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, 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 half the size of a Goshawks by comparison. When soaring, Goshawks hold their wings flat with three or four fingers showing at 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 get 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 has 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 which 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 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.

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 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 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.

Little Owl

The Little Owl is small and unbelievably cute. It looks like a bump on a branch when perched in the daylight. It is so well camouflaged that you can be looking straight at it and not see it. Little Owls like farmland, orchards, parkland, and even hilly countryside. They were introduced into Britain about 100 years ago though they are widespread in Europe where they are also known as the 'owl of Minerva'. All very Ancient Greek.

The Little Owl is the size of a fluffed up starling, looking like a cuddly toy. It has a brown back spotted with white, pale streaked underparts, and a flat looking head. On its face it has pale eyebrows over large yellow eyes, a hooked yellow bill, and a fierce grumpy expression. It bobs up and down when curious or alarmed. They fly close to the ground with an undulating style of flight. Their call is "kiew kiew", sounding very like a little yapping dog.

Little Owls hunt at dusk, after dark or around dawn, often from a favourite perch. They feed on insects, small mammals, small birds, and worms. They will also hunt on the ground, hopping or running to catch things on their rather long legs.

Just like wise owl, they nest in holes. Deciduous trees are their preferred sites though buildings, rock faces, and, at a push, rabbit burrows will do. In April, mum lays the 2-5 eggs (though usually 3 or 4) and incubates them until they hatch 28 days later. She alone looks after them for first two weeks. Dad then joins in to help. Their breeding success is linked to the availability of small mammals as the youngsters need a lot of feeding. Before they are able to fly, the young owls clamber out onto a branch and explore round the nest site. They can eventually fly after 32 days. You will hear their territorial calling during autumn when the youngsters leave and search for their own places to live. Little Owls will often use the same hole year after year, some being in use for 25 years!

The Little Owl is resident and found in Central and Southern Britain, and Southern Scotland. They are territorial with the male normally remaining in one territory for all his life. If another male intrudes into his territory, he approaches the intruder and shouts his territorial call. If the intruder persists, he then flies at him aggressively. If this is unsuccessful, he will repeat the attack, this time trying to make contact with his sharp claws. There are about 6,000 Little Owl territories altogether in Britain, though this fluctuates. Currently their populations is in decline, both here and elsewhere in Europe. Studies are needed to understand why.

Their Latin name is 'athene noctua' which comes from the Greek goddess 'Athena' (called Minerva by the Romans) and the Latin 'noctua' for 'night bird'. Athena's/Minerva's night owl. A Little Owl with an olive branch appears on a Greek tetradrachm coin from 500 BC (a copy of which appears on the modern Greek one-euro coin). There is a 5th-century B.C. bronze statue of Athena holding a Little Owl in her hand. The call of a Little Owl was thought to have heralded the murder of Julius Caesar so in Roman folklore they are the harbingers of death. Not bad for something so small and cute.

Nuthatch

The Nuthatch is an agile woodland bird that loves being upside-down while climbing up and down trees or walls, just to show off. They are not so keen on pine trees because they prickle and are sticky, preferring to live in woods and parks with mature deciduous trees instead.

They look like a mini woodpecker and are pale blue grey above, buff below, with rusty sides and a bold black eye stripe. They have a long black spiky bill and a wedge shaped tail. There call is a loud "quip!", most often heard repeated in twos.

Nuthatches feed mainly on insects, beetles and spiders, switching to nuts in winter when there are fewer insects. They get their name from their habit of wedging a nut, seed or large insect in a crevice on a tree and hammering it open with their powerful bill. They will hide seeds by pushing them into the bark so they can come back to eat them later.

The Nuthatch nests in tree holes, adjusting the opening with mud until it is a perfect fit. This also stops other bigger birds from getting in. The nest hole is filled with bark and leaves and the 6-8 eggs are laid sometime during April. Mum alone sits on the eggs until they hatch 15 days later. The young are fed by both parents for the next 24 days until they are ready to leave.

Nuthatches are sedentary residents with 220,000 pairs found all over England and Southern Scotland. They will seldom move from the woods where they are born making their spread to new areas very slow. The average lifespan is between 2 and 3.5 years, with the oldest ringed bird living to 11 and becoming a master at cracking a nut.

Their Latin name is 'sitta europaea' where 'sitta' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'sitte' for nuthatch. The 'europaea' means 'European' as, despite their slow colonisation, they can be found all over Europe.

Treecreeper

The Treecreeper is small, very active, bird that unsurprisingly lives in trees. It hardly ever stays still like an ever climbing mouse. It is difficult to see for more than few seconds as their normal method of feeding is to jerkily spiral round a tree, moving upwards, until it reaches the top before flying down to start on the next one. You have to be sharp eyed to spot the little fellows as they blend in amazingly with the tree trunk. They are found mainly in larger woods, parkland or by streams where there is a corridor of connected trees. Their favourite trees are redwoods as they can make comfy holes in the soft bark to roost in.

The Treecreeper is smaller than a Great Tit. It has a brown streaked back, whitish underparts, a long slender downward curved bill, and a ragged stripe over the eye. There is a buff wing bar together with stiff pointed tail feathers which help it creep up the tree trunks. If a treecreeper is disturbed, it generally freezes, relying on its camouflage to stay hidden. Its black and brown mottled plumage makes it look like the bark of a tree. Their song sounds like "see see less sissy see" and is very quiet, thin and high-pitched. You have to listen carefully to hear it.

