Bird identification and sightings
Seen something weird and wonderful, rare or unusual? Struggling to identify a bird you can't recognise? Our team of experts are here to help!
Bird identification and sightings
Sent in by James Johnson, London. 21 September 2012
It's great to hear that you and your family are getting into bird watching, and hopefully interested in other wildlife too. There are so many useful books out there, from pocket guides that are handy to have with you in the field to comprehensive ID and reference guides for those species that might need further research. I would recommend popping into your nearest RSPB shop and having a look at the books available, the staff will hopefully be able to point you in the right direction.
I would also recommend that you all take a pocket sketch book and pencils with you, it always helps to write down what you have seen and if you have seen something you don't know, a quick sketch of the features can help put a name to it later. Of course you could go down the technology route of taking pictures or using some of the wildlife identification app's that are now available.
As for local groups in the south east, we have a few options in the south east London area, you can search for one on the link provided (top right).
With regards to binoculars, my advice would be to try before you buy. What works for one person might not suit the next so it is important to get to grips with them. As a quick guide, binoculars have a two figure identifier such as 8 x 42. The 8 refers to the magnification and whilst the 42 refers to the diameter of the biggest lense and therefore the amount of light.
What you go for depends on what you want from them, for example a pair of 8 x 42 binoculars will be great for watching birds at nature reserves. However they are usually quite large and might not be suitable if you are looking for a small and lightweight pair to fit in your glovebox or for travel, in which case trying out some 8 x 25 or 8 x 32 pairs might be better. The smaller pairs may also be better for the younger naturalist. Most of our reserve shops also have optics available, please pop along and give some a try. You can search for your nearest using the links (top right).
Sent in by Vicky Neatrour, Virginia, USA. 11 November 2011
There are many species of birds of prey (or raptors) that could be seen in groups and for a variety of reasons. Scavenging birds such as vultures can be seen in large groups when they are circling above a carcass. They will then descend to feed in large numbers. The larger the prey, the more birds will come down to feed.
Some raptors, such as Harris's hawks, hunt in small groups. Up to six birds can all hunt together to catch larger prey and they are generally more successful using this method. This could involve one bird chasing a prey item out of cover for the others to catch.
However, most raptors that hunt for their prey tend to prefer hunting on their own. Birds such as buzzards can be seen in large numbers in recently-ploughed fields feeding on worms.
Raptors can be seen together where there are thermals. The rising warm air helps the bird gain height and this can be particularly useful for the larger raptors such as eagles, vultures and kites. Large numbers of these birds could be seen sharing a thermal and getting a ride up to a height from where they can watch out for prey or carrion.
Some raptors will roost communally including harriers, kites and lesser kestrels. In the case of lesser kestrels, thousands of birds have been recorded roosting together in the same town in South Africa.
Sent in by Sandra Mallon, Wigan, Lancashire. 8 June 2011
The UK is home to three species of buzzards. Most birds classed as buzzard belong to the genus Buteo.
The [common] buzzard is our most common bird of prey. It is widespread throughout the UK and a familiar site to most of us and small numbers of rough-legged buzzards spend winter in the UK. As well as these two species, a relatively small breeding population of honey buzzards come to the UK to breed.
India has three resident Buteo species. One of these is the [common] buzzard. There are also long-legged and upland buzzards. And India is also home to the Oriental honey buzzard and the white-eyed buzzard.
The black kite is another common bird of prey in India.
Sent in by Tracey Gardner, London. 3 December 2010
It sounds like you have seen some ring-necked parakeets. This species is the UK's only naturalised parrot - it is large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. It is found mainly in south-east England, particularly London, Surrey, Kent and Sussex feeding on fruit, berries, nuts and seeds.
Parakeets have been popular pets since the Victorian times, and inevitably, many birds have escaped or been deliberately released over the years.
Despite their tropical origin, the parakeets are fully able to cope with the cold British winters, especially in suburban parks, large gardens, and orchards, where food supply is more reliable. They actually originate from the foothills of the Himalayas, so they do not need it to be that warm to live comfortably. There are as many as 50,000 in London.
