Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owls mainly hunt during the daytime, flying barely above the ground over moorland, grassland and salt marshes searching for voles, which are their favourite food. Their 'ears' are two feather tufts that you can only see when they are feeling grumpy or alarmed. You are more likely to see a Short-eared Owl in the winter as northern European Owls join ours on coastal marshes and numbers swell.

The Short-eared Owl is larger than a Barn Owl with a round face and fierce, staring yellow eyes surrounded by black rings to make them look even fiercer. They have a mottled brown body, a streaked breast, and a pale belly and flanks. Their wings are long and narrow with black tips and a dark mark at the 'elbow'. Their short tail has four strong bars. They hover and glide with a few floppy wing beats, feet above the ground. The Short-eared Owl gives a short bark when alarmed but is otherwise silent except when singing its low hooting "boo boo boo" song. Like many raptors, the female is slightly larger than the male and a lot bossier.

Their main food is small mammals such as rats, mice, squirrels, and small rabbits. Short-eared Owls will also eat birds up to Thrush sized and insects and frogs if pushed, but their favourite snack is voles which make up to 65% of their diet. They catch their prey by swooping down feet-first on top of them. Like all Owls, because of the low acidity of their stomachs, they can't easily digest bones and have to eject them as pellets.

Short-eared Owls are able to breed after one year. In spring, the male attracts a mate by doing an aerial display above his moorland territory, clapping his wings below his body and showing off. The nest is a scraped-out hollow on the ground lined with grass and downy feathers, concealed by low vegetation. Mum lays her 4-8 white eggs in March. They are spaced out over several days so that the youngsters hatch at different times. If food is short, only the oldest and strongest survive. The young owlets are fed by both mum and dad. After 15 days they leave the nest to hide nearby until they can fly 35 days later. Breeding success depends crucially on how many voles there are. On a year with plenty of voles, they may even have two broods.

There are about 2,000 pairs of Short-eared Owls in Britain and the population is stable. Numbers increase in the winter, especially on the coast, as Owls come over from northern Europe to join ours. Some of our Owls may move south to southern Europe. Winter numbers can fluctuate depending on food availability. Because Short-eared Owls are of European conservation concern, they are Amber Listed. The oldest ringed Short-eared Owl lived for 12 years.

Their Latin name is 'asio flammeus' where 'flammeus' means 'flame coloured' and 'asio' is the Latin name for a horned owl. We call them ears rather than horns but the flame colour is spot on. There are eleven subspecies of Short-eared Owls worldwide.


The Stonechat loves having his picture taken. He will happily pose upright on a post while you get a photo of his good side, flicking his wings impatiently. Stonechats need grassy areas for feeding, dense cover for nesting and the all-important posing post for singing. They can be found on heaths in the summer and along the coast in winter.

Stonechats are small and dumpy, a little smaller than a Robin, with a big head and short tail. The male has a black head, white on his neck, an orange breast and a dark brown back. The female has a brown head and a less obvious white neck. She is altogether browner. The youngsters look like mum. They have a white shoulder patch that is visible when flying on their whirring wings, looking a bit like giant bumble bees. Their call is a harsh "tac tac" like two stones being tapped together and hence their Stonechat name. 

Stonechats drop to the ground to feed. They are mainly insectivorous, feeding on caterpillars, moths, ants, spiders and flies, though they will also take worms and snails, and feed on seeds and berries in the autumn and winter. 

They breed on lowland heaths and sites with plenty of gorse bushes, like railway embankments. Stonechats first breed when they are one year old. They are monogamous during the breeding season but do not pair for life. Mum builds an untidy cup of leaves close to the ground under a bush which she lines with hair, wool, and feathers. She incubates the 4-6 greenish-blue speckled eggs with little help from dad, who is too busy posing. The eggs hatch after 13 days. Both parents feed the young, who can fly 13 days later. The quick turnaround gives time for 2-3 broods and often while dad feeds the first brood, mum gets on with a second. They do their moult once all the kids have left home and then move down to the coast for winter.