Treecreepers feed on insects and spiders by exploring the bark and crevices using their long, sharp beaks to find them. They eat seeds during the winter months when insects are scarce. All things they can find readily on a tree.

They breed between April and July, taking advantage of the plentiful supply of caterpillars to feed their young. When it comes to nest building, the Treecreeper did not opt for the most common twig solution. Instead, they builds their nest behind a flap of loose bark in order to stay hidden from attack by woodpeckers and squirrels who will steal the eggs and chicks. They lay a base of twigs and then add grass, moss, and lichen, finishing it with wood chips. It takes them about a week to build the nest. The female then lines the nest with hair, wool and feathers to make it comfy. She lays 5-6 pink-speckled white eggs which hatch after 14 days. The young can fly 15 days later. The tiny nest can get quite crowded towards the end. They usually raise two broods.

The Treecreeper is mainly a sedentary resident with 200,000 territories and, on the whole, they do not move far. They are homebodies and stay in their own small territories, some sticking to only one tree! Young Treecreepers spread out from their breeding territories in autumn but most stay within 20 km of where they were born. A few northern Treecreepers move south for winter. Overall, their population is mainly stable.

Their Latin name is 'certhia familiaris' derived from the Ancient Greek 'kerthios' for a small tree-dwelling bird described by Aristotle and others, and the Latin 'familiaris' for 'familiar' or 'common'. It is just a common little tree bird. A local West Country name for the treecreeper is the 'tree mouse', which suits it perfectly and much better.

Stock Dove

Easily overlooked as just another pigeon, the Stock Dove is the secret agent hiding in plain sight. Looking the same, but subtly different. The Stock Dove is smaller than the similar-looking Woodpigeon, though without the white patches on its wings or neck and no pale rump. They are mainly found in large gardens, parkland and avenues old trees where there is water nearby to drink. In the winter, if you see a flock of Rooks or Jackdaws on the ground, take a closer look at the pigeons as some of these can be sneaky Stock Doves.

Like the Woodpigeon, they are blue grey with a purple sheen on their neck and a pinkish breast. They have grey wings with short black bars and dark edges. There is no white on their wings when flying. Their call is different too. It is an “ooo-wah” unlike the Woodpigeon’s more familiar “take two cows taffy”. The Stock Dove is a bit of a veggie, eating mainly plant material like seeds buds and leaves.

To attract a female, the male Stock Dove performs a display flight, flying in large circles with wings held in shallow V. He then lands on the ground puffing out his chest while calling and bowing to the female like some Elizabethan courtier. The Stock Dove is unique amongst pigeons because it nests in holes in trees, cliff faces, and even rabbit burrows. They lay 2 eggs at different times, which both parents incubate. The eggs hatch apart after 16 days. The youngsters are fed by mum and dad and can fly at 25 days, becoming independent soon afterwards. They can have two or more broods in a year as, like other pigeons, they have the secret of crop milk.

The Stock Dove is mainly resident with 260,000 pairs and is found everywhere except in northern Scotland. Over half of the European Stock Dove population lives in the UK. A few of the European birds will pop over in the winter to further increase numbers and exchange spy stories. The oldest ringed bird lived to be 12 years old. Unlike the Woodpigeon, the Stock Dove is protected. Long ago people were not so nice to the Stock Dove. In East Anglia, occupied rabbit holes were covered up with crossed sticks so that the parent Stock Dove could feed their chicks, but the chicks could not leave the nest. They were then taken for the pot when they were ready. That’s fennies for you.

Their Latin name is ’columba oenas’. The ’columba’ is derived from the Ancient Greek ’kolumbos’ meaning a ‘diver’ because of its swimming motion in the air and the ’oenas’ means ‘pigeon’. The English name comes from an old word ’stocc’ meaning ‘stake or tree trunk’. Therefore, Stock Dove is a dove which lives in hollow trees.

Cetti’s Warbler

The secretive Cetti’s Warbler (pronounced chetty) is easy to recognise as it is so loud and says his name. They first came in 1972, having spread from the Mediterranean, and have quickly populated Southern Britain. They live in dense bushes, marshes or near rivers where there are brambles and willows with reed beds close by.

Slightly smaller than a House Sparrow, the Cetti’s Warbler is a rather large, dumpy, Wren like bird with reddish-brown upperparts, pale grey underparts, a whitish throat and a pale stripe over the eye. It has a broad, rounded tail which is often held up like a Wren’s. The male dashes rapidly from song perch to song perch deep within bushes and gives a sudden explosively loud song which runs along the lines of “chet! chet-tee!” (or “chippy-chip-shop” if you prefer). They eat insects, which they mainly catch on the ground.

Their social life can be a bit complex with some males having one female while others, with bigger territories, can have up to four! The female builds a rough cup-shaped nest off the ground amongst vegetation while the male is busy singing to keep his territory and looking after his other wives. She incubates the 4-5 eggs, which hatch after 16 days. The youngsters can fly after 14 days and stay with mum and dad for a month. Dad will grudgingly help in the feeding the first brood if the female has a second. He is not much of a family man, more worried about maintaining his territory, which he does throughout the year.

The Cetti’s Warbler is mainly resident, but numbers can fall after severe winters when insects are in short supply. There are about 2,000 pairs, mostly in South England. Their Latin name is ’cettia cetti’ and they are named after an 18th century priest and zoologist, Francesco Cetti. Pretty cool being remembered by having a bird named after you.

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’.