Ring-necked parakeets are hole-nesters, often taking over an old woodpecker nest hole, or a larger-sized nestbox. They start nesting early, often in January, but some birds lay eggs as late as June.
The early start to the breeding season means that they have a wide choice of nesting sites with little competition for holes. Their main competitors are starlings, and also woodpeckers and owls. These colourful birds are sometimes loved and sometimes hated as garden visitors.
There are concerns of how they may affect our native fauna, and of their impact on fruit-growers. As yet, there have been no problem either way, but as their numbers increase, they may become a problem in the future.
Despite being an introduced species, the ring-necked parakeet is protected in the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However, it may be killed or taken under the terms of some General Licences. It is illegal to release or allow them to escape into the wild.
Sent in by Ann Bassett, Co. Down. 18 November 2010
There are four woodpecker species found in the UK - all are largely absent from Ireland.
Green, great spotted and lesser spotted woodpeckers generally stay in the same area all year round. These three species, along with many others in mainland Europe, don't seem to like crossing large bodies of water. So they don't make regular journeys across the Irish Sea or the Channel.
However, a few great spotted woodpeckers have crossed the Irish Sea, and there is now a small breeding population. There are no reports of green woodpeckers or lesser spotted woodpeckers in Ireland.
It would be great if you could report your sighting via Birdtrack, so that we can learn more about how and where these pioneering woodpeckers are colonising.
Wrynecks are rare summer visitors to the UK. Occasionally, they breed here but most are just migrating between Africa and mainland Europe. Most sightings in the UK are along the south and east coasts - they very rarely reach Ireland.
Middle spotted, black and grey-headed woodpeckers all breed in northern France but have never been recorded in the UK. These birds just don't like crossing open water.
Sent in by Hilary Wingfield, Aylesbury, Bucks. 12 November 2010
Of the owl species that can turn up in the UK, there are five that you are likely to encounter. Whilst some are distinctly nocturnal (mostly active at night), others are active during the day ('diurnal'). Some are 'crepuscular' - which means active around dawn and dusk.
The loud screeching suggests that you are lucky enough to have a barn owl nearby. In parts of the UK, the barn owl has local names such as the screech owl, screecher and hissing owl.
This can be quite a haunting sound to come across; no doubt countless ghost stories have come from encounters with this strange noise and seeing a ghostly white shape as the bird silently drifts over fields in low light!
Barn owls do hunt through the night but are also active at dawn and dusk, particularly if food is hard to come by (for example during short winter days) or when they need to find extra food to feed hungry chicks.
The short-eared owl is a bird of open country; grassland, moors, marshes and sand dunes are just some of the habitats where you may encounter this stunning bird. They are actually rather silent birds most of the time. They regularly hunt through the day but dusk is the best time to spot them.
The little owl is another with a tendency to hunt at dusk and dawn but not exclusively. They are quite vocal birds with a wide range of calls, sometimes sounding similar to the yelps of a small dog. The tawny owl, the most common in the UK, and the long-eared owl, a seldom seen species, are both mostly nocturnal.
If you hear an owl calling that resembles the familiar 'too-wit-to-woo' then you are hearing a pair of tawny owls!
Sent in by David Thornber. 21 May 2010
The nightingale is a fascinating bird. Most people know of it yet few will have actually been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one.
Some RSPB reserves attract nightingales every year - Minsmere, in Suffolk, is a great place to hear them. In some years they can be heard from the car park! Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire, Garston Wood in Dorset and Pulborough Brooks, West Sussex, are all good places for nightingales. Other sites that offer good opportunities to hear nightingales include Brampton Woods and Paxton Pits, both in Cambridgeshire.
The best time of year to hear nightingales is May to early June when they should be in full song. Nightingales will sing at dawn and dusk but if you are lucky you may even hear them singing during the day as well.
Areas of woodland, scrub and heath with plenty of dense low vegetation such as bramble thickets are great places for nightingales to hide. To find a nightingale in the UK you should head to the southeast of England, which is their UK stronghold.
