The Chough (pronounced "chuff") is a rare crow that loves uplands, crags and cliffs. They are usually seen in small groups and tend to stay in the same area. They are mainly found on Britain's west coasts and the Cornish like them so much, they are on Cornwall's coat of arms, proudly sitting on top of the crest flanked by a tin miner and a fisherman.

Rook-sized, Choughs are glossy black with red legs and a distinctive red, down-curved bill. When flying, the wings are deeply fingered and the tail looks square-ended. Being cliff dwellers, they are acrobatic masters of flight. Choughs moult slowly so they can always fly. On the ground, they tend to bounce and hop about when looking for food. Their call is a reverberating "chow" similar to, but louder than, a Jackdaw's

Choughs feed by probing, digging and turning over stones for invertebrates like ants, leatherjackets, beetles and other insects. They will also eat grains and berries.

Choughs rarely move far from their breeding areas and usually pair together for life. They nest in rock cavities, sea caves and even old mine shafts. The nest is built of sticks and lined with mud, moss and hair. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 17 days and the youngsters are fed by both mum and dad. After 40 days they can fly, but stay with their parents for a further 4-5 weeks.

Like many birds, the Chough population has declined, mainly due to the loss of their open habitat. Cattle and ponies used to graze the cliff tops, keeping the grass short and providing good, cropped ground for hunting insects. With the reduction in grazing, cliff tops have become too overgrown for the Chough. They are also easily disturbed by tourists. There are about 400-500 pairs in Britain and the oldest known Chough lived to 16.

Their Latin name is 'pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax' from the Ancient Greek 'purrhos' for 'flame-coloured' and 'korax' for 'crow'. The English name is thought to be from their call (as in 'bough' rather than 'rough'). A local Cornish name is 'palores' which means 'digger', a reference to their habit of digging away at loose soil to find insects. Legend has it that the soul of King Arthur departed in the form of a Chough, its red feet and bill signifying Arthur's violent and bloody end, so making killing them really unlucky.

As well as the 'Cornish' Chough, there's an Alpine Chough that lives high in the mountains.


The Whinchat is a summer visitor, closely related to the Stonechat (which stays here all the time). The wimpy Whinchat prefers to spend its winter in tropical Africa rather than chilly Britain. It is mainly found in the uplands of England and Scotland, though might be spotted anywhere as it migrates. The Whinchat likes open country like grasslands, meadows, and railway verges, often being seen perching upright on posts, flicking its tail and wings.

The male Whinchat looks similar to a Stonechat but is lighter in colour and has a distinctive pale eye-stripe. Smaller than a Robin, they have a mottled brown head and back, dark cheeks, white patches on their wings, and an orange-brown breast. The female is paler and less well marked. Whinchats look cross-shaped when flying with pointed wings, white side patches to their tails and a white shoulder bar. Their call is a soft clicking "tac, tac".

Whinchats perch in high places, ready to pounce on insects and other small invertebrates as they wander by. They mainly like to eat mayflies, moths, beetles, caterpillars, and spiders, though will also eat seeds, berries and worms.

Once arrived here, they settle down to nest in May or June. Mum builds a cup-shaped nest on the ground in dense vegetation from grass, leaves and moss. The 4-7 eggs hatch after 12 days and the youngsters are fed by both mum and dad. They leave the nest 12 days later, while still too young to fly, and fledge after another week. They remain dependent on mum and dad for 2 more weeks before finally leaving home. Mum and dad will often have two broods then do their moult in August, ready to head back to sub-Saharan Africa to live it up in places like Ghana or Nigeria.

About 50,000 pairs come to Britain though numbers have more than halved since 1995. The cause is unknown, though likely due to the loss of habitat. Nests are vulnerable to predators which include Weasels, Stoats, Crows, Magpies and small raptors like Merlin and, to top it all, are sometimes parasitised by the dastardly Cuckoo. The poor Whinchats have a tough time and, unsurprisingly, are on the Red List. They are short-lived birds, typically only surviving for 2 years. The oldest recorded Whinchat lived for just over 5 years.

