Waxwing perched with berries

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Visitors

You may think it gets pretty chilly here in the UK over winter, but for some animals it is a refuge from the more extreme cold further north. For day seven of our 12 days of winter wildlife, we will be exploring these winter visitors. Go on a virtual tour of the Museum’s British Bird displays and see some of the species that visit our shores in winter:

Winter Wildlife: Birds that Visit in Winter

Academic in the Department of Zoology, and one of our visitor engagement volunteers in the Museum, Dr Tony Fulford writes:

Before the last of the Reed Warblers has left for Africa, the winter shift has already started to arrive.  Few birds that breed in the far north, in places such as Scandinavia and Iceland, can survive the winters there; they must migrate south or west.  Many such migrants choose to overwinter in the UK.

Redwing amongst berries and branches
Redwing (c) Kev Chapman CC BY 2.0

Huge numbers of “winter thrushes”, redwing and fieldfare, overwinter here.  These thrushes are very distinctive and rather lovely.  The redwing is much like a neat, smallish song thrush, except that on the flank, below the folded wing, is an obvious flash of orange-red, and on the head, above the eye and below the face, are distinctive bold, creamy stripes.  The fieldfare is larger, noticeably bigger than a blackbird, and more colourful than most thrushes.  The head, mantle and rump are blue-grey while the wings are chestnut red.  Like many thrushes they have speckled undersides, in their case suffused with orange on the breast.  Listen out for fieldfares’ distinctive “chak chak” call, given either softly and conversationally while feeding or louder and harsher in flight, especially when alarmed.  Redwings are usually less noisy, just giving a “zeep” flight call, often heard at night as the birds migrate.  However, when settling to roost or gathering to migrate, a group of them will keep up a constant, almost musical chatter.

Fieldfare chaks at Wicken Fen recorded by Tony Fulford
Fiedlfare in a cherry tree
Fieldfare (c) Hedera Baltica CC BY SA 2.0

While both have an omnivorous diet, they are mostly here for berries, and our hedgerows are full of them: hawthorn, rowan, sloe, blackberry, elderberry and numerous others.  Take a walk in the countryside in November or December and you can hardly fail to see these visitors, often in mixed flocks, gorging on berries in the hedgerows or spread out over a field hunting invertebrates.  They are not used to gardens but when the weather is particularly harsh they will come in for pyrocantha and cotoneaster berries and are partial to chopped-up apple if it’s on offer.  Come January or February, though, having stripped the fruit in East Anglia, they vanish, travelling west for further supplies.

Behemian waxwing on a branch
Bohemian waxwing (c) Yrjö Jyske CC BY 2.0

The winter thrushes come in numbers reliably every year.  Other winter visitors are more spasmodic, irrupting from their usual wintering grounds only in certain years.  Bohemian waxwings are the particularly famous for this: when they’ve had a good breeding season and/or there is a poor fruit crop, they cross the North Sea in large numbers in search of food and we are treated to sightings of flocks of these exotic-looking birds in the UK.  Approximately the size and shape of a starling they are mostly a uniform cinnamon/grey colour with a neat black bib and stripe through the eye.  They also sport an elegant crest. But most unusual, and the origin of the bird’s name, are the bright red, yellow and white modified wing feathers.  In those years when they visit us they seem quite fearless of humans and flocks of them can be found almost anywhere there are berries to be had.  That might include your garden; supermarket car parks are a favourite spot.  They are particularly fond of rowanberries.

Brambling perched on bare branches
Brambling (c) Ian Preston CC BY 2.0

Other species that irrupt from Scandinavia include siskin, redpoll, brambling and crossbill.  Each of these finches specialises in feeding on a different species of tree: siskins like alder, redpolls birch, bramblings specialise in fallen beech mast and crossbill’s bill is adapted to extract the seeds from pine cones.  In fact all of these species breed in the UK (albeit in very small numbers in the case of the brambling) with the population boosted by winter visitors, dramatically so in irruption years. The brambling is a close relative of the chaffinch with which they often flock.  The adult male is very distinctive with bold black head and orange breast and wing bar; females are more subdued and chaffinch-like but when they fly both sexes are readily differentiated from chaffinches by their conspicuous white rumps (the chaffinch’s rump is mossy green).

