Winter garden bird spotting

By David Watkins, Wednesday 11 December 2013

Find out which birds you are likely to spot in your garden as wintry conditions drive some unfamiliar bird species into gardens in search of food.
FieldfareHunger can drive the fieldfare into gardens in winter

Winter can arrive out of nowhere. One day it can be autumn, the next the depths of winter as we’ve rarely experienced it. And, as we struggle to work or school, it’s likely we won’t have much time to think about how the birds are managing.

Birds face a huge struggle to survive the rigours that a British winter can throw at them. The darker days give them fewer daylight hours to find food and the snow covers vital feeding areas.

Worst still, if the bad weather comes at the beginning of the winter there is the possibility of further periods of similar weather to come. Wild birds' fat resources will be lost too early and many birds will perhaps not survive. So anything we can do to augment their meagre pickings gives a real boost to their chances of survival.

Many of the blackbirds and song thrushes, robins and starlings that visit our gardens in winter are in fact visitors from abroad, and not the ones who sang so wonderfully in the apple tree last spring.

They originated in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, fleeing even worse winter weather, leaving those Western Scandinavian shores on a stormy October night and crossing the North Sea to descend onto our eastern coasts and then to spread out in flocks across our counties.

With them come other birds that are rarely seen in most of our gardens. Until, that is, the prolonged frosts and deep snows drive even these birds from their usual rural wanderings to seek out food among our more regular visitors. Scroll down to see our gallery of winter birds to help you identify the visitors in your garden.

Unusual birds you might see in your garden at winter

One of the most colourful is the waxwing. Occurring most winters on the eastern half of the UK, these starling-sized birds sometimes erupt east from the continent, apparently due to failure of the berries they rely on, and then we are inundated with flocks of these amiable, and often very approachable, birds.

The waxwing's weak trilling call is distinctive as they work their way from berry bush to berry bush, devouring avidly the rowan and cotoneaster berries left untouched until now.

A flash of orange and black among the chaffinches under the bird table will announce the presence of a small group of bramblings, a finch closely related to the chaffinch, but a more robust-looking bird.

The female brambling is more subdued in its colouration but both sexes show a distinctive white rump as they fly off. Their wheezy nasal call should stand out among the other calls in the garden.

Another unusual finch is the much smaller siskin, the male with a gorgeous bright yellow and green plumage with a black cap.

As ever, the female siskin is a duller colour but both have a penchant for peanuts and will allow excellent views as the flock jostle for positions on the feeders with the goldfinches and tits.

As the frosts and snow really settle in you could be graced with fleeting visits from small flocks of two winter thrushes.

The redwing, slightly smaller than a song thrush, has an orange flash on its flanks and a high-pitched wispy call.

The fieldfare is a bigger, more solid thrush, elegant against the snow in its grey, brown and white and often with a striking yellow bill.

Shy at first, hunger will bring the fieldfare close. Apples chopped up and strewn on part of the lawn brushed free from snow usually results in a visit from a passing flock of these lovely birds.

Most of the British warblers rely on insects and, as our winters just can’t sustain them, they migrate in late autumn returning from April as the sun stirs the bugs and spiders they need.

However one British warbler, the blackcap, has become increasingly hardy and perhaps thousands now stay over in the UK. Still finding it hard to find food in harsher weather they will readily come to bird tables, the male is easy to identify with its black cap, the female is less so with its dull brown cap.

Tree sparrows are increasing after a shocking decline in the last thirty years. Learning to take advantage of the bird feeders they are often overlooked in rural and town edge gardens amongst our more usual house sparrows.

And, if you are really lucky, the harsh weather might just bring in our smallest British bird, the goldcrest. Usually more at home in conifer plantations seeking out small insects and spiders, goldcrests will occasionally come to the bird table for crushed up mealworms and other insect food. Finely-crushed suet balls sprinkled on a bird table will prove attractive to this species.

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  • Waxwing
  • Brambling
  • Siskin male
  • Siskin female
  • Redwing
  • Fieldfare
  • Blackcap male
  • Blackcap female
  • Tree sparrow
  • Goldcrest


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  • Web Editor

    Posted: Tuesday 24 February 2015

    Hi Stephen, that sounds like a blackcap male - there is one pictured in the slideshow on this article.

  • Stephen fleet

    Posted: Wednesday 07 January 2015

    I have seen a small grey bird with a black cap on my feeders never seen it before and don't know what it. Is

  • gaynor collins

    Posted: Friday 12 December 2014

    We have an unusual bird in our garden at the moment. Not sure if he's lost but haven't seen him before. He's about the size of a pigeon but with longer legs and has long talloned feet. He is black with white marks on his wing tips and a mostly brown beak with a yellow piece on the end. He isn't hurt and can fly but seems content in the garden. Not sure if he was on his way to some water as he looks like some sort of wading bird - can anyone help identify him?

  • Janet Hitchen

    Posted: Thursday 27 November 2014

    the grey squirrels have destroyed our squirrel-proof nut feeders and stolen the nuts! The jays are also enjoying eating nuts.

  • colin cotterill

    Posted: Thursday 24 January 2013

    i have now got 2fieldfare thrushes in my garden,at first they were joining in when feeding with the other wild birds now they are now very agressive to them all not allowing them any were near the food,they both stand on our fence or in the trees,and swoop down not letting the other birds eat any food.any one got any ideas what to do if any

  • Margery Bonser

    Posted: Saturday 19 January 2013

    19th January 2013
    yesterday I sore a Fieldfare in my garden.I was so thilled ,first I've seen this bird close up .It was eating apples that I had chopped up,have put some more out today. Fingers crossed he come back again. Happy bird watching

  • Brenchley

    Posted: Tuesday 20 December 2011

    Keeping our bird feeders full of nuts and sunflower seeds keeps us poor! But what a joy they are. I put all the peelings from our vegetable cooking into the saucepan in which the potatoes were boiled, apple peelings, any food scraps,and let them simmer for a while. We then let them cool, and put them out on a clear patch of grass. The bigger birds sit in the nearby trees waiting for this free gift. Costs almost nothing. Gives endless pleasure to us and the birds. And no smelly dustbins!


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