Their Latin name 'saxicola ruberta' means 'small rock dweller' from the Latin 'saxum' for 'rock' and 'incola' for 'dwelling' and 'ruberta' for a 'small bird'. The English name comes from 'whin', an old name for gorse, which is often found where they breed, and 'chat' from the noise of their calls.


The Wheatear is a long distant migrant travelling from Africa to Europe, reaching as far as Greenland! A distance of 30,000 km. They arrive here in early spring and are usually seen in ones and twos. They are easy to spot from their distinctive quick scurry followed by stopping and standing to attention, often flicking their tails.

In summer, the bandit-masked male Wheatears have white rumps, short black tails, black cheeks, sandy breasts, blue-grey backs, white underparts, and a white stripe over their eye and forehead. In winter, they are less well marked. The female and juvenile are a washed out, buff brown version of the male Their white rump is visible against their black tail when flying. They sing a warbling song in short bursts, often given in fluttering song flights.

Wheatears feed mainly on insects, often jumping up to catch them. They will also eat worms, snails and berries.

Mum builds the rough cup of grass nest and lines it with moss. It is made within a hole or crevice in open countryside like a rocky mountain slope, moor or dune. An abandoned rabbit burrow, a hole in a wall or even a bit of drainage pipe will do. Dad perches nearby and sings to her. She lays 4-7 pale blue eggs which hatch after 13 days. The youngsters are fed by both mum and dad and can fly 15 days later, becoming fully independent after a further 15 days. They do their moult before heading back to Africa in October, many doing a 4,000km non-stop hop before resting in Morocco. Young Wheatears can breed after one year.

Sadly, Wheatear numbers have declined in the last fifty years and they are Amber listed. The drop is thought to be due to the ploughing of old grasslands and droughts in Africa. About 200,000 pairs come to Britain and can be found mainly in northern and western regions. The oldest ringed Wheatear lived to 7.

Their Latin name is 'oenanthe oenanthe' and is derived from the Greek 'oenos' for 'wine' and 'anthos' for 'flower', refering to their return to Greece in the spring just as the grapevines blossom. The English name Wheatear is not derived from 'wheat' or any sense of 'ear,' but is derived from the Anglo Saxon 'ear' for 'arse' and 'hwit' for 'white' because of its white rump. The name for an earwig comes from the same source and means 'wiggly arse'. Wheatears have many local nicknames which reflect their calls or behaviour. These include; 'chick-chack', 'fallow chat', 'coney chuck', 'stone chucker', 'white tail' and 'clod hopper'.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Wheatears were considered a delicacy in England, called 'the English ortolan' and Sussex shepherds would supplement their income by selling birds they trapped.

Black-throated Diver

The Black-throated Diver is a summer visitor to the remote lochs of northern Scotland. Like other Divers, it moves about the water with ease but is clumsy on land having its legs set so far back. It swims with its bill held straight like the Great Northern Diver. For the rest of the year, it can be found on Britain's northern coasts.

It is a large, smart, monochromatic Diver in its summer plumage. The Black-throated Diver has a distinctive black throat patch, a silky grey head and neck, a black and white chequered back, and a black dagger bill. All very Art Deco. In the winter, they turn dark grey above and white below with an obvious white oval patch on their side. They look long and thin in flight with their necks held out straight while issuing a frog-like croaking call. Other calls include a drawn-out "wup-woo-ee" wail at their breeding grounds.

Similar to other Divers, the Back-throated Diver feeds mainly on fish and can stay underwater for ages. Most Black-throated Divers search for food alone, although some small groups do gather during the winter to feed together. Just before diving, it stretches and holds its neck up at full length, then dives with a small upward jump. Their favourite food includes gobies, herrings, sprats, and sand-eels, though they will also eat insects and crabs.