Stonechats are partial migrants. While many stay here, some migrate to southern Europe. There are 60,000 breeding pairs in Britain though numbers have fallen because of heaths being turned into farmland and pesticides killing the insects they need to feed. Stonechats can also suffer in severe winters.

Their Latin name is 'saxicola rubicola' where 'saxicola' means 'rock dweller' from the Latin 'saxum' for 'rock' and 'incola' for 'dwelling in'. The 'rubicola' is a combination of 'rubus' for 'bramble' and 'incola' again, giving a 'rock and bramble dweller' which is pretty close. Another local name is the 'gorse chat'.


Another very secretive reedbed bird. The booming call of a Bittern is unmistakable, like someone blowing across the top of a very large milk bottle. Despite its size, it is tricky to spot being a master of camouflage, you can look right at one and not know it's there until it blinks. Bitterns are loners and spend a lot of time standing still. When you do see one, it is magic.

The Bittern is brown, streaked with black and buff to match the reeds. It has a black crown, long dagger bill, and huge light green feet. It flies owl-like on broad rounded wings with its neck hunched up like a Heron's. When alarmed it points its bill skywards and sways to mimic reeds in the wind. The deep booming call is heard mainly between March and July, typically at dusk, and the low note can carry for up to 5km!

Bitterns eat mainly fish, especially eels. A bit of a cockney geezer. It will also snack on small birds and amphibians. It searches for food with the tip of its bill, which makes it vulnerable if the water freezes over and it can't get its bill through the ice. Many will die in a harsh winter.

Bitterns return to their breeding grounds in spring. The male Bittern defends a large territory and uses his booming call to attract one or more females. Once he has done his business, like a good East End lad, he leaves the missus to do everything. She makes a nest from a heap of dead reeds and lays 4-6 eggs which hatch after 25 days. The youngsters leave the nest after 15 days and are cared for by mum until they can fly 50 days later. The youngsters disperse from the breeding ground in late summer and may visit smaller reedbeds and riverside marshes as they move about to find their own patch. Young Bitterns can breed after 1 year and their average lifespan is 10 years.

Many Bitterns stay within their territories, though some northern Bitterns will move south in autumn and be joined by others from northern Europe. There are 160 breeding pairs in Britain with numbers swelling to 600 in winter. There are about 29,000 Bitterns across all of Europe. The drainage of wetlands and the removal of eggs by egg collectors nearly wiped Bitterns out in Britain. In 1997 there were just 11 males left. Thankfully, their numbers are now steadily rising. The small numbers and their nature reserve dependency make them Amber Listed.

Their Latin name is 'botaurus stellaris' where 'botaurus' is derived from the Latin 'bos' for 'ox' and  'taurus' for bull because of the bellowing call. The 'stellaris' is Latin for 'starred' and refers to the Bittern's speckled plumage. The English name is a corruption of the Latin. Other names include; 'bog thumper', 'bull of the bog', 'bog hen', 'boom bird' and 'bottle bump'. Imagination runs wild when things are hard to see.

Bearded Tit

The Bearded Tit lives exclusively in dense reedbeds. It is hard to see but easy to hear with its distinctive metallic "ting ting" call. A very sociable chap, sharing his patch with lots of mates. It is another badly named bird as it isn't a Tit and doesn't have a beard.

Bearded Tits are a similar colour to dead reeds with an orange-brown body, a blue-grey head, and a droopy black patch under their eyes (like their mascara has run). They are long-tailed with a delicate wing pattern and a small orange bill. The female has a plainer head and the kids look like mum. They are usually seen flying rapidly in a looping flight across the top of a reedbed showing their white outer tail feathers.

Their main foods are insects and spiders in the summer, then switching to moss and seeds in winter when insects are scarce. Bearded Tits don't have teeth, and their bills aren't powerful enough to crack open the tough seed shells, so they have to eat grit which helps them grind the hard seeds into a digestible pulp. 

