Nightingale

Immortalised in the song ‘a Nightingale sang in Berkley Square’ (which was probably a Robin as Nightingales hate cities) and the subject of many famous poems throughout history, inspiring the likes of Homer, Milton and Keats, everyone has heard of the Nightingale, yet few people have actually heard it. The Nightingale likes to hide and skulk about in deciduous woods and thickets close to water, mainly in Southern England and East Anglia.

The Nightingale is like a large Robin without the red breast. It has rich brown upperparts, paler underparts, a whiter throat, a reddish tail, and large eyes. The bill is brown with a pale base. They sing during the day, but their song is most noticeable after dark. After dusk or before dawn are the best times to hear them. On a calm night, their song can carry for a mile. They have a rich, varied, flutey song with a twirly introduction and deep “chook chook” notes which slowly accelerates to an explosive ending. These guys can really sing. Clarity of tone and exceptional volume is their hallmark. They have an occasional thin “seep seep” contact call. 

Nightingales move about on the ground with large hops while flicking their wings and cocking their tails. They eat insects, worms, spiders and berries.

The male returns first in mid-April, establishes a territory and sings to attract a mate. He will sing through to June, only stopping once the young have hatched, and he is too busy helping with feeding. The female builds a bulky nest of grass and leaves on or near the ground. She lays 4-5 eggs in May and incubates them on her own. The eggs hatch after 13 days and both mum and dad feed the chicks who can fly after 11 days. The youngsters are fully independent 3 weeks after leaving the nest and the whole family returns to Africa by late summer.

The Nightingale is a rare summer visitor with about 6,500 pairs coming to Britain. They are ‘Red listed’ as they have declined in recent years. This is thought to be due to the decrease in coppiced woodland and the spread of deer reducing suitable habitat.

Their Latin name is ’luscinia megarhynchos’ where ’luscinia’ means ‘nightingale’ and ’megarhynchos’ is from Ancient Greek ’megas’ for ‘great’ and ’rhunkhos’ for ‘bill’. Nightingale with an enormous nose is a little unfair. The English name is derived from ‘night’, and the Old English word ’galan’ meaning ‘to sing’. Much better.

Siskin

Siskins love conifer forests, especially the ones in Northern Scotland. They are a high-viz bird, like the Yellowhammer, with a distinctive black stripe on their heads to make it easy to tell them apart.

Siskins are a tiny, slender finch, smaller than a Greenfinch. They are a streaky yellowish green with a short, distinctly forked tail that has yellow edges. They have a yellow rump and yellow wing bars. The male has a black bib and crown. The female is greyer and more streaked than the male. Their flight is light and bouncy. They have several calls. A loud “tsuu!”, a ringing “tszing”, and a sweet twittering that ends with a wheeze like a Greenfinch.

They eat pine, birch, and alder seeds and, at a push, will enjoy peanuts from a bird feeder. They feed near the tops of tress and are very agile, hanging on thinnest of twigs to reach their food. They also eat insects in the summer.

Siskins will nest in early spring where there is a good crop of spruce seeds. If these are in short supply, they will delay nesting until May. The female builds a cup-shaped nest from conifer twigs, grass, heather, and moss. She lays 3-5 eggs, which she incubates until they hatch12 days later. Both mum and dad will feed the youngsters who can fly after 13 days. There are usually 2 broods.

They are a common resident with 400,000 pairs in Britain, though concentrated in Scotland where there are a lot of conifer forests. They can form large flocks in winter. They are seen in the rest of the Britain as a winter visitor when northern birds move south and others come over from Europe. The planting of commercial conifer forests has certainly helped the Siskin.

Their Latin name is ’carduelis spinus’ where ’spinus’ is from the Ancient Greek ’spinos’, a name for a now-unidentifiable bird, and ’carduelis’ is Latin for ‘goldfinch’. That makes an unidentified bird a bit like a Goldfinch (which it is not). Some scientists need glasses. The English name is derived from the German ’sisschen’ or ’zeischen’.

