Hen Harrier

A male Hen Harrier elegantly flying, like a grey ghost, back and forth above a misty moorland is a sight that once seen is never forgotten. They are a hunter of the open uplands, keeping as far away from people as possible.

The Hen Harrier is a slender bird of prey, smaller than a Buzzard. The male is a ghostly blue-grey with long black fingered wing tips, a long tail, a white rump (like a House Martin), and white underparts. The females are larger and dark brown. They have an owl like appearance on their face. The flight is buoyant and low, just one or two metres above ground, when quartering (zig-zagging) over the ground for prey holding their wings in a shallow V.

Hen Harriers use their ears as well as their eyes to find prey amongst the dense moorland vegetation. They eat small mammals and birds, so becoming the enemy of gamekeepers (who sometimes illegally kill them) for eating the grouse and partridge chicks.

When courting, the male performs a spectacular sky dance, passing food to female in the air or dropping it for her to catch. A male has a territory of more than a square kilometre and might have multiple partners. Where a male has mated with several females, all the nests tend to be close to one another as he is a bit of a lazy dad and doesn't want to go too far when delivering food. Nesting begins in April and the nest is made of a pile of heather on the ground. The 4-6 eggs hatch after 30 days and are incubated by mum while dad brings the food. The eggs are laid one or two days apart so their is a noticeable age gap between the young. After two weeks they are big enough to be left on their own, and both parents hunt for food. The youngsters can fly 35 days later but stay with mum for several weeks to learn all about quartering. Hen Harriers are silent apart from when approaching a nest when they make a yikkering call.

There are 600 pairs in Britain and they are specially protected. Their number plummeted as a result of persecution in Victorian times when they were almost exterminated from Britain. They still face threats from illegal persecution by game keepers and egg collectors. Planting of conifer forests on moorlands has also restricted the available habitat.The Hen Harrier is partially migrant as northern birds move south and all birds leave their moorland breeding areas for lowland or coastal areas in winter where they may even be joined by others from the continent. Large groups can gather in a single roost.

Their Latin name is 'circus cyaneus' where 'circus' is derived from Ancient Greek 'kirkos' for 'circle' which refers to a Hen Harrier's circling flight (and also where we get circus from as circus rings are traditionally round). The 'cyaneus' is Latin for 'dark-blue'. The English name Hen Harrier comes from the fact that the once used to hunt free-range hens! Female hen harriers are also known as 'ringtails' due to their distinctive tail banding.

White-tailed Eagle

The White-tailed Eagle is huge! It is an eagle of the sea. It is the largest eagle in Europe and the fourth largest eagle in the world, resembling a flying barn door with a big beak. Being so big, it is a bit of a playground bully, pinching food from other birds and throwing its weight about.

The White-tailed Eagle is brown with a long looking pale head and white tail, spotting a big mean-looking hooked yellow bill that is clearly visible, even in flight. The wings are broad with obvious fingered tips, it has a short wedge-shaped tail, and the head protrudes when flying. Their flight is like a Heron's with shallow wing beats flowed by a long glide. It soars with its wings held flat, which differs from a Buzzard's V-shape, though its barn door size isn’t difficult to miss.

They can spend 90% of the time perched or standing on ground looking mean, especially if the weather is poor. The males are slightly smaller than females. They moult slowly and continuously through the year so they can always fly or pick on people they don't like. Their call is a dog like yapping "kew, kew, kew" with most calls made during courtship or near their nest.

White-tailed Eagles are carrion feeders and opportunistic hunters, sometimes pirating food from other birds and even mugging otters. They will hunt singly or in pairs and being such enormous birds, they like big prey. They largely eat fish, but will also take birds, rabbits and hares. When fishing, they fly low over water, stop to hover for a moment and drop to snatch a fish from the surface. They eat fish like cod, herring and trout, and birds like ducks and gulls.