Bearded Tit breeding starts in April. Both mum and dad build the nest which is a deep cup of reed leaves and vegetation built amongst the reed stems and lined with fluffy seed heads. These guys are all about reeds. The 4-8 eggs hatch after 11 days and the youngsters can feed themselves after a week. They can fly 12 days later which gives mum and dad time to squeeze in 2-3 broods. They do their moult between June and October once all the kids have left home.

There are 700 pairs of Bearded Tits in Britain. Numbers fell because of the drainage of wetlands. Their numbers are now slowly increasing thanks to reedbed conservation. Most birds are sedentary but when numbers get large in an area, this can cause a mass 'irruption' to other areas in autumn. Bearded Tits from Holland have been known to come here to overwinter. They are very sensitive to severe winter weather and the cold winter of 1947 nearly wiped them out. The oldest recorded Bearded Tit lived for 6 years.

Their Latin name is 'panurus biarmicus' where 'panurus' is from Ancient Greek 'panu' for 'exceedingly' and 'ουρa' for 'tail', a reference to their long tail. The 'biarmicus' is from 'Bjarmaland' part of Russia where, presumably, they were first spotted. Another English name is the 'bearded reedling', which is better as they are not related to Tits but still wrong on the beard front. 

Reed Bunting

The Reed Bunting is one of the few wetland birds that didn't decline when reedbeds were drained. It simply moved to drier areas and nobody knows why. The male Reed Bunting is a dapper fellow with a jet-black head and white moustache, often singing his "zinc zinc zinc zonk" song from a prominent perch, like someone learning to count from one to four.

The Reed Bunting is sparrow-sized, but slimmer, with a long, deeply notched tail. The male has a black head, a white collar and his all-important drooping white moustache. Females, winter males and youngsters have streaked heads. In flight, the tail looks black with broad, white edges. They have stubby seed eater bills and dull wing bars.

Although Reed Buntings will eat insects, their chief food is seeds and they are often seen feasting on seed heads. Reed Buntings will also visit garden bird tables for seeds, especially in cold winters.

Nesting starts in April and finishes in late August. The nest is built amongst the ground vegetation by mum, usually near water, but it can also be on an arable field, especially oilseed rape. It is made from grass and moss and then lined with finer material. The 4-5 olive-grey eggs hatch after 13 days and both proud parents feed the young. If a predator comes near the nest, mum and dad will feign injury in an attempt to draw the predator away from where the nest is hidden. The youngsters can fly after a further 10 days which gives time to have 2 or 3 broods. Mum and dad do their moult between July and November once they have finished raising the kids. They do a second moult between March and May when dad gets his dapper black head.

Reed Buntings mostly stay put, but some move southwards or to lowland areas in autumn. A few from northern Europe arrive to overwinter here too. They form winter flocks with other finches and buntings. There are about 250,000 pairs in Britain and the population is stable.

Their Latin name is 'emberiza schoeniclus' where 'emberiza' is from the Old German 'embritz' for a bunting. The 'schoeniclus' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'skhoiniklos' for an unknown waterside bird. The 'emberizidae' bird family contains around 300 seed-eating species, the majority of which are found in the Americas. Our Reed Bunting is most closely related to the Japanese Reed Bunting and the Pallas's Reed Bunting. The English name is from where it is mainly found. Another name is the 'reed sparrow'.

Reed Warbler

The Reed Warbler is a shy 'steady Eddie' of the reedbeds who remains hidden. He sings at a constant beat, repeating one phrase several times before smoothly spinning into the next. You could dance away to it. Like the Sedge Warbler, the Reed Warbler is a summer visitor from central Africa, arriving in April and leaving in September. Unlike the Sedge Warbler it, more sensibly, makes the journey in short stages.

The Reed Warbler is smaller than a Great Tit. It has plain unstreaked brown upperparts, a white throat, paler underparts and a rich brown rump. The bill is dark and looks long for its size. It has a very faint eye stripe unlike the bold one of a Sedge Warbler. It is a bit of a brown job. Like most warblers, mum and dad are identical and the kids are a richer buff colour. They sing from within the reeds and are rarely seen on a perch.

