Winter garden bird spotting

David Watkins / 11 December 2013 ( 24 January 2017 )

Find out which birds you are likely to see in your garden as cold weather drive some unfamiliar bird species into gardens in search of food.



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 slim pickings gives a real boost to their chances of survival.

Find out what to feed garden birds

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. Browse our gallery of winter birds above to help you identify the visitors in your garden.

Find out what the most common garden birds in the UK are

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Unusual birds you might see in your garden at winter

Browse our gallery above to help identify winter garden birds.

Waxwings

One of the most colourful is the waxwing (Bombycilla). 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.

Bramblings

A flash of orange and black among the chaffinches under the bird table will announce the presence of a small group of bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla), 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.

Siskins

Another unusual finch is the much smaller siskin (Spinus spinus), 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.

Redwings

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

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

Fieldfares

The fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) 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.

Blackcaps

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 (Sylvia atricapilla), 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

Tree sparrows (Passer montanus)  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.

Goldcrests

If you are really lucky, the harsh weather might just bring in our smallest British bird, the goldcrest (Regulus regulus). 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.

Read our tips for photographing garden birds

Make sure Mother Nature's littlest ones are well fed this winter with Robin & Songbird feed from Saga Garden Centre.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.