Black-throated Divers pair for life and breed on large freshwater lakes from April or soon after the spring thaw. The nest is built on an island close to the water's edge. Dad constructs the nest using moss and water weeds with the help of mum (who points out where he has gone wrong). They both incubate the 2 eggs for 30 days. The youngsters leave the nest soon after hatching and are cared for by both parents, often being left alone while mum and dad go to get food. After a few weeks, the youngsters can feed themselves but mum and dad continue to provide fish until they can fly and become independent 60 days later. The youngsters won't become fully mature for 2-3 years.

Less than 200 pairs breed in Britain though numbers swell to 500 in winter with birds from northern Europe. The Black-throated Divers are easily disturbed when breeding and are also vulnerable to marine pollution. They are Amber Listed. The oldest ringed Black-throated Diver was 27 though most live for 12 years.

There Latin name is 'gavia arctica' where 'gavia' comes from the Latin for 'sea mew' and 'arctica' is Latin for 'northern' or 'Arctic'. Their English name comes from its obvious breeding throat patch. In America, it is called the 'Arctic loon'.

Red-throated Diver

The Red-throated Diver is the smallest and slimmest Diver. Like the Great Northern Diver, it sits low in the water with an upright neck but holds its bill tilted upwards. It is the most common of the British Divers. It is usually seen singly though can form loose flocks, bobbing about around our coasts in winter or on Scottish lochs in the summer.

In winter, the Red-throated Diver is a nondescript bird, greyish above fading to white below with white spots on its back and pale around its eye. In summer, The Red-throated Diver lives up to its name with a distinctive red patch on its throat and has a velvet grey head and neck, a dark grey back, narrow white stripes on its neck and white underparts. In flight, it looks hunchbacked with its drooped thin neck and its wings being lifted high above its back. It makes short quacks in flight and harsh barks or weird wailing calls when on the breeding grounds.

Red-throated Divers hunt fish by diving with a jump and can stay underwater for over a minute. Like other Divers, it is well adapted to the water with dense bones that help it to stay submerged, legs set back to provide excellent propulsion, and a body that is long and streamlined. Their diet is mainly fish though they will eat amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans, invertebrates, and plant material.

The Red-throated Diver breeds on the freshwater lakes and lochs of northern Europe. Following a noisy air display, mum and dad settle down to build the nest from a heap of vegetation close to the water's edge. Both parents incubate the 2 spotted eggs which hatch after 27 days. The youngsters leave the nest the next day, and mum and dad feed them, often flying out to the sea to find food. The youngsters can fly 43 days later though don't become fully mature adults for 2-3 years. Unlike other Divers, the Red-throated Diver does its moult soon after breeding, in late summer or early autumn, shedding all its flight feathers at once and becoming flightless for 3-4 weeks.

About 1,300 Red-throated Divers breed in Britain. The number swells to 17,000 in winter with birds coming here from Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. In harsh winters, Red-throated Divers may go as far south as the Mediterranean to get warm. Their major threats are oil spills, pollution, and fishing nets. The oldest recorded Red-throated Diver lived to 23 years old.

Their Latin name is 'gavia stellata' where 'gavia' is the Latin for an unidentified seabird or 'sea mew' and 'stellata' means 'set with stars' or 'starry', referring to its speckled back in winter. The English name is straightforward as it has a red throat and dives, though a few local names include 'sprat borer' from the fish it likes to eat. The Americans call it a 'red-throated loon' from its calls, and the Scots call it a 'rain goose' because it was thought to predict the weather. Its short cries indicated fine weather and its long, plaintive cries meant it would rain and was time to get the bagpipes out.

Great Northern Diver

The Great Northern Diver is a large, robust Diver that looks a bit like a Cormorant, swimming with its body low in the water, its long periscope upright neck and its large dagger bill stuck out flat in front. It is the largest of Britain's Divers and favours shallow areas close to the shore. Another sea bird that is mainly a winter visitor, although some non-breeding birds stay off our northern coasts for the summer.

