Nick Baker's Winter Birds
The cold weather doesn’t deter some of the Britain’s less well-known species from grabbing the limelight. Our wildlife expert rounds up a few of his seasonal favourites.
Their reedy ‘theesp’ is a (quiet) winter fanfare: once you’ve tuned in you’ll notice it everywhere. Look up and you’ll see them passing over with a bouncy flight and rakish silhouette reminiscent of a large starling. Over a million redwing winter with us. There are two distinct races: darker birds hail from Iceland, while those from Scandinavia are paler.
This is the Viking thrush – a real bruiser from Scandinavia. Often seen in the company of redwings, it stands out as being larger and noisier, with an insistent ‘shacking’ call. Also look for a distinctive pale grey rump contrasting with black tail feathers in flight. They rarely visit gardens unless we have a vicious winter, when desperation may overcome natural inhibitions.
A soft teddy bear of an owl, with bright orange staring eyes giving it either an angry or vacant look depending on your viewpoint. Being owls you might expect them to be active at night, but they can also be seen hunting in broad daylight. It’s worth heading to a coastal marsh or meadow just for the chance of seeing this pale bird softly patrolling the land like a giant moth.
At risk of showing a thrush bias, I’ve just got to mention this bird. It’s strikingly upright, with a dry rattling call. They’re always picking fights: a pair will defend a fruit tree against other birds intent on raiding their larder. They’re known in some parts as the storm-cock due to their defiance of winter weather. Listen out for their bold song being cast to the wind from a treetop.
I love these perky, agile little finches. The males are sparks of yellow as they chat, witter and wheeze all through the winter. I hardly see any on my feeders until the first cold or wet weather starts. Then numbers start to build until February, when I’ve had flocks of fifty or more beneath my feeders, bringing a much-needed dose of fizz and freneticism to our winter gardens.
Like many continental visitors, brambling numbers depend on food and weather patterns in their breeding range of Finland, Scandinavia and Russia. If the beech mast – its staple food – is in poor supply at home, they head south and west. Its colours are from the same palette as the chaffinch, but arranged differently: you’ll soon pick out the white rump patch and orange shoulder patches.