White-tailed Eagles pair for life and perform a stunning sky dance where they touch talons. They build their nest in a large tree or cliff edge, and it is made from large sticks and driftwood, then lined with grass and seaweed. A nest can be reused for many years and gets huge with the yearly added material. Two eggs are laid in April which are incubated by mum and hatch 38 days later. Both parents care for the youngsters who can fly after 70 days. They are fed for a further month until they leave home. The young eagles can roam widely.

The White-tailed Eagle suffered a massive decline because of persecution in Victorian times and nesting failures caused by various chemical pesticides and organic compounds. It is now specially protected and has been reintroduced in Scotland, where there is now a small population of 150 pairs which is growing slowly. Some threats remain, notably illegal persecution by gamekeepers, the activities of egg thieves and fatal damage from wind turbines.

Their Latin name is 'haliaeetus albicilla' where 'haliaeetus' means 'sea-eagle', from the Ancient Greek 'hali' for 'sea' and 'aetos' for 'eagle'. The 'albicilla' part means 'white-tailed' from the Latin 'albi' for 'white' and 'cilla' for 'tail'.

Golden Eagle

The Golden Eagle is now mainly found in remote Scottish mountains. Gamekeepers and egg collectors persecuted it almost to extinction, but it is now specially protected. In their natural environment they are fairly long-living birds, reaching the ripe old age of thirty-two.

The Golden Eagle is much larger than a Buzzard, in fact nearly twice the size. They are a uniform dark brown with yellow brown head and look all dark from below (unlike Buzzard). They have a wingspan of over two metres and their tail and head protrudes prominently when flying. Their flight is slow and laboured with deep wingbeats, though the Golden Eagle mostly soars and glides holding their wings in a shallow ‘V’ where the fingered wing tips are obvious to see. They have massive yellow feet, perfect for catching medium-sized animals. The female is bigger than the male and the youngsters differ from their parents by having white patches on their wings and tail. It takes a young Golden Eagle seven years to reach full adult plumage. For a bird that is so big. They make very little noise, using their excellent eyesight to find a mate instead. They make rare yelping ‘kyek’ calls.

Golden Eagles hunt during daylight hours. They often go days without food before having a big feast. They eat carrion, mammals (like hares, rabbits, squirrels, young foxes) and birds (like grouse, crows, gulls). Golden Eagles maintain some of the largest known territories of any bird species and can be as big as 200 square km!  

They are monogamous and may remain together for life. The courtship includes undulating displays by both birds. The male picks up a piece of rock or a small stick and drops it, then enters into a steep dive to catch it in mid air, repeating this three or more times. In response, the female takes a clump of earth, drops it and catches it in the same fashion. So she gets a nice rock, and he gets dirt. Pretty normal relationship then. 

An Eagle’s nest, called an ‘eyrie’, is an extensive structure of branches, usually built on a cliff ledge. Two eggs are laid in March some days apart and mum then does most of the incubation. Each egg hatches after 43 days. If there is not enough food available, the elder chick will kill the younger one so often only one chick is raised. It pays to be nice to your older brother or sister. Both mum and dad feed what chicks there are which can fly after 65 days. They then fed the youngsters for a further 3 months until they are fully independent by autumn. The young Eagles wander widely until they establish a territory for themselves which can take four to five years. 

The Golden Eagle is mainly resident with only the young wandering from the breeding site. There are 440 pairs distributed in wilder parts of Scotland. Their Latin name is ’aquila chrysaetos’ where ’aquila’ is Latin for ‘eagle’ and ’chrysaetos’ is Ancient Greek for ‘golden eagle’ from ’khrusos’, ‘gold’ and ’aetos’, ‘eagle’. Double eagle in case you forgot how big they are.

Goldcrest

The Goldcrest is tiny. In fact, it is the tiniest bird in Britain - with a punky attitude. The Goldcrest is hyperactive, always on the move, flitting restlessly from branch to branch on rounded wings showing off its Mohican yellow head stripe. A bird that is mainly seen in wooded areas. Being so small, they are hard to spot although they are relatively common. The best way to find one is to sit in a conifer wood and listen out for the ultra-high-pitched song. It starts by repeating a little phrase "silly-so" three or four times, while getting louder, and then finishing with a flourish. Each song lasts 3-4 seconds. Once located, they will let you get quite close as they are usually too busy stuffing their face with insects.

