The winter can really be the best time for birds visiting your garden. The short days cause the birds to be extra active in the daylight hours to ensure they get enough food to survive the cold nights. The bare branches make the birds easier to see, and the scarceness of natural food means that your bird feeding stations are likely to be extra popular - so keep them well topped up!
There are a few winter specialist species that you may be lucky enough to see in your garden. Here are the most likely.
Redwing Turdus iliacus
Redwings are a member of the thrush family. They are a little smaller than a Song Thrush with red flanks (not always immediately noticeable) and a prominent yellow stripe (supercilium) above each eye. The eye stripe is very distinctive and is usually the first thing that will help you identify it.
In flight, the red underwing is more noticeable and Redwings often fly over in flocks and can usually be heard, calling "tseep". If you are outdoors on a clear night you may hear them flying over as they migrate to better feeding areas
Redwings feed on insects, worms, snails and slugs. Soft fruit, especially fallen apples, and hedges bearing berries, such as hawthorn, blackthorn, rowan and cotoneaster may attract Redwings in to the garden.
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
The Fieldfare is a large thrush and is about the same size as the Mistle Thrush. They have bold, striking plumage.
The male has blue-grey crown, nape, and rump, chestnut brown back, black tail, and a buff breast with black streaks that also extends to the flanks. The underwing, especially the "armpit", is white, and it is this and the pale grey rump that are most noticeable when in flight.
Fieldfares, like redwings will often fly over in flocks when they'll be constantly making their distinctive 'chack' call. Their flight is slow and direct. It takes several strong beats then closes its wings briefly before flapping on. When a group is in a tree they all tend to face in the same direction, keeping up their constant 'chacking'.
Their preferred food includes worms, snails and insects but also fruit and they will feed on windfall fruit for long periods and are often accompanied by redwings.
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla
The Brambling is a very attractive finch. In the winter, it has a black head, orange breast, white rump, and its upper parts are mainly black but mingled with orange. At first glance they are very similar to the Chaffinch, which makes spotting them tricky sometimes as they often flock and feed with Chaffinches. It's the black/orange/white combination of the Brambling which you will notice and will separate them from other finches.
Their natural diet is beech mast, seeds, berries, and insects when available. In the winter they often form large flocks and feed in agricultural areas and beech woods. In harsh weather they will often come to feed in gardens. They will generally be on the ground feeding beneath the bird table.
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulous
Waxwings are the 'A list' celebrity of garden winter visitors. Every few years they will reach the UK, particularly the east coast in huge numbers. Other years only a few birds will be seen. They are about the size of a Starling and in flight they look very similar with their short, triangular wings.
The Waxwing is mostly pink-beige with a characteristic crest. They have a black mask and bib. The tail is tipped with yellow and there are yellow and white markings on their wings. The secondary wing feathers have red waxy "fingers" which give them their name. The rump is grey with some red.
They are surprisingly acrobatic while feeding and will eat rowan and hawthorn berries in urban gardens. You may also be able to entice Waxwings into your garden by hanging apples from branches.
Lesser Redpoll Carduelis cabaret
The Lesser Redpoll is a small, sparrow-like bird whose upperparts are grey-brown with darker streaks. They have two buff coloured wing bars, dark streaks on the whitish flanks and a dark brown slightly forked tail. The most distinguishing features are the red forehead and black bib, and it is these that will make you notice this unusual visitor to your garden
It is a sociable bird which usually forages in flocks. It mainly feeds on the ground in winter as the supply of seeds becomes reduced. The rest of the year they feed in trees. The diet is mostly composed of small seeds such as those of birch, alder, and grasses. They readily use hanging feeders.
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla
Blackcaps are one of our newest winter visitors, previously they all left our shores in the winter for warmer climes, but now many remain all year, particularly in the south. They are quite stocky birds, about the size of house sparrows. They are mainly light grey-brown in colour with the male having a neat black cap on its head, while the female's cap is chestnut-brown.
It is thought that the increase in people feeding birds in their garden has encouraged the Blackcap to over-winter and it is estimated that 95% of wintering birds are found in gardens.
Blackcaps can be quite aggressive at bird tables and will repel even Starlings and Blackbirds. One of their favourite foods is Christmas cake, so if the one your mother-in-law gave you really is that bad, then you know what to do with it. (Best not tell her!)
Look to the skies!
On cold, clear winter days you may have the chance to see large flocks of birds flying over to either go to their feeding or roosting grounds. Lapwings can be quite a spectacular site and also geese. It may just be resident Canada Geese, but if you live in the north then it could be Pink Footed Geese, in the south-west then it maybe White Fronted Geese and even Brent Geese in the south and east. Basically there's a goose for everyone - and not just for the oven!