Best times of year to birdwatch


Any time of year is the best time to birdwatch in the UK. The bird population is on a constant shuffle, an annual dance as they arrive, depart, or pass through whilst other breeds are seeking to remain. Some birds stay all year as the conditions are right, and others emigrate to warmer climes in the colder months, whilst we receive wintering guests from further north.

At least 4,000 species of bird are regular migrants. That’s about 40 per cent of the world’s total, so they are very much a part of the natural cycle of seasons. In far northern regions, such as Canada or Scandinavia, most species migrate south to escape winter. In the UK, about half the species migrate because the quest for food is universal.

As the world of birds is so vast, with species still being discovered today by scientists, we haven’t put together an exhaustive guide of birds to spot. However, we’ve put together a list of locations to visit to best see some brilliant feats of nature and when and where to go to try and catch them - if you're feeling really adventurous, you can stake some out at one of our top cottages for birdwatching!

Clouds of starlings - Bideford, Devon

October - January

Starling murmurations have long given scientists reasons to scratch their heads figuring out the reasons for their immaculately co-ordinated flight formations. Whilst they do the sums, the rest of us can stop and marvel at this visually affecting phenomenon whenever we see an occurrence.

Whilst many formations happen in the countryside, with ever changing locations, you can pretty much set your watch by one particular flock that we know of. Right outside our old headquarters in Bideford, is the Long Bridge which spans the River Torridge. There’s been a bridge here since the last quarter of the 13th century. However, the current stone bridge (with obvious modifications) was first completed in 1500. Every year between mid-October and early January a flock of starling come to roost under the 24 arches of the bridge.

From about 4pm until nightfall they weave a dwindling pattern. For locals they are common place and rumoured to have been returning to the same spot annually for as long as there’s been a bridge. Time it right and you can see thousands of birds taking part in one of the most dazzling displays of bird activity around. Even if you miss the show, you can hear the birds singing under the arches over the traffic, plus there’s always tomorrow to try and catch the spectacle too.

Montagu's harriers at Blacktoft Sands, East Yorkshire

May - August

There are only seven breeding pairs of Montagu’s harriers in the UK. They only spend four months per year here, but one place that you can see them is at the RSPB’s Blacktoft Sands during the summer months.

For the remainder of the year when they are not settled in their Yorkshire home, this rare breed spends winters on the African continent or on migration. Bird enthusiasts travel from all around the world to catch a glimpse of this elegant bird of prey.

Wintering birds at Ynis-hir Reserve

September - October

Every winter, thousands upon millions of birds winter in the British Isles. A great place to witness the arrival and activity of these visitors is at Ynis-hir at the estuary of the Dyfi River in Mid Wales. RSPB Ynis-hir covers 550 hectares and includes a variety of habitats extending inland from mudflats and salt marsh to oak woodland and hillside scrub.

Feathered visitors include shelduck, wigeon and teal, and waders such as oystercatcher and curlew – also fieldfares, redwings, bramblings, Bewick’s and whooper swans and geese. There are smaller numbers of Greenland white-fronted goose and, in recent years, barnacle goose have been seen too.

The seven hides are well-placed to witness the graceful landings when the flocks come back. The reserve once employed Bill Condry who is famous for his nature books and playing a big part in the preservation of the red kite. Ynis-hir certainly has some good remote viewing areas and optimal conditions to witness some natural spectacles. In September and October watch the skies for skeins of large water birds coming back to the UK; wrap up well and take a flask of hot tea!

The return of red kites in the Chilterns

All year around

One of the greatest RSPB and English Nature success stories is the reintroduction of the red kite to the Chilterns. By the end of the 19th century they had dwindled to just a handful of breeding pairs in Wales. Nowadays, they are thriving due to the programme and there are over 300 pairs which are a welcome and common sight of the region.

For those that have never seen a red kite, they are majestic birds of prey with dark orange (russet) plumage and a large wing-span of about 5.5 foot wide. Once you’ve seen one you’ll never forget the experience. Red Kites are sedentary so if you’re in the Chilterns anywhere between Dunstable Downs and Goring-On-Thames keep your eyes peeled.

The Chilterns Hills is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) stretching across four counties: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

Don't forget to prepare if you're planning on spotting some rarer types of bird; our birdwatching basics will make sure you're fully prepped and eagle-eyed!

Posted by Ed on 26th January 2018