Beginners Guide to Winter Birdwatching

A guide to getting out and discovering some of the birds around us in the UK

Beginners Guide to Winter Birdwatching
Author
Dr Simone Webber
Date
May 23, 2022
Category

Winter is one of the best times to go birdwatching in the UK as we have some of the most amazing avian wildlife spectacles in the world. From the mesmerising murmurations of starlings swirling over reedbeds to the flickering clouds of waders twisting over our estuaries, it is a brilliant time to get out birdwatching. We have a huge influx of winter bird visitors, with internationally important numbers of waders and ducks who come to take advantage of the rich food resources on our estuaries and coasts, particularly in the east. There are also tiny goldcrests and firecrests who move south out of Scandinavia, and woodcock and snipe who fly back from Siberia to our comparatively warm climate. Even common species such as blackbirds and starlings move from Europe up into the UK over the winter.

Birds fill many different ecological niches and identifying bird species is not just a pleasure in itself, it can tell you a great deal about the ecology and biodiversity of the habitat they occupy. Spotting and identifying a new species can give you a real buzz and sitting quietly surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature is great for mental and physical wellbeing. It can be bewildering knowing how to identify birds, so we have compiled a beginner’s guide to making the most of the birds around us this winter. Using these tips can help if you sign up for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January, a vital citizen science project that gives an annual snapshot of how our garden birds are faring.

Choosing a pair of binoculars

Birdwatching is relatively inexpensive once you have invested in a pair of binoculars but it can be a daunting task as there are so many options. Choosing a pair of binoculars depends primarily on your budget but there are some additional guidelines that can help you find the best pair of binoculars in your price bracket.

Photo credit: S.Webber

Size and magnification - The most popular size of binoculars is 8 x 42, 8x magnification with a 42mm diameter lens. This is the ideal starting point for birdwatching binoculars, although if you have steady hands you can consider a pair with 10x magnification. When you use a higher magnification lens, you lose some of the visible area (known as field of view), so there is a trade off between seeing in more detail and how much you can see. For large landscapes and fast moving animals such as birds, 8x magnification is often more effective. Binoculars with 32mm diameter lenses have become more popular as they are compact and great for travelling. The diameter of the lens determines how much light the binoculars are letting in, so traditionally larger diameter lenses were better for dawn and dusk birdwatching. However, the quality of optics has improved so much in recent years that many 32mm diameter lens binoculars have excellent low light performance.

Bullfinch. Photo credit: caroline legg (www.flickr.com)

Glass quality and lens coatings - Every surface that the light travels through in a pair of binoculars affects how much light reaches your eye, so the quality of the glass used is important, and manufacturers apply lens and prism coatings to increase light transmission. Two key things to look out for when comparing pairs of binoculars are whether they have ED (extra-low dispersion) glass or phase coating on the prisms. These specifications make a noticeable improvement to the sharpness of the images that you are viewing. Check that lenses and prisms are fully multi-coated for the best quality images.

Waterproofing - Most pairs of binoculars are waterproof and usually fogproof as well, but it is worth checking as you may end up using them in all weathers.

Weight - The weight of binoculars can be very important if you are carrying them around your neck or using them for extended periods. Heavy binoculars may have better specifications but can be tiring to use.

Where and when to go birdwatching

Although you can birdwatch anywhere, some of the best places to go are RSPB, Wildlife Trust, WWT, or local reserves. These areas tend to attract aggregations of birds as they have habitat that is carefully managed for the benefit of wildlife. Many reserves have bird hides, and this is the ideal place to start as there will be a focal point that is popular with birds and possibly species information panels. For the best winter spectacles head to estuaries to see vast flocks of winter ducks and waders or reedbeds to see starling murmurations. See the websites below for specific details of where to go.

Wader displays (https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/where_to_see_wintering_waders)

Startling murmurations (https://www.starlingsintheuk.co.uk/)

Your own garden can also be a brilliant birdwatching spot if you provide bird feeders with a range of foods. Sunflower seed hearts will bring in finches, peanut feeders are popular with blue and great tits, and nyjer seed attracts redpolls and siskins. Ground feeders such as robins and thrushes will hoover up any dropped seed but will also love old apples. Providing a water bath is another great way to see birds up close from the comfort of your home and it is particularly important for birds during freezing conditions when natural sources ice over.