Goldcrests are smaller than a Wren, with a dumpy, pale olive-green body, off white underparts, and a short tail. They have two small wing bars, a strong yellow crown stripe bordered with black, a small pointed bill, and large dark eyes. They mainly eat insects, caterpillars, and spiders, often hanging upside down or hovering in their search for food amongst the leaves.

Nesting begins in late April with both birds making the nest though dad does most of the work while being supervised by mum. The nest is a beautiful construction from moss woven together with spiders webs that hangs from the end of a thin branch. The 9 to 11 eggs hatch after 16 days and the young can fly 19 days later. The youngsters are fed by both parents and are fully independent within two weeks. There are usually two broods.

Most British Goldcrests are resident though some move south in winter. A few North European Goldcrests are even brave enough to fly across the North Sea to come here. An amazing journey for something so small. Goldcrests suffer in harsh winters being so tiny. They were badly affected in the early 1960s and their numbers did not fully recover until the mid-1970s. Currently, numbers are increasing and the Goldcrest is doing well with more than 600,000 pairs in Britain.

Their Latin name is 'regulus regulus', a small form of 'rex' meaning 'king'. They do look like a mini king with their yellow crown. An old English name for the Goldcrest is the 'woodcock pilot', since migrating Goldcrests preceded the arrival of Woodcocks by a couple of days. One legend has it that the Goldcrests would hitch a ride in the feathers of a larger bird, like an owl, and be carried like a king in his carriage. Suffolk fishermen called Goldcrests 'herring spink' because migrating birds often landed on the rigging of their herring boats out in the North Sea.

Brambling

The Brambling is like an exotic version of a Chaffinch and is sometimes called the 'northern Chaffinch' as they resemble each other in many ways. The Brambling is a winter visitor arriving in September from northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, and forming large flocks where there is lots of food. Another band of Norsemen that come here to nick our nuts. They have returned to their summer breeding grounds by the end of March. Only a handful have ever been known to stay.

The Brambling has a black head, orange breast and shoulders, white belly, and a white wing bar. They have a stubby, yellow seed-cracking bill in winter. The female is less colourful than the male with orange shoulders and a grey nape patch. In flight, their white rump and white wing bar are clearly visible against their black forked tail. The flight call is a rising nasal "tchwee" and stands out from other finch calls. The Brambling's song is rarely heard here.

Bramblings feed on seeds, especially beech mast. They feed on the ground and may be seen on farmland, country parks and occasionally gardens. In summer they switch their diet to eating insects like beetles and caterpillars that are found in trees and bushes.

They build a cup-shaped untidy nest of moss and lichen against a tree trunk or in a fork. It is lined with hair and feathers. The 5 to 7 eggs hatch after 11 days and the young can fly 13 days later.

The winter population varies from 50,000 to 2 million and they can be found in most parts of Britain. Less than eight have been known to stay and breed here. The oldest ringed Brambling lived for 14 years. They have gone through a moderate population decline in the last 30 years, but the number of birds is still huge and is estimated to be up to 66 million in Europe alone. When conditions are right, Bramblings can gather in staggering numbers. In January 2019, a mega flock of around five million Bramblings was recorded in Slovenia.

Their Latin name is 'fringilla montifringilla' where 'montifringilla' is derived from the Latin 'montis' for mountain and 'fringilla' for finch. The English name is probably derived from Common West Germanic 'brama' meaning bramble or a thorny bush. They have also been called the cock o' the north and, unsurprisingly, the mountain finch.

Goshawk

The Goshawk is the ultimate, deadly woodland predator. Its wings are tailor-made for weaving through trees at up to 40km per hour as it hunts birds and mammals, catching them after a short, fast chase. It is known as the phantom of the forest as it is incredibly elusive and best seen in March when displaying above the trees. And you thought it was safe to go into the woods.