Considering their small size, dull colours and skulking habits you could quite easily overlook this bird. However, the unassuming nightingale has one of the most powerful, recogniseable and celebrated songs of all birds.
They live a life filled with danger as they are one of the many migrants that makes the return journey from Africa to Europe to spend the summer here. The nightingale population in the UK is declining along with many other long-distance migrants. Problems in their wintering grounds and on the migration are cause for concern but a lack of suitable dense under story cover for nesting and a lack of insect food may also be factors in their decline.
Sent in by David Martin, Blackmore, Essex. 15 January 2010
A very seasonal and timely question indeed. Your mystery bird is a fieldfare.
Fieldfares nest in Scandinavia, and around 680,000 of them arrive in Britain each autumn to spend their winter here, in what ought to be milder climate than that they leave behind.
In a 'normal' year, most fieldfares stay on farmland, where they are able to feed on grubs, earthworms and hedgerow berries, and on fallen apples in orchards. This winter, the widespread snow cover has forced far more fieldfares into gardens in search of berries and fruit, and more of us are treated to these less frequent visitors to our gardens.
Although fieldfares are described as social birds, the number of them that hang around any area is dependent on the amount of food available, and single birds and pairs are often seen.
Many birds, including fieldfares, can get very possessive of a feeding station in these harsh weather conditions, and do their utmost to keep all other birds at bay.
We have received reports of single bossy fieldfares, but also of sizeable flocks behaving "normally". The most outstanding report was the 5,000 fieldfares that descended on a Suffolk orchard feasting on the windfall apples.
Sent in by Jacqueline Bradley, Brinsley, Notts. 9 January 2009
It is quite possible you observed a flock of grey herons. They are often seen alone, but can gather in numbers too.
Herons are most often seen flying along water courses at low level as they move between feeding areas. They are strong fliers with distinctive slow-flapping wingbeats on strongly curved wings. They fly with their head and neck tucked in and their legs protruding beyond their tails. If they are flying longer distances, for example to a roosting site or while on migration, you can see them flying much higher. They occasionally use thermals to gain height, much like birds of prey.
Grey herons are resident in the UK all year round, but do migrate in parts of their range, generally to avoid harsh weather or to move to better foraging grounds after breeding.
I witnessed a flock migrating across the Bay of Biscay a couple of years ago. Seeing a flock of herons in the middle of the ocean was quite a surprise. With regard to the birds you observed, I would think that they were heading to a roost - favoured sites are areas of large trees near water.
Grey herons do roost communally and nest in heronries, which can hold large numbers of nesting pairs.
Some of our nature reserves offer great opportunities to see herons at their heronries. Marazion Marsh, Cornwall has a population of breeding herons that unusually nest in reedbeds rather than trees, Northward Hill, Kent has nearly 150 pairs of herons nesting in woodland and we have run a Heronwatch at the Ellesmere visitor centre in Shropshire.
Sent in by Heidi Freeman, Hampshire. 24 November 2008
With their bright blue and orange plumage, kingfishers are possibly the most distinctive birds found in the UK.
They are found by rivers, lakes, ponds across much of the UK, and also on estuaries and coastal areas during the winter.
Getting close views of them, however, is not easy as they are very shy birds. They are also specially protected from disturbance under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, so it is important to steer well clear of their nesting sites at all times. The best way to watch them is to find a likely spot where they go fishing.
It is quite possible that local waterways to you have resident kingfishers. I would recommend investigating your local streams, ponds and rivers, paying particular attention to bends and overgrown corners as these are ideal hunting locations. Look out for overhanging branches that kingfishers could use to launch their attacks. If you can see fish coming to the surface even better.
Once you have found a possible location where you can sit in relative comfort with a clear view of the perch, it is a case of sitting still, being patient and hoping one comes along. Its best to wear plain, dark clothes and take nothing with you that rustles in order to prevent disturbing the bird, if you are lucky enough to see one.
We have a number of wetland reserves in the south where kingfishers are regular visitors. Rye Meads in Hertfordshire has created artificial sand banks to encourage this special bird to nest. The reserve also has hides where you can watch without any worries about disturbing them. Radipole Lake, Weymouth, Dorset and Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire, also offer exciting opportunities to observe the Kingfisher. Pulborough Brooks has four hides and three viewpoints which gives visitors a great opportunity of observing many species of bird.
