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Birdwatching in Winter

By Matt Phelps - 18 January 2024

Late January into early February can be an unforgiving time in the natural world, as spells of biting cold winds, frost and snow give way to storms and torrential rain – all, of course, made more frequent and severe year on year as we experience the progression of climate change. It is a time of year when wildlife hunkers down and endeavours to survive the elements.

Although a tough season for birds, winter is a great time to get out and experience the wonder of flocks of wildfowl, waders and songbirds, particularly in the wide, open landscapes of Sussex.

Although summer may seem particularly far away at this time of year, with the last of the southern migrant species having left our shores some 3-4 months ago and the first returning ones still a few weeks away yet, in their place are migrant species from the east and north, coming to the UK to enjoy the relative clemency of our milder winters. The UK is well placed as a refuge for a host of species which come here to escape more severe cold conditions to the north and east of us. Wildfowl species such as Wigeon, Pintail and Teal come to Sussex in their tens of thousands, and the spectacle of seeing huge swirling flocks of these handsome ducks at sites such as Pulborough Brooks and Pagham Harbour must be seen to be fully appreciated. Similarly, large congregations of wading birds like Black-tailed Godwit and Lapwing put on wonderful shows at wetland sites, particularly when a Peregrine is on the hunt. Less numerous, but no less charismatic, species like Bewick’s Swan which visit us from Russia can be encountered at some sites in the Weald to Waves corridor, including up to eleven which have been seen at Burpham Water Meadows near Arundel and Henfield Levels along the River Adur in recent weeks.

It's not all about waterbirds though, as winter also sees the arrival of various passerine species (small, perching birds) such as Redwings and Fieldfares, species of thrush which come to the UK from Scandinavia in large numbers in winter to feast on hawthorn berries and fallen apples. Occasionally – perhaps once a decade or so – these thrush flocks will be joined by similarly sized birds with a voracious appetite for berries. I am, of course, referring to Waxwings, or Bohemian Waxwings to give them their full and rather charming common name. These cinnamon-coloured, Starling-sized birds with fluffy mohawk-like crests, black eye shadow and silver bell trilling call periodically descend on the UK in hordes when a good breeding season further east coincides with a poor berry crop closer to their home range. When this happens, we experience a ‘Waxwing winter’ here in Britain as these avian nomads travel further afield in search of food. The wonderful thing about Waxwings is they can turn up just about anywhere: supermarket car parks, town parks, industrial estates and even your own garden. They will often stay as late as April before returning home, so keep your eyes peeled in the next few weeks!

If you want to find out more about where to go looking for the various birds I’ve talked about here (and many others!) you might be interested in getting a copy of my new book Where to Watch Birds in Surrey and Sussex, published by Bloomsbury on 15th February.

Image credit: Rachel Bicker

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