In winter, Great Northern Divers have a plain black back, neck and head, with a white throat and belly, and a darker half-collar at the base of their neck. In summer, they have a dark black head and neck with a black-and-white-striped patch on the side of the neck and a black back with a white chequered pattern. They often look as if they have a big bump on their foreheads. Youngsters are brown with white bellies. If alarmed, they will swim with only their neck and head showing above the water. Great Northern Divers fly like geese with their feet sticking out the back. Being so bulky, they have to run along the water's surface to gain enough momentum to take off. At their breeding sites, they make a spooky wailing call (which is often used on horror films) but are otherwise silent.

The Great Northern Diver is beautifully adapted and can slip underwater with barely a ripple when diving to catch fish. It normally hunts at depths of 4-10m but can go as deep as 60m. With its large webbed feet, it is an efficient, high-speed, attack submarine. It feeds mainly on fish like flounder, sea trout, herring, and haddock, though will also eat shellfish and crabs when fish are in short supply.

Great Northern Divers breed in Greenland, Iceland and North America. A few have bred in Scotland, but this is very rare. They move north to the Arctic tundra in May, where they breed on large woodland lakes or pools. Mum and dad work together to build their island or shoreline nest. Both incubate the 2 eggs which hatch after 28 days though a few days apart. Within hours of hatching, the youngsters leave the nest and swim close to mum and dad, sometimes riding on their backs. Mum and dad feed them until they can fly 75 days later, though as they grow, the youngsters will catch more and more food for themselves. The family initially stays in shallow, isolated bays where it is easier to defend the youngsters from predators such as Eagles. Mum and dad split up for winter with dad leaving first to fly south. The others soon follow. It is 2 years before the youngsters will breed themselves. Great Northern Divers are flightless while they do their late winter moult.

Great Northern Divers arrive off the Scottish coast in August and stay until May. About 4,000 spend winter here, mainly in the northwest, though they can pop up anywhere. Their chief threat, like so many seabirds, is oil pollution and getting caught in fishing nets. As not many visit Britain, they are specially protected.

Their Latin name is 'gavia immer' where 'gavia' is the Latin for an unidentified seabird or 'sea mew'. The 'immer' might be derived from the Norwegian name for the Great Northern Diver which is related to the Swedish 'emmer' for the grey or blackened ashes of a fire or it could come from the Latin 'immergo' meaning 'to immerse' as it sits so low in the water. Typically, nobody can remember. The English name is much more sensible. The Great Northern Diver comes from the north, it is big and it catches fish by diving. Simple. The Americans call it a 'loon' from its distinctive call. Fossils of similar birds have been found from the Pliocene era, so Divers have been around for a very long time.

Long-tailed Duck

The Long-tailed Duck is another winter visitor to our northern coasts, arriving from their Arctic breeding grounds in the autumn. They are a beautiful sight in their large flocks, swimming high in the water on a stormy winter sea. They like a bit of rough. The Long-tailed Duck ought to be called the singing duck as it is so noisy with its yodelling "ah-oo-ah" call.

They are small, neat sea ducks with small round heads and steep foreheads. The male is unusual in having three distinct plumages through the year. In winter, he is a bit art deco in style, being mainly white with a dark breast, a black cheek mark and 'spectacles'. In summer, he is a mirror image with brown on his back, neck and head, white sides and a white face. In autumn, he is a dull brown all over but keeps his white face. He has a long black tail (hence their name) and a pink and black bill. The female is duller with a brown body, pale face and a dark mascara smudge on her cheeks. Youngsters resemble mum, though with a lighter, less distinct cheek patch. In flight, they show all dark wings and white bellies. The male has a brown 'Y' mark on his back.

The Long-tailed Duck feeds on crabs and shellfish caught underwater, generally close to the surface though they can dive to depths of up to 60m! They will also eat mussels, cockles, clams, small fish and plants.

Their elaborate courtship happens in the winter flocks and pairs form. The male approaches the female with an upright (long!) tail and with his bill a few inches from the water. A lot of noisy head bowing follows until she eventually gives in. Long-tailed Ducks do not breed here but on the Arctic tundra, in small groups close to lakes. They wait until the spring thaw in May before moving north. Mum makes a small bowl-shaped nest amongst the rocks and plants. She incubates the 6-9 eggs which hatch after 24 days. Dad goes off to moult into his duller autumn plumage. The youngsters mature quickly and can fly 35 days later. Although they can feed themselves, mum and dad help by stirring up food for them and showing them how to dive. Youngsters are vulnerable to predators and only 10% make it to adulthood. Mum does her own moult before they all fly south for winter.