Goshawks are a big hawk, almost the size of a Buzzard but with shorter wings and a longer tail. They look a like a huge Sparrowhawk being dark grey-brown above, white and finely barred below, with a dark head, and having broad bands on their tail. With a hooked bill, yellow eyes, white eyebrow, and dark cheeks, they have a fierce, hooded appearance. A bird not to be messed with. The female is larger than the male and browner. Sparrowhawks are only half the size of a Goshawk by comparison. When soaring, Goshawks hold their wings flat with three or four fingers showing at the end. The wing looks like it has an S-curve along the back edge. They are stealthily silent, only making a "gek-gek-gek" call when nesting.

Such a big bird needs a big meal. They like to eat mammals like squirrels and rabbits (even taking small hares) and birds like Woodpigeons, Jays, Starlings, Thrushes, Crows, and Pheasants (which doesn't make them popular with gamekeepers). Their prey is caught after a short, fast, low flight, crashing through vegetation in pursuit and even chasing on foot!

Goshawks are generally solitary, except when nesting. They perform a fantastic sky dance to each other when courting in March. Once paired, they build a nest of sticks high up in a large tree and line it with things like pine needles. They will often reuse old nests. The 3-4 eggs hatch after 35 days and the young are fed and tended by mum for the first 10 days. She will fiercely attack anything that comes near, including humans! Mum stays on the nest while dad hunts for food. He calls when approaching to let her know it is him so she doesn't beat him up. The young can fly after 35 days but hang around on a nearby branch for 10 days before finally leaving. The girls leave after the boys as, being larger, they take a bit more feeding before they are ready. All the young have dispersed by late summer though they do not move far from their original breeding sites.

There are 600 pairs of Goshawks scattered across Britain with the greatest numbers in Wales and Southern Scotland. Their numbers are slowly increasing from being all but extinct a hundred years ago due to the loss of woodland habitat and persecution from gamekeepers. They are now protected by law. Their rate of increase has been improved by the planting of coniferous forests but hampered by egg collectors who steal their eggs. Habitat loss and persecution remains a threat for the Goshawk. Goshawks that survive their first two years can expect to live 11 years. The oldest known bird lived to be 19. The squirrels kept their distance.

Their Latin name is 'accipter gentilis' where 'accipiter' means 'hawk', from 'accipere' 'to grasp' and 'gentilis' means 'noble' or 'gentle' because in the Middle Ages only the nobility were permitted to fly goshawks for falconry. The English name comes from 'goose-hawk' as sometimes they even hunt geese!

Tree Pipit

The trouble with woodland birds is that most are tiny. The Tree Pipit being a good example. A classic little brown job. Despite his tiny size, his enthusiastic and exuberant song soon gets your attention. A cousin of the Meadow Pipit, who lives in the countryside, the Tree Pipit struts his stuff at the woodland edge and in wooded glades. He uses trees for his song flight, spiralling up and then parachuting down with wings raised and tail spread down to land back on a branch. Unlike his meadow cousin, he overwinters on the African savanna and only visits here between April and September.

Tree Pipits are very similar to Meadow Pipits but can be distinguished by their heavier bill, shorter hind claw and finer streaking on their flanks. They have a streaked olive brown back, a yellowy breast with heavy spotting, noticeably fine 'pencil' streaks on their sides, a white belly, and flesh-coloured legs. Their tail is longish and there is a pale stripe over the eye. The Tree Pipit's song is a series of trills ending with "seea-seea-seea" like they are really having fun. Their normal call is a harsh "teez". One way to remember the call of a Tree Pipit is to imagine it is buzzing its name "treeeeee".

Tree Pipits eat mainly insects like beetles, weevils, ants, and spiders. They will eat the occasional berry or seed in autumn. They generally feed on the ground. If disturbed, they will take off steeply and circle round until it is safe to land again.

