster berries so any garden, park or hedgerow with these species would be a good place to start searching.

Grey pink feathers, a crest and black face mask make the waxwing stand out from the crowd (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
Grey pink feathers, a crest and black face mask make the waxwing stand out from the crowd (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

Year-round residents

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Starlings are a little smaller than blackbirds and don’t look too dissimilar in summer with their shiny black plumage and yellow beaks. Their black colour is actually comprised of a myriad of shiny green and metallic purple with pale yellow and white specks. The starling has a shorter tail and a longer pointy beak than a blackbird. The two birds can also be told apart by their movements: blackbirds move by two-footed jumps while the starling has a hasty, slightly jerky walk.

In winter, noisy starlings readily take the place of swallows, who have flown on in search of warmer climes. These raucous birds run around in large groups, unafraid of humans (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
In winter, noisy starlings readily take the place of swallows, who have flown on in search of warmer climes. These raucous birds run around in large groups, unafraid of humans (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

When and where to see them: Starlings are here all year but our local populations are boosted in winter by birds escaping the harsh winter further east in Europe. They form flocks in rural and urban areas which often descend on garden feeders in large numbers, much to the dismay of other birds.

Starling chatter appears aimless and discordant, but they change their call to suit their environment. They often copy electronic sounds which are common to our ear, like ringing phones and car alarms.

Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings? That’s the name given to their magnificent displays of swooping, twisting and turning together in flocks of hundreds at a time. This happens particularly at dawn and dusk as they assert their dominance of the skies.

Starling murmurations are fascinating to watch (Photo: Alamy)
Starling murmurations are fascinating to watch (Photo: Alamy)

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Mature males are all black with a yellow beak and eye ring. Young males in their first winter are black with a hint of brown on the wing tips and don’t have the yellow beak or eye ring. Females are a sooty brown with a slightly paler throat and diffuse streaks on the chest, with a darker yellow beak. The juveniles resemble the females but have pale spots on their upper parts.

When and where to see them: During September and October your local blackbirds may disappear for a while. After raising their young, they tend to hide away to moult their feathers. They will also leave gardens to forage the hedgerows and woods for autumn fruits.

We start to see them again from November, often joined by migrant blackbirds from Scandinavia and continental Europe. UK blackbirds might move south for warmer weather but tend not to migrate – this year’s temporary move to Ireland was unusual. Find out more about blackbirds on the Nature’s Calendar blog.

This year’s heatwave was too much for our blackbirds and some moved to Ireland’s damper climate. They’re now returning, along with migrating blackbirds from Europe (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
This year’s heatwave was too much for our blackbirds and some moved to Ireland’s damper climate. They’re now returning, along with migrating blackbirds from Europe (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robins are territorial birds all year round - they have been known to fight to the death! We can hear them sing at any time - sometimes even at night if prompted by a nearby street light. During autumn the robin tends to have a reedy call, but as winter approaches it changes to a clear melodic song.

These birds are one of the easiest to recognise due to their orange bib, white underbelly and brown back and wings. They are also rather bold which means you can get a good look at them.

When and where to see them: Robins are present all year round in woodland, gardens and parks. During winter you may be able to tempt them out of cover with some dry mealworms.

The robin waits for the swallows and house martins to leave  before returning to woods and hedgerows to start the dawn chorus (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)
The robin waits for the swallows and house martins to leave before returning to woods and hedgerows to start the dawn chorus (Photo: North East Wildlife Photography)

Record winter birds on Nature’s Calendar

The Nature’s Calendar project tracks the effects of weather and climate change on wildlife across the UK – its records date all the way back to 1736! Fieldfares and redwings arriving in the UK are just two of 69 wildlife events recorded for the project.

Join Nature’s Calendar to record your sightings - every record is crucial and valid. The data recorded helps us to better understand the effects of climate change and other patterns in the natural environment. By taking just a few minutes to share what you see, you'll be adding to hundreds of years' worth of important data for studies worldwide. We couldn't do this work without you!

Your wildlife observations are vital to Nature's Calendar

Tell us what you've seen