The most important wintering area for Long-tailed Ducks is the Baltic Sea, where a total of about 4.5 million gather. Only about 14,000 come to our coasts, arriving here from October. Being sea ducks, their biggest threat is oil pollution. They live for an average of 15 years although some can live for as long as 20 years if food is abundant.

Their Latin name is 'clangula hyemalis' where 'clangula' is Latin for 'to resound' as they make so much noise and 'hyemalis' means 'of winter' which is when we see them. A noisy winter duck. In North America they are sometime called 'oldsquaws' though the name is falling out of favour as it upsets the Native Americans.

Velvet scoter

The Velvet Scoter is the largest of the Scoters. It is a sea duck that nests in trees! A winter visitor that is mainly seen from January to March on the coasts of Scotland, Norfolk and northeast England in small numbers or mixed in with larger flocks of Common Scoters. The Velvet Scoter can visit large inland lakes and is usually found where there is a good supply of shellfish.

The Velvet Scoter looks Eider-like in shape and is about the size of a Mallard. The male is black with a white wing patch, a white mark under his eye, a black pointed tail, and a long yellow and red bill with a knob at the base. The female is more brown with a white wing patch, pale patches on her head, and a grey bill. In flight, the white patch can easily be seen at the back of their dark wings. They fly with their neck held rigidly outstretched, not drooped like the Common Scoter. Velvet Scoters are generally silent, only making occasional low growling calls in their winter flocks.

Like the Common Scoter, they dive to feed on molluscs, cockles, mussels, whelks, crabs and small fish. The Velvet Scoter uses both its wings and webbed feet to propel itself underwater and dives with partially open wings but with no jump.

They breed in Scandinavia and Russia. Courtship takes place in the winter flocks and nesting starts in May. They nest in single pairs or loose groups. The lined nest is built on the ground or in a tree close to the sea or lake. Dad deserts the nest site as soon as the 7-9 creamy-buff eggs are laid, leaving mum to do all the hard work. The eggs hatch after 27 days and the young can soon feed themselves. One mum may look after youngsters from several broods. They become fully independent and can fly 50 days later. The youngsters won't breed themselves until they are 2 or 3 years old. After breeding, Velvet Scoters gather in large numbers off the coast of Denmark to do their moult.

About 3,000 Velvet Scoters overwinter here. They are specially protected as, like the Common Scoter, they are very vulnerable to oil spills, especially when in their large moult gatherings. The oldest known Velvet Scoter lived for 12 years though their average life span is 7 years.

Their Latin name is 'melanitta fusca' where the 'melanitta' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'melas' for 'black' and 'netta' for 'duck'. The 'fusca' comes from the Latin 'fuscus' for 'dusky brown'. Another common name for the Velvet Scoter is the 'velvet duck' from the velvety looking plumage of the male.

Common Scoter

In winter, the squat, dark Common Scoter can be seen in distant flocks bobbing on the sea or in long straggling lines flying along the coast. This highly social sea duck is mainly a winter visitor though there are about 50 breeding pairs in the north of Scotland.

The Common Scoter is smaller than a Mallard. The male is all black with a large yellow bill that has a knob at the base and a black pointed tail. The female is brown with a grey bill, pale cheeks and pale neck. They can be distinguished from other types of Scoters by the lack of white anywhere on the male and the more extensive pale areas on the female. In flight, they appear dark and skim across the tops of the waves in long lines. The Common Scoter makes several whistle and piping calls when displaying.

Common Scoters feed on molluscs which they find by diving, using their feet to propel them downwards after a forward jump. They can dive to depths of 30 metres to hunt for their favourite blue mussels, though they will also eat cockles, clams, shellfish, crabs, insects and small fish.