They breed on heaths and grasslands or newly felled forestry areas. The female makes a nest in a depression on the ground amongst low cover. She lays 2-6 eggs and incubates them on her own until they hatch 12 days later. Both parents feed the chicks for 12 days, who will leave the nest even before they are able to fly. There are occasionally two broods, usually when the first has failed. The parents do their moult between June and September once they have finished raising a family and are getting ready to go back to Africa.

The Tree Pipit is a scarce summer migrant with 90,000 pairs found mainly in Central and Southern England and in Scotland. Numbers are falling in England though increasing in Scotland. The decline is unclear but may be because of increased grazing in woods and on heaths.

Their Latin name is 'anthus trivialis' where 'anthus' is the name for a small bird of the grasslands and 'trivialis' means 'common' from 'trivium' for 'public street'. It is from where we get the word 'trivial'. The Tree Pipit is certainly not trivial and, sadly, not all that common either.

Willow Tit

Unlike the Marsh Tit, the Willow Tit is correctly named. It likes willows, sometimes. Although the Willow Tit will live in deciduous woods with willows and alders, especially if they are wet and close to streams, they generally prefer coniferous woods. If you think you have seen a Marsh Tit on a pine tree it is probably a Willow Tit.

The Willow Tit has a brown back with off white underparts, a small all black bill, a pale wing panel (not always obvious), a dull black crown, and small black bib that fades into the breast rather than having a clean line. The Willow Tit looks scruffier than his twin brother the Marsh Tit. He is the messy twin. His call is different too; a nasal "eez eez eez" or a incredibly peeved sounding "tchay" as opposed to a clear "pitchou". It is the best way of telling them apart.

The Willow Tit's bill is not as strong as the Marsh Tit's so their food is slightly different. They eat insects in the summer but then mostly plant material during the autumn and winter. They like smaller and softer seeds such as alder and birch which they will store and save for later.

Nesting begins mid-April. The female excavates a nest in a rotten tree stump close to the ground. She lines it with wood chips and grasses. The size of the hole she makes influences the number of eggs she can squeeze in which ranges from 4 to 11, though more usually about 7. Mum alone incubates the red blotchy eggs for 13 days. Once hatched, dad helps feed the young until they can fly 21 days later. Willow Tits make a new hole each year so need lots of rotten tree stumps.

British Willow Tits are a very sedentary resident, staying within their territories, with only 3,500 pairs found mainly in Central and Northeast England. Their numbers have declined since the 1970s and they are on the Red List. The lack of enough dead wood for nests, because of changes in woodland management, is thought to be a possible cause. They are also parasitised by the moorhen flea. Their typical lifespan is three years and the maximum recorded age was 11 years for a bird who lived near Nottingham.

Similar to the Marsh Tit, the Willow Tit is called 'parus montanus' ('mountain tit') in some books and 'poecile montanus' ('unidentifiable small mountain bird') in others. The person who named them got all confused as the pine trees he saw them in were part of a Swiss mountain forest. Scientists don't get out much.

Marsh Tit

The Marsh Tit is completely misnamed as it loves open deciduous woods or parkland and doesn't like marshes at all. It is very shy, often skulking in the undergrowth. When you do get a glimpse, it is usually not long enough to tell if it is a Marsh Tit or a Willow Tit as the two are almost identical. They are the identical twins of the bird world. Scientists didn't realise they were two different birds until 1897. Coal Tits can look pretty similar too.

Marsh Tits have an all glossy black cap, white cheeks, a small black bib, a plain brown back and wings, and paler underparts. They have a short black bill with a pale mark at the base which is incredibly hard to see. A Coal Tit by comparison has a black cap but with a white stripe at the back and a big black bib. As for the Willow Tit, there are tiny differences. The Willow Tit has a duller black cap and no bill spot, differences that are next to impossible to spot even on a good day with an expensive pair of binoculars. The best way to tell them apart is by their calls. The Marsh Tit's is an explosive "pit-chu" like a big sneeze or "chicka-dee-dee-dee".