Siskin perched on bare branches
Siskin (c) Holly Occhipinti CC BY 2.0

Siskins are small, streaky, green birds, the male brighter than the female and with black crown and chin and contrasting flashes of yellow and black on the wing and tail. Redpolls are similar but greyish-brown, no hint of green, with a red forehead and black chin. Confusingly redpolls are not a single species. The lesser redpoll is the one that breeds in this country (mostly up north migrating south in winter) and is the most frequently seen, while the larger mealy or common redpoll is a regular winter visitor from Scandinavia.  A third species is very occasionally seen: the pale arctic redpoll.  Both siskins and redpolls feed acrobatically high in the trees, almost like tits.  If you put out nyjer seed for the goldfinches in your garden there is a reasonable chance that these will also attract siskins in winter.  Redpolls and bramblings may also visit bird tables occasionally in harsh weather but you’d have to live somewhere quite special to see crossbills in your garden.

Goldcrest perched on a branch
Goldcret (c) Cliff Watkinson CC BY SA 2.0

If you have a tall conifer of any sort in or near your garden, the chances are that it will attract goldcrests.  They are a common breeding species in the UK but, again, in winter numbers are greatly boosted by visitors from Scandinavia.  At about 5g the goldcrest is the smallest European bird.  Tiny and predominantly greenish, on its crown it has a yellow streak bordered either side by a black stripe.  When excited it will raise these crown feathers to reveal, in the case of the male, bright orange feathers beneath. Another curious feature that often goes unnoticed is their bright orange feet. You always know when they are present because they are very vocal, giving constant high-pitch, thin “zee” contact calls or their “cedar-cedar-cedar-cedar-cedar-stichi-see-pee” song.  However, you need good ears to hear them; the song and call are beyond the range of some older people with impaired hearing.

Goldcrest recorded in Madingley by Tony Fulford
Male blackcap on a branch
Blackcap (c) Pete Beard CC BY 2.0

Most of our Warblers migrate south, usually to Africa, for the winter.  It’s literally in their DNA; young birds know exactly which way to go even though they’ve never done it before. The blackcaps that breed in the UK are typical.  So why do blackcaps increasingly turn up on our garden bird table in winter?  It turns out that a sub-population of German blackcaps has changed its behaviour and migrates west to Britain.  This is a very recent development made possible by the global warming.  So if you notice a smart grey bird with a black (male) or brown (female) cap in your garden you are witnessing evolution in action.

Winter Creations: Sweet Treats

Creating homemade sweet treats can be an excellent way of giving sustainably this winter. By using recycled glass jars (keep those pasta sauce jars!) as containers and old fabric and twine as decoration, a personal and tasty gift is in easy reach.

Jars of homemade sweet treats

You’ll need:

  • Your favourite sweet treat recipe (see suggested links below)
  • Glass jar
  • Fabric and twine (optional decoration)
  • Labels or stickers to tell your recipients what’s inside

Any recipe will do, but those that use less dairy products are more sustainable for the planet and create less carbon-emissions. Remember, whatever you make needs to fit inside your jar:


The recipe links are being provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by the Museum of Zoology of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual. The Museum of Zoology bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links. Contact the external site for answers to questions regarding its content.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 8: Healthy Habitats

Long grasses and trees at dusk
Wicken Fen (c) Rosalyn Wade

Visit the blog again tomorrow to discover the unsung heroes behind healthy habitats. From the tallest trees to the tiniest insects, nothing in our natural world lives in isolation. In this post we will be exploring the lives of earthworms, and giving top tips on choosing comfort foods that are comforting to the environment.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson.

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

Woodlouse on wood chippings
(c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.

Ladybirds in the crevices of a tree branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation. Find out about the insects that huddle away and stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.

Pair of red foxes
Red foxes

Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals. Get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Waxwing perched with berries
Waxwing. Image credit Peter von Bagh

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