Reed Warblers eat insects, spiders and small snails which they find amongst the dense, waterside vegetation. 

Normally a bit of a loner, the Reed Warbler breeds in reedbed colonies as this gives them better protection from ground predators. The males return two or three weeks before the females and, once hooked up, are usually monogamous. The nest is built entirely by mum. It takes her four days to build the initial cup of grass, reed stems and leaves, and another three days to finish lining it with finer materials to her satisfaction. In May, she lays 3-5 pale green speckled eggs at daily intervals. Both mum and dad incubate the eggs and have to keep a careful watch as they are favourite victims of the dastardly Cuckoo which will lay its own eggs in their nest. The eggs hatch at different times after 9-12 days. Only the eldest chick survives in wet summers with few insects. The chicks are fed by their parents and can fly after 10 days, but stay with mum and dad for 2 weeks. There are often two broods. Like the Sedge Warbler, mum and dad do a partial moult after breeding before finishing it off once back in Africa.

The largest concentration of Reed Warblers is found in East Anglia and along the south coast. Very few breed in Scotland and Ireland. About 130,000 pairs come to Britain in the summer. The biggest threat to them is the loss of breeding sites because of drainage. The longest-living Reed Warbler was 12.

Their Latin name is 'acrocephalus scripaceus' where 'acrocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'akros' for 'highest' and 'kephale' for 'head' like the Sedge Warbler. The 'scirpaceus' is from the Latin for 'reed'. Another English name is the 'reed wren'. It would be much better if scientists listened to the locals as this is a perfect name. There are ten subspecies of Reed Warbler and our Common Reed Warbler looks very similar to the Great Reed Warbler, except it is, of course, bigger and has a stronger eye stripe.

Sedge Warbler

The Sedge Warbler is a summer visitor that loves to hide in thick vegetation or reedbeds near rivers and lakes. They arrive in April and return to Africa in the autumn making an awesome 4,000km non-stop flight across Europe, the Mediterranean Ocean and the Sahara Desert.

It is smaller than a House Sparrow with streaked upperparts, pale underparts, a black crown, and a prominent white eyebrow stripe. Its yellowish-brown rump is visible in flight. Youngsters are like mum and dad but yellower. The Sedge Warbler's song is very similar to a Reed Warbler's but you can tell the two apart as the Sedge Warbler's song is more jazzy, fast-flowing and off-beat, often sung from the sky or a high perch. They sing a mix of harsh churring and sweeter notes with each verse in a different rhythm, often singing non-stop for a minute or two.

Sedge Warblers chiefly feed on insects like flies, beetles, and spiders. They will also eat snails, worms and the occasional berry in autumn. They find most of their food low down in the vegetation. Their feeding techniques include 'picking' insects from underneath leaves, while perched or hovering, and 'leap-catching', where they grab an insect as it flies past. They cleverly take advantage of the low temperatures around dusk and dawn when their prey is less mobile. They have a big feed up before their epic migration, doubling their body weight.

The best breeding territories are grabbed by the earliest arriving males, who then sing to attract a female, never singing the same song twice, adding new riffs to impress the jazz-cat girls. The Sedge Warbler finishes singing as soon as he has a mate. The music struck mum then builds a nest from a cup of grasses, moss and spiders' webs lined with soft hair and plant down. It is woven around plant stems off the ground. She lays 5-6 eggs in May and incubates them until they hatch 13 days later. Both parents feed the young. The youngsters can fly after 13 days. With that fast turnaround, there are often two broods. The family then moves to pre-migration areas to bulk up. Mum and dad do a partial moult, then set off ahead of the kids and finish moulting once back in Africa. 

Sedge Warblers suffered a large decline in the 1970s and 1980s because of droughts in Africa but their numbers are now recovering. It goes to show that everything, not just people, suffers in a drought. About 300,000 pairs breed in Britain and their breeding success depends on good wetlands and marshes. The oldest ringed Sedge Warbler was 8 years old.

