Autumn and Winter Birds

Ecologist Gill Thompson explores some of the birds you might encounter in Northumberland National Park during autumn and winter. We will be adding to this page as the seasons progress.

In the spring we looked at breeding birds; both our resident species and the ones that migrate to Northumberland. You can visit our Tweet Tuesday page here to revisit them.

Now it is autumn and heading into winter I will look at some of the birds that stay here and ones that visit from further north.  Birds migrate to find food and good conditions to raise their young in spring, but in winter some also move to find food and weather conditions to allow them to survive the shorter, colder days in the northern hemisphere.

Many birds move from arctic and sub-arctic areas where, in the winter, it is too cold to live and there is little available food.  Even Northumberland in mid-winter is preferable to Iceland, Greenland and Siberia!

Jay

The jay is a colourful member of the crow family which is usually quite secretive. At this time of the year you can see and hear them more than in spring or summer. Listen out for their harsh, screechy call and then see their white rump as they fly away with an acorn in their beaks.

A Jay sitting on a branch

Image by Tomasz Proszek from Pixabay

Jays are chunky birds that have striking plumage, but can be hard to see. They have a pink body with blue flashes on the wings, a black moustache and black and white on broad wings. Jays are important for spreading acorns from oak trees; they collect acorns, then fly away from the tree to a surrounding field or woodland and bury them to eat later. One bird can bury around 3000 acorns in autumn and more amazingly they can remember where most of them are.  The acorns they don’t find again can become oak trees – or they find them when they sprout into seedlings the next year. Look out for jays in places like Collingwood oaks, College valley and Holystone woods.

Listen to the Jay here.

Redwing

Redwings start arriving in Northumberland in September and October so are often one of the first winter migrants you will see.  They are members of the thrush family that breed in Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland (and rarely in Scotland).

An example of a redwing against a blue sky

They about the same size as our resident song thrush and although they do have rusty red underwings and flanks as the name suggests, the most obvious identification feature is the white or cream stripe above the eye. They gather in flocks and can be seen eating berries such as holly and hawthorn in hedges and woodland edges. In the National Park you are more likely to see them in the river valleys and Cheviot fringes rather than high up in the hills and if it is really cold they may leave and fly further west and south. Flocks can be quite noisy with squeaky calls and scolding ‘chat’ noises.

Listen to the Redwing here.

Fieldfare

The fieldfare is another thrush that arrives from colder climes in autumn and stays until March.

A small Fieldfare eating berries from a bush.

It is similar in size to our resident mistle thrush. They often stand quite upright with a long tail and flash of silver/white on the wings as they take off.  Seen at close range they are multi-coloured birds with a grey head, spotted breast, brown back and black tail.

Flocks can be seen in fields and short grassland where they feed on the ground probing the soil for invertebrates. They also feed on fallen fruit and berries in bushes and hedges when the ground is frozen.  They are nearly always seen in groups and can be quite noisy making a harsh ‘chack chack’ sound, which is like the rattle of mistle thrush but you would never see them in large groups.

They can be seen anywhere across the National Park over the winter months; listen out for the loud chacking sound.

Listen to the Fieldfare here.

Whooper Swan

Whooper swans are big, hardy birds that arrive in Northumberland by November from their breeding grounds in Iceland. They are similar size to the resident mute swans, but have a black wedge-shaped bill with a yellow triangle rather than the orange bill with black knob of the mute swan.

A white, Whooper Swan swimming on a lake.

They can be told apart at a distance as the whooper has a thinner, more elegant, upright neck.  Whooper swans can make quite a lot of noise and have a loud trumpeting/honking call sometimes described as ‘whoop-a’ hence the name. In winter they feed on grass, winter wheat, and left over crops.

They will return to the north in March/April but before then you can see them on the Roman Wall loughs and feeding in fields around them.

Listen to the Whooper Swan here.

