How to start birdwatching this winter

Sarah Bunce of the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership offers some tips

As summer drew to a close, the nightjars left to make their epic journey to sub-Saharan Africa. But not all heathland birds take this option. As the weather turns colder, spare a thought for our Dartford warblers. These brave little birds have spent most of the summer working hard to rear as many chicks as possible and must now face the winter. The Dartfords ‘choose’ to sit out the winter rather than risk a hazardous journey to warmer climes. It’s a trade-off that will pay dividends if we have a mild winter, but won’t end well if we have a harsh one!

If you’re new to birdwatching and would like to get to know heathland birds, start with a stonechat. Much easier to see than the secretive Dartford, it often perches on the top of gorse bushes, even in winter, flicking its wings and making a loud call like two small stones being hit together, “chip, chip; chip, chip”. It’s also one of the few birds that stays as a pair throughout the winter, so you might spot the male, and the slightly drabber female in the same vicinity.

Once you’ve got your eye in on stonechats, they might lead you to a Dartford warbler, as they can sometimes be seen together. People say the warblers are picking off the insects disturbed by the larger birds. So if you see a pair of stonechats, look out for a Dartford warbler skulking along behind them! A fleeting glimpse might be all you’ll get at this time of year.

The Dartford warblers rely on gorse bushes to get them through the winter. A dense thicket of gorse will provide food, such as spiders and insects, and shelter from the elements. Listen out for their buzzy calls on your winter walks.

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Sarah Bunce

Thames Basin Heaths Partnership