Their Latin name is 'acrocephalus schoenobaenus' where 'acrocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'akros' for 'highest' and 'kephale' for 'head'. The people naming it actually meant 'sharp-pointed head' but got their Greek a bit mixed up. The 'schoenobaenus' is from Ancient Greek 'skhoinos' for 'reed' and 'baino' 'to tread'. Reed walker is a lot better. The Sedge Warbler is closely related to the similar-looking Aquatic Warbler found in Poland and Russia, which occasionally passes through on its own way to Africa. The English name comes from its singing in the sedge (grasses and rushes). Another local name is the 'sedge reedling'.

Water Rail

The Water Rail is the squealing piglet of the reedbed. It is a skulking, secretive wader walking or swimming through dense vegetation, mostly hidden. Cold winter weather sometimes forces it into the open and it will 'freeze' if surprised. 

Smaller and distinctly slimmer than the Moorhen, the Water Rai has chestnut-brown upperparts with dark streaks, white stripes on its flanks, grey underparts, a grey face, and a long red slightly curved bill. Its slim body lets it slip through the dense reeds and its long legs with big feet stop it from sinking.  It walks with a high-stepping gait, although adopts a crouch when running for cover, preferring to scuttle away than fly. The Water Rail flight is feeble and fluttering with trailing legs, though this is rarely seen as they mainly fly when migrating at night. They make a strange piglet-like call known as 'sharming' that is heard when they defend their territory.

They swim with a jerky motion like a Moorhen and feed in shallow water, foraging for plants and small creatures like shrimps, frogs, insects and snails. Water Rails follow established feeding routes, frequently returning to favourite hunting areas. They will even jump to take insects from plants, climb to find berries, or dislodge apples from trees so they can eat them on the ground.

Water Rails are monogamous and highly territorial when breeding. The male builds a well-hidden nest from whatever vegetation is available 15cm or more above the level of the marsh. If the water level rises, he will build it even higher. There are usually two broods with mum laying eggs in March and June. She does most of the incubation and the 6-11 eggs hatch after 19 days. She will defend the eggs from intruders or move them to another location. The youngsters are initially fed by both parents but soon leave the nest to feed themselves. They can fly 20 days later and become fully independent after a further month. Mum and dad are flightless for 3 weeks when they do their moult after breeding. The young Water Rails can breed themselves after their first year.

The 1,000 pairs of British Water Rails mainly stay in their breeding areas. Up to 10,000 arrive in autumn from northern Europe to overwinter, but numbers are hard to count being so secretive. One method is to play a Water Rail's call and listen to how many respond. There is evidence that the population is falling because of the draining of marshes and the loss of vegetation along waterways. They are also adversely affected by harsh winters that freeze the water and hot summers that dry out the reedbeds.

Their Latin name is 'rallus acquaticus', the Latin equivalent of the English 'Water Rail'. The oldest known fossils of a Water Rail are from Carpathia and date to the Pliocene era (2.5 - 5 million years ago). By the late Pleistocene (2 million years ago), the Water Rail lived across most of its present range. The squealing piglet has been around for a long time. Hiding is good for survival!


The Common Snipe is a superb demonstration of good camouflage. They are incredibly tricky to see amongst grass and reeds, blending in perfectly. A shy bird that conceals itself in ground vegetation and flies off only when you get too close. When flushed, it utters a sharp note that sounds like "skatch" and flies in a series of aerial zig-zags to confuse any chasing predators.

The stripy Snipe is brown with buff streaks. It has a buff stripe through the centre of its crown and one over the eye. Its legs are short, its belly is white and its bill is very long for its size. When flying, there is a white trailing edge to their pointed wings.

Snipe do not form large flocks but feed together in small groups called 'wisps'. They use their sensitive bill to probe for worms and other insects hidden in soft mud. The bill's end is flexible, enabling it to locate and grasp prey.