Sent in by Cathryn Ryall, West Midlands. 26 September 2008
Crow flocks gather nationwide during the winter months. Look near open farmland and grassland, especially pastures where invertebrate populations are highest. Generally, numbers will peak around Christmas time with the birds returning to their breeding areas around February.
As mentioned in Crow Country, our Buckenham Marshes nature reserve in Norfolk is one site where tens of thousands of jackdaws and rooks can be seen coming into roost at dusk (it’s a wonderful site for wildfowl, too). It’s likely that there are other roosts close to you. To find out, why not contact your nearest RSPB local group?
Flocking and communal roosting have several benefits for birds, and crows (or ‘corvids’) form single- and multi-species flocks and roosts with other crows. One particular roost in Cornwall numbered 200 carrion crows, 2,500 rooks and 7-8,000 jackdaws!
Outside the breeding season, daytime flocks form from early afternoon. They gather around abundant food sources, such as freshly ploughed fields, and large numbers improve the chances of locating sources of food. More pairs of eyes mean safety in numbers, too: predators are more likely to be spotted and the flock can ‘mob’ them and drive them away.
It's a family affair
There are eight members of the crow family in the UK: carrion crow, rook, jackdaw, raven, hooded crow, chough, magpie and jay.
Crows are mostly resident and rarely move far from their breeding grounds, although weather conditions and food availability may force them to move around. In winter, jackdaws and rooks from northern and eastern Europe join our resident crows, especially in eastern parts of the UK.
After the breeding season, young crows fledge the nest at around a month old. Jackdaws are fed by their parents for a further month until they are left to their own devices, while young rooks and crows stay with the adults until the late summer. Carrion crows sometimes remain in family groups through the winter.
Who’s a clever bird?
Crows are considered perhaps the most intelligent family of birds and experiments have shown they are even capable of arbitrary thought. They can tell the difference between one, two and three, can recognise themselves, set bait for fish and even solve problems using basic tools.
Crows are highly opportunistic and adaptable, and can live in a wide variety of habitats. The most common UK crow species have enjoyed a population increase of around 80-100 per cent in the past 25 years. So they regularly come into conflict with humans, who are perhaps their biggest predators.
Sent in by Kate MacGlashan, Nairn, Highland. 28 July 2008
Within the woodpecker family we have four species which are native to the UK. The Great spotted woodpecker and green woodpecker are common breeders. The lesser spotted woodpecker is an increasingly uncommon breeder. The wryneck is a former breeder, which now only occurs as a scarce, annual passage migrant.
Great spotted woodpeckers are by far and away the most common species of the four with an estimated 44,000 breeding pairs distributed across the whole UK.
To the trained eye it is easy to distinguish between adult great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers.
Great spotted woodpeckers are considerably larger birds (thrush-sized) than lesser spotted woodpeckers, which are about the size of a house sparrow.
Great spotted woodpeckers have large white 'shoulder' patches. The female great spotted woodpecker has no red on its head at all and the male just has a small red aptch on the back of its head.
Lesser spotted woodpeckers always have a complete red cap and lack the white shoulder patch.
It can be more problematic when differentiating between juvenile great spotted woodpeckers and lesser spotted woodpeckers.
Juvenile great spotted woodpeckers have the same red cap on the head as an adult lesser spotted woodpecker and still have white 'shoulder patches'. This means that they are sometimes thought to be hybrids of the two species.
The moult from juvenile to adult plumage can be rather slow and protracted and the full adult plumage won't be fully apparent until March - April the following year.
Perhaps the key thing to note in terms of distinguishing between great spotted and lesser spotted woodpeckers at any life stage is that great spotted woodpeckers have a red flush of colour underneath their tails. This is not present on any of our other native woodpeckers.
Additionally, lesser spotted woodpeckers are far less common with an estimated 2,500 breeding pairs mainly concentrated to Southern England. It would certainly be very rare to see one as far north as Inverness.
