Birdwatching for all

Don't put the binoculars away just yet. Winter heralds an epic wildlife spectacle – the arrival of thousands of wintering birds from the Arctic.

Autumn and winter can be a bird watching frenzy, whether you're witnessing the unforgettable aerial display of a starling roost or greeting the mass arrival of birds from colder climes. There's so much to see, so pack a hot flask, brave the cold and let nature dazzle you.


Watching a starling murmuration is one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife spectacles you'll ever see. Every evening from November to March thousands of starlings perform a spectacular aerial dance, writhing and contorting through the sky like a dark phantom.

It can last several minutes then as suddenly it started, the entire flock drains away. There is no concrete explanation for why they do this: some experts say it is to distract predators, others say it is a way of communicating the location of food to other birds. The Somerset Levels, Brighton Pier and Gretna Green are reliable starling roost locations.

Whooper and Bewick's swans

We're all going on a summer holiday… to Britain's mudflats? That's right, our waterways and estuaries in winter are like the Costa Del Sol for swans visiting from Siberia. Bewick's swans are powerful despite their dumpy-looking small size, and you'll hear their distinctive call trumpeting over the wetlands of Britain's eastern coastal nature reserves.

Whoopers are our largest wintering swan, quite similar in appearance to our native mute but slimmer and with yellow bills. Their deep, honking call is reminiscent of a vuvuzela.

Tawny owls

They may not be a visitor from foreign frozen climes, but our native tawny owl likes to make the most of the long winter nights. Try going on an owl prowl after dark and listen out for that telltale toowhit-toowoo, which is either a male calling to a female or a male calling to another male, marking territory boundaries.

Tawnies are our commonest species of owl and can be found all over Britain, but we recommend a good night walk in Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland, which has over 200 tawny nesting boxes as well as two-thirds of England's red squirrels.

Barnacle, brent and pink-footed geese

Like the wintering swans from Siberia, Arctic geese like to escape the nippy conditions of Svalbard and bask in Britain's comparatively tropic climes, gorging on our mudflats and salt marshes before their 2,000 mile journey back north in spring.

Barnacle geese are so named because Medieval people believed they grew out of barnacles on trees. Pale-bellied brent geese are named after their guttural call and pink-footed geese do indeed have pink feet and legs. You'll find them in high numbers around the estuaries of Norfolk, Northumberland and Fife.

Redwings and fieldfares

It's not just wildfowl that seek refuge here in winter – we get high numbers of thrushes, too, particularly redwings and fieldfares. They come from Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia and love nothing more than a good forage on the outskirts of woodland and hedgerows, seeking hawthorn and rowan berries.

Redwings are song thrush sized and have a pale stripe above the eye and orangey-red patches under the wings, while fieldfares have a spotted breast and an ash-grey head and back. Try encouraging them into your garden this winter with some windfall fruit or by planting a native hedgerow.

Words: Abigail Whyte

Last date edited: 11 October 2017

About this blog


You're reading Waterfront, the online home of our supporters magazine. If you want to be the first to find out about out latest news and features then become a Friend of the Trust. We'll send you regular emails telling you all about our colourful canals and rivers and much more.

Become a Friend today

See more blogs from this author