Garden Warbler

The Garden Warbler is remarkable by being unremarkable. It does not have a single marking that makes it distinct. A genuine little brown job. Despite its name, it does not like gardens, preferring to hide in woodland edges where the undergrowth is thickest. He makes up for his bland looks by singing a beautiful song.

The Garden Warbler is the size of a Great Tit with plain brown upperparts, a gentle face with no obvious markings, and paler brown underparts. Their song is very similar to a Blackcap’s. An energetic 3-8 second steady stream of melodic phrases made up of mellow sounds and scratchy notes. The contact call is a sharp “check”.

They eat insects in summer, especially juicy caterpillars, and fuel-up on berries and fruit during migration. They are particularly partial to figs, which they eat as they pass through the Mediterranean, in their cool shades, on the way back to Africa in August.

Garden warblers first breed when they are one year old, and are mainly monogamous. Once they arrive in April or May, the male will build a number of simple nests (cock's nests) to show off to his potential mate, whom he attracts to his territory by singing. His nests are fairly rubbish and only rarely will the female complete the structure, usually starting afresh. She builds the cup-shaped nest in low bushes and lays 4-5 eggs. These hatch after 11 days. The youngsters hatch naked, with no feathers, and with their eyes closed. Mum and dad feed them until, fully feathered, they are ready to leave the nest 10 days later. The youngsters stay with mum and dad for 2 weeks. Sadly, only about a quarter of young birds survive their first year. Predators include Sparrowhawks and the nests are also favoured targets for Cuckoos.

There are 170,000 pairs widespread throughout Britain, but rare in Scotland and urban areas. Their population fluctuates a lot, but with no obvious up or down trend. The threat to Garden Warblers are changes to habitat on their migration route to Southern and Central Africa caused by global warming. Unlike many birds, The Garden Warbler moults mainly when in Africa to be spic and span for when they return in spring.

Their Latin name ’sylvia borin’ which sounds like boring Silvia for being so bland. It is derived from the Latin ’silvia’ for a woodland nymph and ’borin’ a local name for the bird in the Genoa area of Italy that comes from the Latin ’bos’ for ‘ox’ as the warbler was believed to accompany oxen. Cow fairy is almost as bad.

Willow Warbler

More often heard than seen, even though it is Europe’s most numerous migrant warbler. It winters in central and Southern Africa journeying 12,000 km to come here, arriving in April and leaving in August.

The Willow Warbler is a slim-looking bird, smaller than a Blue Tit. It has brown-green upperparts, yellowish underparts (very yellow in youngsters), pale legs, a pale stripe over the eye and a longish bill for its size. Bird books say it has longer wings and longer body than a Chiffchaff, though this is impossible to tell unless they stand next to each other. The Willow Warbler is less restless than Chiffchaff, though the best way to tell them apart is by their song. The Chiffchaff bangs out his marching tune where as the Willow Warbler sings a sweet cascading run of notes that trickle down the scale. Their contact calls are also subtly different. The Willow Warblers is a two syllable 'hoo-eet', distinct from the Chiffchaff’s single syllable 'hweet'. Like most other warblers, they eat insects, spiders and berries.

They are unique amongst British warblers by moulting twice in a year. Once after nesting, to look smart for the journey back to Africa, and another, in Africa in spring, to look good for the ladies when they come back.

The male Willow Warbler returns first in spring to take up a territory usually at woodland edge and sings to attract a female. The more varied his song, the more the ladies like him. Some males will have more than one female at the same time, though most will have a single female as keeping two ladies happy is very tiring. Some males will have a second brood with a different partner. The divorce rate amongst willow warblers is high! The female builds a domed nest with a natty side entrance in late April or early May amongst vegetation on the ground. It is made of leaves, moss, and lichens. She incubates the 4-8 eggs, which hatch after 12 days. The young can fly 12 days later but depend on mum and dad for two weeks to feed them.

