View of Welney Wetlands Centre at sunset, with swans and ducks feeding in the foreground

Winter Waterbirds

Look out of your window and you may be looking on trees bare of leaves, and missing the comforting buzz of summer insects or dazzling colour of a butterfly wing. But not all wildlife is dormant over the winter. Although you may think it is cold in the UK, our islands provide a balmy respite for many birds that breed further north in the Arctic. Perhaps most spectacular of these winter visitors are waterfowl and waders, and East Anglia has many places to enjoy watching the wonderful birds. Here is a short film featuring some local sites and winter sights:

Here are just a few of the species you may see in greater numbers of the winter months:

Whooper Swan. Cygnus cygnus

Pair of whooper swans
Whooper swans (c) Matti Suopajarvi CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Whooper swans are large birds, with snowy white feathers, and long neck held straighter than in mute swans, and a yellow beak tipped in black. They are noisy birds, with a loud, honking call. This is used to establish dominance in the feeding flock. Whooper swans breed in Iceland, travelling south in the autumn to escape the arctic cold of winter. It is estimated that around 20,000 birds overwinter in the UK.

Bewick Swan, Cygnus columbianus

Bewick swan swimming
Bewick swan (c) Brendan Ryan CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Smaller than whooper swans, Bewick swans are another winter visitor to the UK, travelling here from Siberia to escape the cold and find food. Bewick swans our smallest swan species, not much bigger than a goose and its neck is not as long as seen in a whooper swan. It too has a yellow and black beak. Fewer Bewick swans visit the UK than whooper swans – it is estimated that there are less than 5000 birds overwintering here, a number that is decreasing as a result of habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Barnacle Goose, Branta leucopsis

Barnacle goose (c) Edwyn Anderton CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Barnacle – a funny name for a goose? Take a look at this handsome black, white and grey bird and barnacle is not the first word to come to mind to describe it. So where did this name come from? Bird ringing studies and, more recently, satellite tracking have given us a good understanding of bird migrations. No matter how fantastical it may seem that these animals travel such long distances, we have direct evidence that they do. This was not the case in the past, the the sudden appearance of these birds in the winter was puzzling. It was suggested that maybe they hatched from barnacles. This, of course, is not the case – they breed furhter north in the Arctic and, as for all birds, hatch from eggs. But the name has stuck.

Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa

Black-tailed godwit wading
Black-tailed godwit (c) Mark Kilner CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The UK is home to a small breeding population of black-tailed godwits which overwinter in Africa, but in winter large numbers migrate to the UK from Iceland to feed on our coasts, estuaries and wetlands. To give an idea of the difference in numbers, our breeding population currently stands at around 53 breeding pairs, but in winter 41,000 birds can be found in the UK. These large wading birds feed by probing soft sediments for invertebrate prey with their long, tapering beaks. You can find out more about the black-tailed godwit and conservation efforts here.

Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing (c) Edwyn Anderton CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lapwings can be recognised by the crest of feathers on the head, stiking pattern of the plumage, and rounded wing shape in flight. They are seen in the UK all year round, but they are here in greater numbers forming large flocks in the winter, joined by birds from continental Europe. Lapwing numbers have declined in recent years, largely down to changes in land use. These are ground-nesting birds, and need

For our Winter Wildlife: ZoologiCOOL livestream that took place on December 1st, we were joined by migratory bird experts Dr Calres Carboneras and Dr Guy Anderson from the RSPB to answer your questions about these amazing animals. Catch up on their interview here, and check out the ZoologiCOOL webpage for more information.

Find out about more winter waterfowl in our Winter Wildlife post by Dr Tony Fulford.

Cambridge Waterbirds

You don’t have to travel far to spot wildlife. While they may not be rare, the waterbirds on the River Cam running through the city of Cambridge are a welcome sight in winter, and fascinating to watch. Here are a few you might spot on a winter walk:

Find out about the birds you might see in your garden with this Winter Wildlife post by Dr Tony Fulford.

View of Welney Wetlands Centre at sunset, with swans and ducks feeding in the foreground
Welney Wetlands Centre (c) Rosalyn Wade

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