Robin

Warm brown upperparts and an orange/red breast make adult robins unmistakeable. Young birds lack this and have a spotted breast, but won’t be seen at this time of year. They have a large eye and distinctive upright stance often with a cocked tail. They are one of the few birds to sing in winter albeit with a slightly different, more wistful song than in spring.  Both males and females will sing and defend territories they set up in autumn.  In Europe they are mainly a woodland bird, but in Britain the sub-species can be found in gardens, parks and grasslands as well as woodlands.

A small robin sitting on a tree branch

In 2015 the robin came out top in a poll to select Britain’s national bird. They can become quite tame, some even taking food from a hand and are often believed to be a good omen. Most robins are resident, but in winter some birds that come from Scandinavia to Britain on migration may stay.  The old name ruddoc is Anglo Saxon and for many years they were known simply as redbreast, with ‘robin’ added later and becoming the main name as late as the 20th century.

Listen to the Robin here.

Grey Heron

Grey herons are one of the largest birds in Britain with a wingspan of about 1.8m and standing 1m tall. They are also one of the earliest to breed, gathering at communal nest sites called heronries where they build large platform nests from sticks in tall trees from January.

A Grey Heron sat on a water side

The locations are traditional and some of these sites will have been used for decades. Grey herons can often be seen standing very still by rivers, ponds and in wet grassland looking for fish, frogs, toads and small mammals to spear with their yellow dagger-like beaks.

In flight they have broad wings that they flap slowly, their legs sticking out behind with their long neck tucked in looking like a bulge. As their name suggests they are slate grey with a white neck and black and white head. At close quarters you can see a black plume on the back of the head.

Their call is a loud shriek, which has been said to sound like ‘Frank’ which is also an old name for the bird.

Listen to the Grey Heron here.

Wigeon

Wigeon are medium sized ducks, a little smaller than the familiar mallard. They arrive in Northumberland in late summer from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia.

A Wigeon swimming on a lake.

In the National Park they can be seen on the Roman wall loughs, particularly on the wet grass surrounding Grindon lough. They are often in flocks, sometimes of hundreds where they graze grass and water plants together.

The male has a chestnut head with cream stripe and a grey body and pink breast.  The female is more chestnut and brown, but both have rounded heads and tails that stick up making their shape on the water or land quite distinctive. They have a characteristic whistling call rather than a quack.

Nuthatch

The nuthatch is a bird you can see in the garden all winter. Once a southern species in Britain, the population slowly moved north during the 20th century and reached Northumberland in the 1980s.

A nuthatch perched on a branch

This feisty bird is now common on feeders in gardens and can often be seen hanging on fat balls or peanuts defending them from other birds. They are easily identified with their blue grey upper parts, orange/buff chest and a sharp dagger-like beak with a black eye stripe.

They make a variety of piercing repetitive calls and some start calling in January. Outside gardens look out for them darting up and down tree trunks and along branches as well as tapping nuts as they try to open them by pushing them against crevices in the bark.

Listen the Nuthatch call here.

Mistle Thrush

Mistle thrushes are our largest resident thrush and are particularly visible at the moment.  Compared with warm brown tones of the song thrush they are more grey/brown with spots on the chest that go all the way up to the throat with pale areas on the head.

A Mistle Thrush perched on a tree branch

They are more upright and bounce along the ground. White underwings can be seen in flight. They start singing early in January and February often from the top of a tall tree. Their song is a series of short flutey phrases, a bit like a blackbird, but more melancholic.  Their call is a distinctive dry rattle, often given in flight.

They will continue singing and feeding in all weathers, which has led to their other name ‘storm cock’.   They eat berries, fruit and invertebrates and are often very territorial if they find a holly or hawthorn tree with lots of berries, defending it from other birds. The recent snowy weather brought some into gardens, but they can be found high into moorland and mountain areas in the National Park.

Hear a Mistle Thrush Rattle call recorded at Wallington, Northumberland here.

Hear a Mistle Thrush Song recorded in the Harthope Valley here.