The best times to go birdwatching depend on the habitat. In woodlands and gardens birds will be most active just after dawn but on estuaries and coastal areas it will be low tide for feeding or high tide to see the birds all roosting together. To see starling murmurations you need to be there just before dusk.

How to identify and watch birds

Investing in a field guide is a really good idea when you start birdwatching and even experienced birdwatchers always carry one. The bible of European bird species is the Collins Bird Guide, which has detailed descriptions and clear illustrations. It can be a little overwhelming at first though so the RSPB Handbook of British Birds may be an easier first guide. Bird ID apps can be helpful although photographing birds can be difficult.

Photo credit: S. Webber

The first thing to consider when identifying birds is where you are, because many birds occur in specific habitats. The second thing is to try and work out what type of bird you are looking at by watching its behaviour, is it dabbling in water (a duck), is it wading or digging about in mud (a wader), is it perching in a tree (a passerine), is it an owl or a bird of prey. This will help you find the right part in the field guide as most of them are organised into taxonomic groups.

Identifying birds is as much about listening as it is about watching. Becoming familiar with the calls and songs of birds gives you a real clue as to which species you are looking at. You can improve this by listening to calls on websites such as the RSPB, which gives a sample call for each species.

We have collated some of the common species in each of the best wintry habitats for birdwatching to help you narrow it down.

Five common garden visitors

Great tit (Parus major)

Very common in gardens, black cap and yellow belly with black vertical stripe, very distinctive call. Photo credit: yrjö jyske (www.flickr.com)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Shy ground feeder, often seen running into hedges, slimmer than a sparrow, mottled brown colouration with grey cap. Photo credit: John Freshney (www.flickr.com)

Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Very common everywhere, dull to bright blue cap and wings with yellow belly and black eye stripe. Photo credit: yrjö jyske (www.flickr.com)

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Ground feeder, distinctive white flash on wings and outer tail feathers. Males have blue cap and pink belly, females are dull green. Photo credit: hedera.baltica (www.flickr.com)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Noisy and gregarious visitor to bird feeders, red face, black cap, bright yellow panel on wings. Photo credit: hedera.baltica (www.flickr.com)

Five common woodland birds

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

The only British bird that can hop down tree trunks, garden visitor as well as a woodland specialist. Blue grey above, white belly with chestnut sides and a black eye stripe. Photo credit: hedera.baltica (www.flickr.com)

Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Beautiful, shy woodland bird, most often seen in flight with a noticeable white patch on the back. Salmon pink colour with blue checkerboard pattern on wings and a black moustache. Listen out for their indignant squawking call. Photo credit: hedera.baltica (www.flickr.com)

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Large woodpecker that visits garden bird feeders as well as being common in woodlands. Smart black and white plumage, red under tail, males have red at the nape of the neck and juveniles have red caps. Photo credit: Airwolfhound (www.flickr.com)

Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)

Our smallest bird, weighing only 6g, they can be seen flitting in the tops of conifers. Black and gold head stripe, olive green back. Very high pitched song. Photo credit: yrjö jyske (www.flickr.com)

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Tiny birds that live in family groups and have a distinctive chirring call. Long tails with fluffy round bodies, black, white and apricot coloured plumage. Photo credit: m.shattock (www.flickr.com).

Five common coastal birds

Eurasian wigeon (Mareca penelope)

Chunky, noisy duck seen eating grass on estuaries, easily identified by their call. Males have a cream forehead on a chestnut head with a pink belly. Females are a more dull brown. Photo credit: Kev Chapman (www.flickr.com).

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

Found on farmland as well as coastal areas, distinctive call, and round wing shape. Crest on top of head, black and white chest and face and petrol green on wings. Photo credit: joe m devereux (www.flickr.com).

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Common on rocky shores and estuaries, noisy and distinctive call, black and white colour with bright orange beak and eyes. Photo credit: John Freshney (www.flickr.com).

Eurasian curlew (Numenius arquata)

Found on estuaries, digging in mud for ragworms with its long, curved beak. Large wader with mottled brown plumage and a hauntingly beautiful call. Photo credit: Hefin Owen (www.flickr.com).

Eurasian teal (Anas crecca)

Small delicate duck seen dabbling on estuaries with bright green panel on wings, males have a smart green and chestnut head. Photo credit: PhotoLoonie (www.flickr.com).

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