Please see the following web page for more information regarding UK woodpecker species: Woodpecker family
Sent in by Christine Highams, Cornwall. 20 June 2008
As an occasional summer migrant to our southern shores the Bee-eater, with its unmistakable plumage is an amazing bird to see. Often seen perching on telegraph wires or bare branches, UK sightings of this remarkably colourful bird can fluctuate year in year out, their numbers varying from 14 to 132 each year. Current Cornish sightings, this year alone include a record on 24 May near Porthcurno and more recently in June, when one was seen at Lands End (16 June) as well as one bird seen flying over St Just (17 June).
There have been two recent records of Bee-eaters breeding in the UK: in County Durham in 2002 and Herefordshire in 2005. A pair also excavated a nest hole in Dorset in 2006. Records dating back to 1955, show that two pairs of Bee-eaters managed to successfully breed in Sussex and one pair made an attempt to breed in Midlothian, Scotland in 1920.
The Bee-eater usually starts to breed from early May onwards and normally in lowland and steppe areas of the Palaearctic and Mediterranean, before choosing to winter in parts of Africa.
Along with its stunning plumage, which features a blue-green tail, yellow throat and chestnut coloured crown, the Bee-eater has a distinctive ‘pruuk-pruik’ call, which is far ranging and fluid in tone. In order to catch its prey, the Bee-eater is an agile and skilful flyer and their diet as their name suggests, includes flying insects such as bees and wasps. Once their prey is caught, it is taken to a favourite perch and the sting actively removed.
Sent in by Ann Flack, Ruislip, Middlesex. 11 January 2008
I think you were lucky enough to see a cattle egret. Cattle egrets are very similar in size and character to little egrets, especially from a distance, but if you get a good look at them, they are easy to distinguish by the colour of the beak and legs.
While the little egret has a black beak and black legs ending in yellow feet, the beak and legs of a cattle egret are all yellow. In breeding birds, the beak will darken to orange, and they will sport orange plumes on their chest, back and head.
Cattle egrets are widespread in the warmer climate zones across the world. In Europe, they breed in the Mediterranean region, primarily in Spain and Portugal, but they have expanded their range northwards in recent years.
'Since late October, we have been very lucky to experience an 'invasion' by cattle egrets'
The first cattle egret in the UK was recorded in 1962. In the past 15 years, cattle egrets have become annual visitors to our shores, although numbers have rarely reached double figures.
Since late October, we have been very lucky to experience an 'invasion' by cattle egrets. While one bird has stayed in Dumfries and Galloway for some weeks, most sightings have come from south-west England. Since the New Year, it is thought that there are some 50 birds in Cornwall alone, and quite a few have also moved on to Ireland.
Until 20 years ago, little egrets were only occasionally encountered in the UK, but since the major influx of 1989 they have been regulars, culminating in the first successful breeding in 1996. They are now firmly established in the UK with current breeding numbers possibly in excess of 200 pairs.
The cattle egret seems to be following in its cousin's footsteps, and it is widely predicted that it would be the next bird to start to breed in Britain. The large numbers we have seen this autumn and winter will surely make it that little bit more likely to happen in the coming years. Watch this space..
Sent in by Robin Lane, Devizes. 9 February 2007
What you saw was most likely a little egret. These are medium sized herons, about 60 cm tall, with pure white feathers, a long black bill and black legs.
One of their most distinctive features is their bright yellow toes and when they are breeding they develop two long feather plumes on their neck. The Society for the Protection of Birds (which later became the RSPB) was actually formed to protest against the use of bird feathers, including these egret plumes, in ladies' hats.
There is now an established population of little egrets in the UK after colonising in 1989, with approximately 70 breeding pairs annually. These probably dispersed to Britain from colonies in France and first bred in 1996 on Brownsea Island, Dorset. This population has steadily increased and swells even further in the autumn and winter when birds from the continent arrive.
Little egrets are usually found in coastal habitats but have increasingly begun to move inland to shallow lakes, wetlands and even flooded fields. They feed on fish, amphibians and insects.
