Man on pier photographing starling murmuration on his phone against a moody orange evening sky

Nature's calendar: December

It’s January which means one thing – the Big Garden Birdwatch is just around the corner. But you don’t have to wait until January 29 to start discovering the birds on your doorstep this month.

In the garden

Our gardens will be at their busiest by now and you may be getting familiar with all your regular visitors by now. Here are a few extras treats to keep an eye out for in December.

Large murmuration of starlings against blue sky at twilight

Starlings

So why do starlings murmurate? It’s mainly based on safety in numbers but it’s not just about confusing predators. Starlings gather to roost together overnight which helps them keep warm.

They also exchange information to find the best feeding spots. How amazing is that?!

Pied wagtail Motacilla alba, adult birds collectively roosting in a tree, Cambridgeshire

Pied Wagtail

It’s not just starlings that gather to roost together. Pied wagtails also come together at night, which may be a surprise given that they are usually seen singly by day.

Roosts can consist of several hundred and town centres are popular spots as they are a little warmer than the countryside. 

Robin, Erithacus rubecula: adult, sitting on a stone birdbath in garden, England

Top Tip on... bird baths

You’ll have noticed that it’s getting cold and so have the birds. Food often isn’t a problem if you’re topping up your feeders regularly but don’t forget water.

On very cold nights, water sources can freeze, meaning birds can’t access it. So it's worth remembering to break up any ice in your bird bath.

Jackdaw Corvus monedula, close up of adult, Bushy Park, London

Jackdaws

Ok, not quite as stunning as a murmuration of starling, but jackdaws are well known to gather in large flocks. At dusk, they swirl over our towns and villages as they head to a roost in a nearby copse or woodland.

Less is known about these roosts but it’s thought that there’s a large social element as well as having safety in numbers.

Jackdaws can be pretty vocal, making quite a racket as they prepare to settle down for the night!

Firecrest Regulus ignicapilla, adult male perched on branch, Wiltshire

Goldcrest and Firecrest

Look out for goldcrest and firecrest (pictured). These share the accolade of being our smallest birds, weighing in at just 5 grams, which is the same as a 20p coin.

Goldcrests are the commonest and can be seen flitting around in bushes during winter searching for insects. They very rarely use feeders but have been known to feed on suet or fat balls during very cold weather.

The two birds look quite similar but can be separated by the pattern on their heads and the firecrests golden shoulders.

Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula, male, perched in the top of a bare tree, Co. Durham

Bullfinch

Garden birds are some of our most colourful species but not many are bright pink like a male bullfinch! Look out for bullfinches in gardens as natural food starts getting sparse in our hedgerow. Also, listen out for their mismatched call which is a plaintiff single call…

During extreme cold snaps, look out for redwing or a fieldfare in search of food. They really like rotting apples.

Unusual garden visitors

This is a time of year when birds flock together. Masses of waders appear at our wetlands and finches gather in our woodlands, but there are some you can discover right on your doorstep.
Black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, adult male perched on fence, Bedfordshire

Black redstart

One to look out for is the black redstart. They tend to spend winter in urban areas where they actively search for insects.

Look out for a sooty grey body with a contrasting red tail, which they often vibrate and flick when perched.

We’d love to hear if you see one!

Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, adult perched in tree ready to feast on the berries, Bedfordshire

Waxwings

It’s hard to predict if we’ll see a large arrival of these Scandinavian berry munchers but this is the month they could arrive on mass.

Waxwings are very partial to ornamental sorbus trees in urban areas as these often hold onto their berries well into the winter.

Supermarket car parks can often be hotspots too, so keep an eye on your next shopping trip. 

Out and about

You may be surprised to read the phrase ‘nest-building’ in the midst of winter, but a few species will be getting busy this month.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea, adult collecting nesting material, Regents Park, London

Nest-building herons

Grey herons are one of our earliest nesting species and will lay their eggs next month, meaning their huge nests will need a lot of attention in the meantime.

Look out for herons hunting for sticks as well as fish.

Rook Corvus frugilegus, adult forging in grassland, Wiltshire

Rooks make a move

Persistent rooks will be busy preparing their nests in preparation for the spring and the early birds get the… not the worm but the best spot. It’s risky business as a winter storm may ruin their efforts but getting the best spot is important if you're hoping for a successful breeding season.

Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus, adult nesting in the fork of a tree, Yorkshire

Mistle thrush singing

Bird song isn’t something that springs to mind during winter and many of the birds that do sing are defending a feeding territory. There is one bird that isn’t afraid to get ahead of the rest to start attracting a mate: the mistle thrush. This bird is sometimes known as the storm cock because it often needs to sing during rough weather. Let’s face it, we may not get many sunny days in January.

December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) on a green leaf

Moth of the Month

Last month we mentioned the November moth but there is also a December moth!

Unlike the November moth these are much chunkier and have extra ‘fur’ to help keep their flight muscles warm on chilly nights.

However, the fur isn’t actually fur, it is specially modified scales that cover most of the moth.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

What will you see during this year's Big Garden Birdwatch?