Although the Common Scoter is a sea duck, it often nests amongst the vegetation of the Arctic tundra far from the sea. Courtship involves lots of head stretching and pairs form in the winter flocks before nesting begins in late May. The male defends the female at the nesting ground until the eggs are all laid and then, like so many ducks, he wanders off. The nest is a hollow lined with grass and down, usually on an island close to water. The 6-8 eggs hatch after 30 days and the youngsters can swim and feed themselves soon after hatching. They can fly and become fully independent 45 days later but won't breed themselves for 2 years. Mum and dad are flightless for 3-4 weeks while they do their moult, often at a traditional moulting ground where large flocks can gather and can stay there all winter.

The Common Scoter is specially protected as thousands have been killed by past oil spills. About 135,000 over winter around our coasts though the British breeding population has halved since the 1990s.

Their Latin name is 'melanitta nigra' where 'melanitta' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'melas' for 'black' and 'netta' for 'duck'. The 'nigra' is from the Latin 'niger' also meaning black. Like the Brent Goose, the Common Scoter was allowed by the Roman Catholic Church as a substitute for fish during the Friday Fast as it tasted fishy. The origin of the English name 'Scoter' is unclear. It might be a variant of 'scout' used as a local name for a Coot (which is black too).


The Eider duck is where Eiderdown bed covers came from. Their insulating feathers used to be collected once they had finished nesting. It is Britain's heaviest and fastest flying duck, reaching speeds of 70mph! The Eider is a marine diving duck that breeds around the rocky coasts of northern Europe and winters only slightly further south. It spends most of its life at sea, usually seen in large floating flocks.

Eider ducks are the size of Mallards. They have fat bodies, short necks, and large wedge-shaped 'Roman nose' bills. The male is black and white with a lime green nape. The female is a darker mottled brown. The youngsters resemble mum and take 4 years to reach their full adult plumage. In flight, Eiders look heavy with drooping heads and they tend to fly low over the water in single lines. The male has a visible black behind and a white front. They are mainly silent except for a camp cooing "ah-ooo" when displaying.

Eiders feed by tearing mussels from rocks with their strong bills, often diving to search for their food. They will also eat shellfish, sea urchins, crabs, and winkles. Their dependence on molluscs means they are mostly found close to the coast. They eat mussels by swallowing them whole and the shells are crushed in their gizzard and then excreted. When eating crabs, they first remove all the claws and legs, and similarly eat the body whole.

The Eider breeds in northern Europe and as far north as the Arctic and Siberia. Their courtship starts in winter where the male throws his head back and coos affectionately. Pairs form and stay together until they nest in late April, often joining colonies of Arctic Terns on rocky islands. The nest is made from down plucked from the mum's breast and is sited amongst sheltered rocks. Mum incubates the 4-6 eggs which hatch after 25 days. She seldom leaves the nest and will lose more than a third of her body weight. Once hatched, the youngsters make their way to the sea and can feed themselves while ravenous mum has a big dish of Moules Mariniere. When mum and dad do their moult, the youngsters are looked after by aunties in creches, escaping from any predators by diving. The young ducks can fly after 65 days and become fully independent 55 days later, though they won't move far from the breeding grounds.

About 27,000 pairs breed in Britain with numbers expanding to 86,000 in winter. Eiders are found mainly on our northern coasts. Because of living mainly at sea, their main threat is sea pollution. The oldest known Eider lived to be 31.

Their Latin name is 'somateria mollissima' where 'somateria' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'soma' for 'body' and 'erion' for 'wool' and the 'mollissima' is Latin for 'very soft', both referring to the Eider's down. The English name 'Eider' is a Dutch, German or Swedish word derived from the Icelandic word 'aeour' meaning 'Eider', itself derived from the Old Norse 'aethr'. Eiders are also called St. Cuthbert's duck or Cuddy's duck. They were the first ever bird to be protected by law, in 676 by Saint Cuthbert, so their valuable feathers could be gathered rather than the ducks being eaten.

There are two other species of Eider, the King Eider and the Spectacled Eider.