The Snipe breeds in wet places like rushy fields and northern moorlands. Nesting begins in April but they can breed as late as August. The male builds a well-hidden nest on the ground and romantically performs a 'winnowing' display on a moonlit night by flying high in circles and then taking shallow dives to produce a 'drumming' sound by vibrating his tail feathers to attract a mate. The female incubates the 4 eggs by herself until they hatch 18 days later. The youngsters quickly leave the nest and the brood is split between mum and dad with dad looking after the older chicks. The youngsters are fed by both parents and can fly after 19 days but take 7 weeks to fully grow and become independent. 

Overall, the Common Snipe is not threatened. However, numbers in parts of Europe and Britain are falling because of the draining of water meadows, ploughing of grasslands, and planting of forests on upland moors. It is now Amber Listed. Of the 70,000 pairs that breed here, a high proportion now breed on nature reserves. British Snipe generally overwinter in the overall area where they nested but move from the uplands to the lowlands. In autumn, more Snipe from Iceland, the Faroe's, and Scandinavia come to overwinter, arriving in September and leaving in March, swelling the numbers to over 1,000,000 pairs. The oldest ringed Snipe was 16.

Their Latin name is 'gallinago gallinago' where 'gallinago' is the Latin name for a Woodcock or Snipe from 'gallina' for 'hen' and '-ago' meaning 'resembling'. The Snipe's courting 'drumming' sound has been compared to the bleating of a sheep or goat; hence, in many languages, the Snipe is known by names such as 'flying goat', 'heaven's ram', 'heather-bleater' and 'sky goat'.


The Avocet is an elegant black and white wader that is a bit of a picky prima donna with a snobby upturned bill. It returned to Britain in 1947 and, as a result of conservation, has flourished, even becoming the RSPB’s emblem in 1970. Avocets like coastal pools and marshes with small islands and little vegetation, so they can easily show off. In winter, many move south to overwinter in Spain and Portugal, though a few stay here.

An Avocet is black and white with a black crown, an upswept thin black bill, and long blue-grey legs. Mum and dad look the same though the youngsters have dark brown patches rather than black. Small fluffy Avocet chicks are unbelievably cute. In flight, their white wings have black wing tips and their legs stick out behind. Their call is a harsh “kluut kluut” and the Dutch word for an Avocet is a ‘Kluut’.

They eat small invertebrates like shrimps and larvae worms by sweeping their bills from side to side while wading in pools.

Avocets return to their breeding sites in March. They are social birds and nest in loose colonies near open water. The nest is made from bits of aquatic vegetation and they will build the nest up if the water level rises. Mum lays 2-4 eggs which hatch after 23 days and the chicks can soon feed themselves. Both parents share the incubation and childcare. Mum and dad will bravely see off any aerial predators, like Lesser Black-backed Gulls, by flying at them while calling loudly. The youngsters can fly 35 days later but the family will stick together for a few weeks. Between June and October, after breeding, mum and dad do their moult.

Avocets, or ‘Pied Avocets’ as they are known globally, are a great conservation success story. Victorian hunters and egg collectors drove them to extinction in the 19th century then, ironically, the flooding of coastal marshes during World War II to make invasion harder provided the perfect breeding habitat and prompted their return. The Avocet is specially protected as most of its breeding sites are now on nature reserves and it is very picky about where it lives. Their largest threat is sea level rise caused by global warming. There are 2,000 breeding pairs in Britain and the numbers swell to 7,500 as northern European birds arrive to overwinter here. The oldest ringed Avocet lived to the ripe old age of 24.

Their Latin name is ’recurvirostra avocetta’ where ’recurvirostra’ is derived from ’recurvus’ for ‘curved backwards’ and ’rostrum’ for ‘bill’. The ’avocetta’ is derived from the Venetian word ’avosetta’ which refers to the black and white outfits worn by Italian lawyers. A black and white bird with an upturned bill fits it perfectly. The English name Avocet is also derived from ’avocetta’, though another less posh name is the ‘yarwelp’ from its call. There are four subspecies of Avocets; the American Avocet, the Andean Avocet, the Australian Red-necked Avocet, and the Pied Avocet. Stilts, another long-legged wader, are from the same family as Avocets.