Some people go away for Christmas, others stay at home. Ever wondered what birds do during winter?
'On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... two turtle doves...'
An extravagant gift by anyone's standards, especially when you take into account the gold rings and all the rest of it. And difficult to obtain, too, because at Christmas time, turtle doves are a long way south of the UK, somewhere south of the Sahara.
Where exactly they go is not known at the moment, but finding out is increasingly important. We need to find out what's happening and where. Numbers of turtle doves have been falling since the 1970s - it's now estimated there are only seven turtle doves for every 100 there were in 1970. It's a shocking decline, but a team of RSPB researchers is working on ways to help turtle doves in the UK.
Where does the robin go bobbin'?
With all its appearances on cards at this time of year, the robin must be our commonest bird at the moment. Most robins that breed in the UK will stay put the whole year round, but occasionally some may head on to France, Spain or Portugal, which is where mainland Europe's robins spend winter.
The ospreys that breed at our nature reserve at Loch Garten in Scotland have been popular for decades. But thanks to smaller, lighter satellite tracking technology, we've been able to reveal where the young birds go once they've flown the nest. This autumn, we've followed Tore and Bynack on two different routes through France, Spain and north Africa, to spend their first Christmasses in Senegal (Tore) and Mauritania (Bynack).
Winter sun for birds
For a long time, people believed that swallows spent the winter in mud at the bottom of ponds. But in 1912, a swallow with a British ring was reported from Natal in South Africa. Ringing has shown that most of the swallows that breed in the UK head that way, but in contrast, we know very little about where house martins go. They sleep while flying and even have feathered legs and feet to keep them warm while they circulate at altitude!
Cuckoos arrive in the UK in from mid-April, and leave again in summer. But until very recently, we weren't sure where they went for winter. However, our friends at the British Trust for Ornithology have been satellite-tracking some cuckoos using tags that weigh the same as five paperclips, and all five tagged cuckoos have now arrived in the rainforests of Congo, central Africa.
Of course, some birds join us for winter. Turnstones are wading birds that are quite easy to see on a visit to the seaside - rummaging through seaweed or pebbles on a beach, or awaiting fish and chip remnants on the pier.
Take this example. In January 2000, one particular turnstone was fitted with special coloured plastic rings as part of a study of waders on The Wash in East Anglia. The unique combination of rings made it possible for the bird to be recognised another 45 times between 2000 and 2009, often on Hunstanton seafront.
Chips and what?
From its winter home in the UK, the turnstone returned to its breeding site at Alert in Arctic Canada. It's a pretty extreme place to go and breed - the average temperature in July is only 3.3 degrees Celsius (38 degrees F) and it’s just over 500 miles from the North Pole. A far cry from the English coast.
Erase images of pristine Arctic Frozen Planet-style landscapes from your mind. At Alert, the turnstone was feeding in a sewage outfall, together with another bird which had been ringed at The Wash! It goes to show that a rubbish diet in Canada, followed by chips in Hunstanton, helps a turnstone to live for at least 10 years...
With some birds undertaking mighty impressive journeys, it's perhaps a little disappointing to find out that a lot of garden birds - blue, great and long-tailed tits, dunnocks, sparrows, woodpeckers and wrens - are unlikely to ever fly very far from the place where they hatched. That makes your garden even more important!
Is the stress of Christmas shopping getting you down?
Well, here's a brilliant photo by Andrew Parkinson to brighten up your day.
Just look at that little nose!
If this furry fellow isn't enough for you, you can find lots more wonderful wildlife photos in our image library.
Leave the crowds behind and head to one of our wonderful reserve shops. There you can get your nature fix and still go Christmas shopping! Here’s three family-friendly reserves to try:
Let’s start with Minsmere...
Nestled on the Suffolk coast, this expanse of woodland, reedbed and scrub has long been a favourite with anyone who loves nature.
Not least me; it was the first RSPB reserve I visited as a kid. I still vividly remember the huge (well certainly to a seven-year old!) red deer stag that emerged resplendent from the undergrowth and crossed my path.
Visit the scrape to watch the vast array of wildfowl, waders and gulls. Look out across the forest of swaying reeds towards the giant golf ball that is Sizewell B nuclear power station from the bittern hide.
Don’t forget to visit the brand new Island Mere hide, before winding up at the visitor centre for a well earned cup of tea and rummage through the shop.
Ok, from an old favourite to the new kid on the block: Saltholme
Opened in 2009, Saltholme combines state-of-the-art buildings and hides with breathtaking scenic views.
There’ll be waders, ducks, geese and gulls galore. Maybe even a water rail will put in an appearance. The cafe has gained a reputation for great food with a great view. It’s great for the family too as there’s even an adventure playground!
Have I mentioned welly wanging? No, well, there’s even a welly wanging event taking place on Saturday and Sunday. If I lived anywhere near Middlesbrough, I’d certainly be taking a trip to Saltholme this weekend.
So, going further north, we have Vane Farm...
Located at the southern end of the Loch Leven National Nature Reserve, there’s plenty to see and do...
On Saturday, there’s a crafty Christmas event for children where they can make Christmas cards and decorations. Why not leave your wildlife explorer there whilst you pick out a present for them?
In terms of UK wildlife, it doesn’t come much bigger than a white-tailed eagle. There’s been one around this week, and in amongst the wonderful wigeons and stately pintails you might even spy the rare green-winged teal, there’s been one of them too. So there really is something for everyone!
There are loads of other great reserves with shops. You can find one near you on our website. So this weekend, get out, see some wildlife and find that Christmas present, all in one place!
Have a good ‘un
Well, for my first Monday’s Magic Moment, I picked this cracking shot of pink-footed geese leaving their roost in The Wash, taken by David Tipling.
I saw the weather forecast last night, and it’s definitely getting colder. Cold weather only means one thing for me: geese! I love nothing more than wrapping up warm and heading out to watch the v-shaped skeins of pinkies fly over my head.
If you don’t live close enough to see this spectacle, then you can get an idea of it from all the other great images on RSPB images. You can’t feel the cold though!
Everyone loves owls. This weekend, why not try to see a real, wild one?
Unfortunately, we can't promise a snowy owl like Harry Potter's beloved Hedwig (though you can get a small, fluffy one from our shop!). But luckily, there are a few other species that are easier to see in most parts of the UK.
What to look for
At the moment there are quite a lot of short-eared owls in the UK. They're bigger than barn owls, and a creamy-buff colour with brown streaks and spots. Watch out for those piercing bright yellow eyes!
Every autumn and winter, our resident short-eared owls are joined by visitors from Europe. At some places which have ideal habitat and food, you might be lucky enough to see several owls. They are a bit prone to having their prey stolen by kestrels, though!
Barn owls can be seen in many parts of the UK all year-round. They're paler than short-eared owls but often look white, especially when glimpsed in the headlights of a car. It's well worth paying a visit to a reserve where you can watch them hunting at length. They seem to float over the ground, stopping to hover and look for prey before dropping down into the grass to pounce on a tasty rodent. Magical!
The third owl species you might be able to see easily is the little owl. They don't have a graceful flight, but do have regular perches where they like to rest during the day. That might be against the trunk of a gnarly old tree, or on top of a farm building. Like short-eared owls, they have an icy glare which could freeze your blood at a thousand paces.
Where to see them
Lots of our nature reserves are good places to see owls. Or you could try somewhere different. Places with rough grassland are often good for watching owls and birds of prey, as there's plenty of prey - voles and mice - to be found there. If you're going owl-watching, wrap up warm and stay as quiet as you can. Your patience may be rewarded - hunting owls can often fly to within a few metres if you keep still.
Let us know what you see!