Marsh Tits eat insects, spiders, fruits and seeds, often extracting seeds from small berries like honeysuckle. Their strong bills can get into quite hard seeds. Beechmast is their preferred food when it can be found. They feed amongst leaves or by taking food from the ground and will store food in the morning to retrieve later for a snack in the afternoon. They have a superb memory for remembering where they have hidden things. If you are incredibly lucky, you may see one on your bird table.

Nesting begins in April. Marsh Tits pair for life and, once settled, the pair will not leave their territory again. They nest low down in a hole in a tree stump, wall, or among roots. They don't make their own hole but will make an existing hole bigger so they can squeeze in. The female lines the hole with moss, hair, and other soft material to make it nice and comfy. She lays 7-9 white and red-speckled eggs which hatch after 13 days. She guards them closely and gives a typical tit 'hissing display' if disturbed. The male helps to feed and care for the young once hatched and brings nearly all the food for the first four days. The young can fly at 17 days and are fed for a further week by both parents. The family will stay together as a family group for 2 weeks. The youngsters then join groups of other small birds as they travel round local woods and hedges in search of food.

The Marsh Tit is a sedentary resident with 60,000 territories in Britain. It is mainly found in Southern England. Like many other small birds, they have declined a lot and are on the Red List as a bird of conservation concern. Their ideal habitat is mature broadleaf woodland – in particular oak – with a rich and dense undergrowth. One reason cited for their decline is the loss of the dense undergrowth from an increase in the number of browsing deer.

Scientists, as well as confusing it with the Willow Tit, have also confused its name. In books it is either 'parus palustris', Latin for 'marshy tit' or 'poecile palustris', where ' poecile' is from the Ancient Greek for 'an unidentifiable small bird' (they got that bit right) and 'palustris' is Latin for 'marshy' (which they got wrong).

Tree Sparrow

Often overlooked as 'just another sparrow', the Tree Sparrow is almost identical to a House Sparrow except without the grey cap. They are the scarce country cousin of the House Sparrow and can be found in open deciduous woodland or farmland rather than towns and gardens. They are shyer than House Sparrows and rarely associate with people, although in continental Europe they are the complete opposite and often nest in buildings just like House Sparrows do here! To further confuse you, they will all travel together in mixed flocks during the winter. They are very sociable, like the House Sparrow, and chirrup merrily away in flocks.

The Tree Sparrow is slightly smaller than a House Sparrow and more active, with its tail often cocked. It has an all chestnut crown, a black spot on its pale cheeks, a small black bib and pale underparts. Their chirrup is like a House Sparrow's, so telling them apart by call is hard. Experts say it is slightly more varied but you would need specialist sound equipment to tell. Thankfully, their flight call is a more distinctive "tek tek".

Tree Sparrows eat small insects, like aphids, and seeds. They feed in bushes, trees and on the ground, usually in groups.

The breeding season takes place from May to mid-August. They nest in colonies using holes in trees and buildings, often occupying the same hole year after year. The messy nest is made using twigs and grass. Both parents build the nest and incubate the 5 eggs which hatch after 11 days. For their first two weeks, the youngsters are fed on a high protein diet made up entirely of insects and spiders. The young can fly 15 days later and are fully independent after a further two weeks. They then disperse but don't travel far. They can raise up to three broods.

The Tree Sparrow is mainly resident with 200,000 pairs and can be found from the Midlands northwards and eastwards. A few continental birds overwinter here. They tend not to travel far which makes their colonisation progress slow. However, when numbers in an area build up they will sometimes 'erupt' to populate a new area. Tree Sparrows are seriously under threat, and are listed as a Red species of conservation concern. Their numbers have declined by 93% between 1970 and 2008. This could be due to changes in agricultural practices resulting in fewer food sources being available on farmland. More recent survey data is a bit more encouraging, suggesting that numbers may have started to increase again, albeit from a very low point.

Their Latin name is 'passer montanus' where 'passer' means 'sparrow' and 'motanus' means 'of the mountains' which is a bit wrong as they don't like mountains much at all. Field sparrow would have been closer. The English name comes from its preference of tree holes for nesting.