Eight birds to look out for during the Big Garden Birdwatch

Blue tit. Getty images

January is an interesting time to look for birds in the garden, as days are short and the availability of natural food is limited. This brings more birds into gardens, for whom a reliable source of supplementary food can be a lifeline.

Whether it’s damp and mild or icy and cold, keep an eye on unusual visitors that may pop into your garden this winter. As well as the common species such as tits, house sparrows, blackbirds and robins, you may spot more unusual visitors as both countryside birds and winter migrants come into gardens in search of food. If conditions are cold then birds that usually don’t use gardens may come in for some sunflower seed or to drink from your supply of fresh water.


Blackcap

Blackcap. Getty images.
Blackcap. Getty images

The blackcap is a British resident although rarely comes into gardens, and overwinters in the Mediterranean. However some German blackcaps overwinter in the UK, and are more likely to visit gardens, particularly in cold weather. Greyish all over, only the male has a black cap, the female’s is chestnut brown. Blackcaps feed on berries and – unlike other garden birds –seem to like the berries of beauty berry, Callicarpa bodinieri. They have a reputation for being a bit of a bully at the bird feeder, chasing off other birds and not letting them feed. So if they come into your garden you will know about it!


Redwing

Redwing. Getty images.
Redwing. Getty images.

The UK’s smallest true thrush, the redwing is mostly a winter visitor from Scandinavia although there is a small number of breeding pairs in the far north of Scotland. It has a creamy strip above its eye and orange-red patches under the crease of its wings. It typically gathers in flocks, often with fieldfares, and roams the countryside, feeding in fields and hedgerows on berries and windfall apples. It rarely visits gardens, except in the coldest conditions when snow covers the fields. If it’s cold over the garden birdwatch, leave halved apples out on the ground and keep your fingers crossed.


Fieldfare

Fieldfare. Getty images.
Fieldfare. Getty images.

Another winter thrush to look out for is the fieldfare. This is a large thrush, about the size of a mistle thrush. It has a grey head and rump, black tail, reddish cream-and black-speckled chest and flanks, and chestnut-brown back and wings. Fieldfares spend winter in flocks, often alongside redwings. Like redwings they roam the countryside in search of berries and fallen apples. They have a harsh ‘chack-chack’ call.


Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit. Getty images.
Long-tailed tit. Getty images.

The long-tailed tit is an increasingly common sight in gardens. Like a little flying badger, it has a blush-pink and white body, with a black and white striped head. Its tail is longer than its body. Long-tailed tits are usually found in small flocks of up to 20 birds, and seem to fly from one tree to another cautiously, egged on with a little ‘deet-deet’ from its clan. Like most tits, long-tailed tits scout woods and hedgerows for insects and other morsels, but will also visit gardens to snack on peanuts and suet treats.


Goldcrest

Goldcrest. Getty images.
Long-tailed tit. Getty images.

Along with the firecrest, the goldcrest is Britain’s smallest bird. It’s greyish-green with a pale belly. Both sexes have a black and yellow stripe on their head although this has an orange centre in males. Their thin beak is designed to pick insects out from between pine needles, so they are often seen in evergreen trees, including conifers and yew. In winter, goldcrests forage in large roving groups with tits. Look out for them flying between trees and hanging from branches, searching for small morsels such as overwintering insects, along with their eggs and larvae.


Waxwing

Waxwings. Getty images.
Waxwings. Getty images.

The waxwing is a gregarious winter visitor and rarely turns up in gardens although some years this is more likely than others and this year there are rumours that we’re having a ‘waxwing winter’. A winter migrant from Scandinavia, it’s about the size of a starling and looks like it’s wearing 1980s make-up. Reddish-brown with a black throat, it has a prominent orange crest and black masks around the eyes. Its wings have yellow and white markings and it has a yellow-tipped tail. It’s thought that large winter ‘irruptions’ are due to food availability in Scandinavia. They feed on berries, particularly rowan and hawthorn, although will also eat cotoneaster berries and rosehips. They will come into gardens when food availability is scarce, so keep an eye out!


Siskin

Siskin. Getty images.
Siskin. Getty images.

The siskin is a small, yellowish finch, slightly smaller than a greenfinch. It has a forked tail and a narrow bill. The male has a streaky yellow-green body and a black crown and bib. The female lacks the black bib and is grey-green in colour. It’s a resident breeder in most of Britain but is more common in Scotland and Wales. It eats seeds of trees, particularly conifers, and some insects. Siskins are not that common in gardens but will come in more often in wet weather and if the sitka spruce seed crop is poor. Then you will find them on your feeders.


Greenfinch

Greenfinch. Getty images.
Greenfinch. Getty images.

The greenfinch is a large finch, mostly olive-green in colour with a yellow patch on the wings and tail. Females are less colourful. They make a twittering and wheezing song that’s most often heard in spring. A common sight in gardens, they eat sunflower seeds although the disease trichomoniasis – a parasitic disease passed between birds at feeding stations and bird baths – has seen dramatic declines in populations. To help stop the spread, make sure to keep your bird feeders clean. In winter, greenfinches forage with other finches, such as goldfinches and chaffinches, and are often seen ‘hogging’ the bird feeder.

The Big Garden Birdwatch takes place between 26-28 January 2024. Choose one hour and sit and record the birds that visit your garden.

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