Little egrets can be found most commonly along the south and east coast of Britain, from Norfolk round the Welsh coast to the Dee estuary but have been sighted in many inland counties as far north as Dumfries and Galloway.
Sent in by Tom and Margaret Leimdorfer, Congresbury, North Somerset. 2 February 2007
The autumn and winter of 2006/07 has been one of the mildest on records. This has had effects on wildlife throughout Europe from plants through to birdlife. Butterflies have been recorded flying throughout the winter, hedgehogs were active when they should have been hibernating and many flowers have appeared out of season. However, the climate has particularly effected migratory species of bird.
Last winter, siskin and redpolls were prolific in the UK, many visiting garden feeders with resident and migratory finch flocks. This year has seen far fewer as a result of milder weather in their native summer ranges allowing them to stay on and feed through the winter. During harsh winters the UK climate may provide a welcome sanctuary for large numbers of birds including goldcrests, starlings and many other familiar species. Despite the mild weather, some winter migrants have arrived in large numbers, such as the redwing and fieldfare, and have been taking advantage of the abundant berry crop.
The number of migratory birds that arrive each winter differs greatly depending on weather events and how much food is available in their summer ranges of northern and central Europe. The waxwing is a great example of this seasonal variation. In harsh years where the berry crop elsewhere fails or is limited, the UK gets a large number of these attractive starling-sized birds. This year has been mild in comparison and reports have been few and far between.
Migratory species that are usually summer visitors, such as the blackcap and chiffchaff, are now able to overwinter in the UK in increasing numbers. Although the migration of birds varies greatly year on year this may be a reflection of the changing face of birdlife in the UK due to climate change.
Sent in by Colin Nicholson, Wheatley, Oxfordshire. 12 January 2007
Sightings of black swans have become reasonably common. They could be found on almost any water body. They have similar habitat requirements to mute swans and are often found in the same areas.
Black swans are native to Australia and are the state bird of Western Australia. They were brought to the UK as ornamental birds like peacocks and golden pheasants. Like many other captive birds, they occasionally find their way out into the wild.
They are similar in size to the closely related mute swan. They appear all black when swimming but they have white primary wing feathers, which can be seen in flight. The bill is red with a broad white band on the tip.
Black swans were also introduced to New Zealand where a feral breeding population has become well established. The New Zealand population increased dramatically because they faced very little competition or predation.
There have been occasional reports of successful breeding attempts in the UK but they have not become established. They face competition from our native swans so it is unlikely they could become as well established here as they have in New Zealand.
Sent in by Mr R Jones, London. 17 November 2006
Like its close relative, the snipe, the woodcock has a beautiful, barred, mottled brown 'cryptic' plumage which acts as excellent camouflage in its woodland or heathland home. This characteristic, along with being most active at night, makes it of our most difficult birds to see.
Almost 10,000 pairs breed in the UK, but during the autumn period, these numbers swell with the arrival of thousands of birds from north-eastern Europe: as many as 800,000 may spend their winter here. After crossing the North Sea, these tired migrants can pitch down almost anywhere to refuel before continuing their journey.
Woodcocks are not rare in this country, and there will be many in south-east England at the moment, but it is quite unusual to see one in a garden in London.
Sent in by John Waites, Farnham.
The fluting, melancholy song of the blackcap is one of the finest to be heard in the British countryside during the spring and early summer months.
These master songsters arrive here in spring from southern Europe and North Africa and this is where they will return in the autumn, so where have the blackcaps that spend their winters with us arrived from, and what are they doing here?
We’ve learned from ringing (when birds are trapped by trained volunteers, fitted with lightweight metal leg rings, then released unharmed) that these birds will have bred in central Europe.
Interestingly, it is only since the mid-1960s that these 'continental' blackcaps have been known to winter in the UK, and the reasons are not yet fully understood. One possible suggestion is that the increased popularity of garden feeding and the planting of berry-laden shrubs has made the UK a more attractive winter destination. Another that the westward migration of this central European population is an 'insurance' strategy to ensure the long-term survival of the species.
Whatever the reason, these delightful little warblers are a welcome addition to our winter wildlife.