Winter is almost here, the sleigh bells are ringing, the new year is calling, and morning frost is setting across the British countryside.
Although springtime is the season of fresh life and new beginnings, the cold months of winter are also a magical time for birdwatching and hitting the road in your camper. After all, birds don’t hibernate over winter and neither should you! They remain active for most of the season, even in the most freezing temperatures.
And if you're willing to brave the frost and embrace the biting breeze, taking a winter birding trip is uniquely rewarding. Why? Because the idyllic backdrop highlights a bird's colourful plumage. Plus, autumnal migration welcomes a slew of new bird life from Canada, Scandinavia, and the Arctic looking to holiday in Britain’s more mild winter climate.
This January we welcome the return of RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch — an annual event that sees avid birders from all experience levels come together and count the best of British birdlife. So, whether you’re road-tripping to Wales, camping in Scotland, or touring the Peak District, this article explores how to make the most of birdwatching in winter. Read on.
Know your birds (and the winter migration)
To make the most of winter birdwatching it’s important to know what species to look out for.
From the Isle of Skye to the southerly Jurassic Coast, winter birdlife across the United Kingdom is a sight to behold. After all, our island welcomes a myriad of visitors from the north and east during an autumnal migration. This is because birds from Canada, Scandinavia, and the Arctic fly over to enjoy milder conditions when the frost takes hold.
Unfortunately, these winter visitors are only here for a fleeting moment, returning home in the spring for the breeding season. With this in mind, you only have a small window to enjoy their presence in the United Kingdom and spot them in the great outdoors.
You can see a full list of winter visitors curated by Countryfile, but our highlight is the bohemian waxwing — a rare and exotic bird with a debonair crest that only appears in the UK when the weather is particularly cold. You can also expect to see a variety of geese, including the barnacle goose, as well as a species of thrush called the fieldfare.
Find the best locations for birding
Birdlife in the United Kingdom during the winter is rich and wonderful. Despite the cold, our feathered friends are surprisingly active, meaning there are some real sights to behold, so long as you time the trip right and know where you’re heading.
The Starling Spectacular tour in Somerset is particularly awe-inspiring. On this tour of the rolling rural West Country hills, half a million starlings paint the sky with Van Gogh-esque brushstrokes as they return to roost. The event is a real spectacle, particularly at sundown as the backdrop illuminates the birds, making for a fantastic picture (check out this gallery).
Moreover, if you want to get into the festive spirit, visit the snowy peaks of North Wales. This is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the most beautifully unique birdlife in the UK. For example, especially lucky birders will get to see a red kite — a majestic bird that almost went extinct in the 1900s, but has a bright future thanks to essential conservation efforts.
Dress for the weather and bring the right equipment
So you know your winter birds and have identified some great locations, now it’s time to pack for your trip. Particularly during winter, bird gatherings are vulnerable to the elements, so with this in mind, you must look the part and be dressed for the occasion.
Although this is simple advice, it’s all too easy to find yourself ill-prepared for winter’s biting temperatures. The best option is to dress in numerous layers using long johns, sweaters, and thermals — which should be enough to keep you toasty warm, even in the most remote of winter wonderlands. Camouflage can also help with bird spotting, but don’t wear bright colours because you’ll stand out in the icy backdrop, especially as most foliage is gone.
As for equipment? Just like a carpenter needs a sturdy saw, birders require a pair of binoculars. There is a selection of binoculars you can choose from when preparing for a winter trip, but the best for birdwatching depends on budget and experience. As a rule 8x magnification creates a smaller, brighter image ideal for the local park or campsite; 10x binoculars are narrow and more effective over long distances, making them great for spotting birds in the open wilderness, just like the snowy peaks of North Wales.
Winter provides a unique backdrop to your birdwatching adventure. From understanding the winter migration and choosing your location to getting prepared — this is how to make the most of your birding experience this upcoming winter.