The oldest bird lived to be 10 years old, flying the 20,000 km (there and back) ten times, which is quite something! There are 2.4 million territories in Britain though the population, especially in southern Britain, has undergone a moderate decline over the past 25 years making them an Amber List species. The reason for this is unclear, but may be linked to a reduction in the number of insects because of pesticides.

Their Latin name is ’phylloscopus trochilus’ comes from the Ancient Greek ’phullon’ for ‘leaf’ and ’skopos’ for ‘seeker’, and ’trokhilos’ meaning ‘wren’. A leaf seeking wren - which fits with them sometimes being called a willow wren.

Jay

The Jay is the East End Gangster of the bird world with his flash clothes and harsh, husky voice. The most glamorous of the crow family, the Jay likes coniferous and deciduous woods, and even town parks with enough mature trees, though oak trees are his favourite. He demands money with menaces, terrorising the local birds by stealing their eggs and chicks.

A little smaller than a Woodpigeon, the Jay has a pinkish fawn body, a rounded head with a pale streaked crest, and a small black jaunty gangster moustache. He has white barred patches and bright electric blue patches on his wings, a long black tail and a white rump. In flight, wings look broad and rounded and the black tail with white rump is distinctive. For something looking so pretty, the call is a harsh, startling screech like a heavy smoker.

Jays eat insects and seeds (acorns being a big favourite), as well as eggs and young chicks, which makes them unpopular with other birds and gamekeepers. They are a nasty piece of work. They will often bury acorns to eat later but, like a knucklehead gangster, they sometimes forget where they have put them and help the distribution of oak trees. They can carry dozens of acorns in their crops. Similar to other crows, Jays intelligent, sly and cunning.

They start nesting in April, building their twig nest in a tree and lining it with finer material. The 5-7 eggs hatch after 16 days and are fed by both mum and dad for 8 weeks. The youngsters can fly after 21 days.

There are 170,000 breeding pairs in Britain. They are mainly sedentary, staying in the same area, but will move if there are shortages of food. The oldest Jay was 17 years old and knew the Kray twins. Their Latin name is ’garrulus glandarius’ where ’garrulus’ means ‘noisy’ and ’glandarius’ means ‘of acorns’, their favoured food.

Lapwing

The Lapwing is the Robin Hood of the bird world with his green coat and a feather in his cap. They often hang out with Golden Plovers and can be found on farmland, moors, and marshes throughout the UK, particularly in the lowland areas of Northern England, the Borders, and Eastern Scotland. They form large flocks in autumn for the winter.

A little smaller than a Woodpigeon, the Lapwing has a dark metallic green back, a black breast, a white face, white underparts with an orangey bit under the tail, long legs, and a long wispy black crest. They have broad rounded black and white wings which make their bodies look small when flying. Their flight appears lazy with laid back wing beats. They have a distinctive "peewit" call which gives them their alternative, Peewit, name.

Lapwings eat insects like earthworms, leatherjackets, beetles, flies, moths, caterpillars, ants, spiders, and snails. Just about anything insect-ish, really. They will also eat plants.

Nesting starts in March with the male doing exciting aerial displays, tumbling about the sky over his territory in the flat open countryside. He makes several scrapes in the ground from which the female picks one and completes the nest by lining it with grasses and leaves. Her 4 eggs are beautifully camouflaged and hatch after 26 days with both birds helping with the incubation, though mum doing most of it. The youngsters can feed themselves soon after hatching. If a predator comes, they stay still and hide while mum and dad do distraction flights to lure the predator away. The youngsters can fly after 35 days, becoming independent soon afterwards. From June onwards, they gather in flocks to travel around finding food . 

Lapwings are highly migratory over most of their extensive range. There are about 150,000 resident in Britain with many coming over from Europe in the winter to boost numbers to 650,000. A recent decline has been linked to changes in farming with the move from spring to autumn sowing of cereal crops. Autumn sown crops are too tall by spring to make them suitable sites for Lapwings to breed. The oldest ringed Lapwing lived to be 21 years old.

Their Latin name is 'vanellus vanellus' where 'vanellus' is the Medieval Latin for the Lapwing and derives from 'vannus' a broad rounded end fan used for blowing chaff and dirt off grain. It looks like a Lapwing's wing. The English name has been attributed to the "lapping" sound its wings make in flight. The Lapwing is also called a 'green plover' as they are often seen with plovers.

Whitethroat

A common summer visitor that likes a good hedge to sing from. They come all the way from the Sabel region of North Africa. Their characteristic is their white throat and buzzy, scratchy song which they often sing while doing a 'parachute' descent.

The Whitethroat is similar in size to a Great Tit and stands alert and perky. They have a white throat, grey head, reddish-brown wings that are rufous fringed, and a pale pink or grey breast. They have a long, slim tail with white edges that can be seen when flying. The female is similar to the male, only a little browner. They skulk in the bushes during August while they do their moult. When not skulking, they love to sing scritchy-scratchy jumbles of verses at you or an alarmed buzzing "chrrrr!" if you get too close.

Whitethroats feed mainly on insects like beetles, aphids, caterpillars and flies. They eat berries in late summer when getting ready to migrate.

The male Whitethroats arrive here about 10 days before the females and set up territories ready for when their potential partners arrive. He builds several cup shaped nests in a hedge or other dense vegetation. The picky female then selects one and completes the structure to just how she likes. The 4-5 eggs are laid in late April or May and hatch after 11 days. Both parents incubate the eggs, though mum usually does the night shift while dad looks out for predators. The young can fly after 10 days and stay with mum and dad for 2-3 weeks before becoming fully independent. Whitethroats usually have two broods.

They can be found across most of Britain, though they avoid mountains and urban areas. About 1 million pairs are here between April and October. They suffered a population crash in the late 1960s because of a drought in Africa, but their numbers have since recovered. Their Latin name is 'sylvia communis' where 'communis' means 'common' and 'sylvia' is the word for a woodland sprite derived from 'silva' for wood or forest. A common woodland fairy sounds right for something that sings while gracefully parachuting down.

Pheasant

Pheasants are funny birds. They try really hard to hide in the grass, but lose their nerve at the last minute and make an explosive amount of noise when they burst out, giving you a heart attack. Snobby people will say they are not native to Britain as they were introduced, but this was by the Romans a long, long time ago. They are now definitely part of the family. The poor old Pheasant is one of the world's most hunted birds. Millions are reared every year and shot for sport.

The Common Pheasant is a chicken-sized bird but, unlike a chicken, they are rubbish at crossing the road as you see lots of squashed ones. Out in the countryside, you can find them at woodland edges, near thick hedges, or in grass and reed filled ditches. The male is brilliantly coloured with a shiny copper covered body marked with dark 'scallops' on the back and sides. He has a metallic green head and neck with a red face and small red ear tufts. He has a long, ginger coloured, barred tail and sometimes sports a fashionable white neck ring. The female is smaller, pale brown with dark flecks on her upper parts and tail. Youngsters initially look like mum to make it easier to hide. Their call is a distinctive "kutuk-kutuk".

They are at home on the ground but will roost in trees to keep away from foxes. When not suddenly bursting from cover, they more often run away, looking almost comical. Pheasants usually hang about in small flocks, with the males having a harem of several females who gaze on him adoringly in all his snazzy colours.

Pheasants eat a wide range of food including grains, worms, spiders, green shoots, ants, beetles, and berries. Basically, anything they can find on the ground. They are not fussy eaters.

Their nest is a scrape on the ground which is lined with grass and leaves, frequently under dense cover or under a hedge. The 6-15 pale olive green coloured eggs (usually about 10) hatch after 23 days. The young leave the nest when only a few hours old and can feed themselves. The young Pheasants grow quickly and can fly after 12 days. The youngsters hang about with mum for 2 months while dad stands around looking pretty and not having much to do with them. Mind you, if he has three females that would be 45 youngsters (3x15) to tell bedtime stories to, so you can understand why he stays away.

It is difficult to estimate the 'wild' population of Pheasants as they release so many for shooting. Up to 40 million pheasants (yes, 40 million) are released into the countryside every year. Pheasant farming is a common practice and birds are supplied for hunting and to restaurants. They can only be shot in the shooting season from October to the end of January, but that is probably not much comfort for Mr Pheasant. Never in the history of life has any species faired so well because it was so good at dying. Game keepers protecting their Pheasant chicks has, in the past, led to the killing of birds of prey. This is now banned and birds of prey are protected by law.

Their Latin name is 'phasianus colchicus' were 'phasianus' means 'pheasant' and 'colchicus' means 'of Colchis' as this is where they originally came from. Colchis is now modern day Georgia, a country on the Black Sea.

Pochard

The Pochard is a dozy diving duck that seems to spend a lot of time asleep. This is because it mainly feeds at night. They are most often seen in small groups, usually with more males than females.

Slightly smaller than a Mallard, the male is pale grey with a rust head, black breast and tail. The female is a dull brown with a dark crown and blotchy cheeks from too much sleep. They have a pale grey stripe on their wings which is easily visible when they are flying. The Pochard patters along the surface of the water to take off and flaps its wings vigorously as they appear a bit small for its body, giving it a dumpy appearance. They are usually silent except when courting. The male makes a wheezing “wha-oo“ call when he spots a lady he likes. They moult between June and October, the male starting first, and are flightless for 4 weeks. The male goes into ‘eclipse’ plumage which is a mottled grey-brown just like the female. This helps to camouflage him from predators while he can’t fly.

Pochards dive up to 3m to feed on aquatic plants like stonewort and sedges. They also eat water snails, small fish, tadpoles and other aquatic insects. The males feed in deeper water than the females to show how macho they are.

Nesting begins in April. The female makes a shallow cup nest of stems and other material, including her own feathers, close to water or amongst reeds. She incubates the 8-10 eggs alone and they hatch after 25 days. The youngsters can feed themselves soon after hatching and are independent before they can fly. Groups of youngsters will often come together for a sleepover.

Pochards mainly migrate. The autumn migration takes place in September and October when up to 40,000 birds come here from Scandinavia and Russia to spend the winter. There are only about 600 resident pairs that breed in Britain. Pochards are on the ‘Red List’ as their numbers have been declining. Their Latin name is ’aythya ferina’ which comes from the Greek ’aithuia’ for some sort of ancient seabird and the Latin ’ferina’ meaning ‘wild game’.

Redwing

If you listen carefully on a chilly autumn night, you might hear the "tseee" call of migrating Redwings passing overhead. They use this flight call to keep together. The Redwing, like the Fieldfare, is a winter visitor and is the UK's smallest true thrush, arriving in October and leaving in April. They roam across the countryside, feeding in fields and hedgerows and are often seen with Fieldfares. You will only get them in gardens in the coldest weather, when snow covers the fields.

The Redwing is smaller than a blackbird. It has dark upper parts, a yellow buff breast with lines of dark spots that look more streaked, a bold head pattern with a strong cream stripe over the eye, and rust red flanks (hence the name). The rust red underwing is visible in flight.

Redwings roost in thick hedges, especially if there are lots of berries. They eat fallen fruit, worms, snails, slugs, and berries - especially hawthorn.

They nest in a tree or low bush. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grass, twigs, and moss. She incubates the 4-6 eggs for 12 days. Once hatched, the young are fed by both parents and leave the nest after 15 days. Both parents continue to feed the youngsters for a further 2 weeks. Dad often continues feeding the first brood while mum gets on with a second.

About 1 million Redwing visit us in winter, arriving from two different places - Redwing from Scandinavia and slightly larger Redwing from Iceland. The Icelandic birds are mainly found in Scotland and the Scandinavian ones in England. Redwing are very nomadic and will winter in different areas in different years. Similar to the Fieldfare, about 10 pairs a year stay and breed in Northern Scotland.

Their Latin name is 'turdus iliacus' from 'turdus' for 'thrush' and 'ile' meaning 'flank'.