Dr. David M. Bird – Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology and consultant editor on a number of DK bird books – walks us through his British birding wishlist below. Check out some of the best places to see birds in the UK, followed by some expert birdwatching tips, tricks and etiquette!
By David M. Bird
Brecon Beacons National Park offers a large number of walks for nature lovers all year-round and birds can be seen just about everywhere there. A wide variety of songbirds inhabit the parks and gardens, while ring ouzels, harriers, wheatears, and red grouse can be found in the more wild areas.
Brecon Beacons is a particularly good location to spot endangered bird species such as lapwings, nightjars, reed warblers and little ringed plovers. But the cherry on top there is seeing a red kite, a reddish-brown raptorial bird with a forked tail. Once down to a half dozen pairs in all of Wales, a vigorous captive breeding and reintroduction program run by volunteers has brought the population up to a rather healthy thousand breeding pairs or so. Visit http://www.breconbeacons.org/birds for more information.
TIP: Brecon Beacons National Park is not a small place to bird, so make sure you let someone know where you're going and your time of return.
To date, my favourite place to see birds in the UK is the Slimbridge Wetland Centre founded by Sir Peter Scott, a historically well-known waterfowl expert and painter. The best time to go is from November to March. More serious birders should first visit the famous Holden Tower hide to scan the marshes for numerous species of wildfowl, including over 100 Bewick’s swans, each individually identified by the marked patterns on their beaks.
From a number of hides, one can spot up to 15 species of ducks and geese, plus a wide variety of birdlife ranging from sparrowhawks, ruffs and wagtails to three species of tits, and maybe even a Cetti’s warbler if you’re lucky! For more information, visit wwt.org.uk/slimbridge.
TIP: If you’ve got young children with you, they'll really enjoy feeding the myriad numbers of captive ducks and geese bred there… and you might even create a future birder in the process!
If you're really looking to see two special birds in the UK, you need to go to Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands. Recently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Operation Osprey was established by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to guard what was the only nesting pair of ospreys in Scotland.
Since making the location known to the public, at least 3 million visitors have come to view these very special fish-eating birds. But they're not alone. If you check out the surrounding Abernethy Forest, you might see a capercaillie, the largest game bird in the UK. The best time to see the ospreys is from April to August. A webcam on the nest allows close-up video to be sent back to the visitor’s centre where staff will happily interpret what you are seeing. A bonus bird could be a crested tit seen during the stroll from the car park to the centre. Visit the RSPB’s website for more details.
TIP: If you're not a skilled birder and wish to avoid disturbing capercaillie breeding in remote areas, visit the centre during Caperwatch every day 5.30 am to 8.00 am from April to mid-May to view their lekking behaviour.
This 1,400 acre wild reserve located on the north Solway coast has garnered a well-deserved reputation for harbouring huge flocks of ducks, geese and swans during its mild winters. The birds, which include barnacle geese, pink-footed geese, and whooper swans, hail from as far away as Iceland and Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean and the best time to witness this spectacle is from October to March.
Ducks of all kinds are seen there and very lucky birders were able to see a mandarin duck and an American wigeon this past winter. But if you go in the summertime, you'll observe a wholly different array of bird life. Ospreys hover for fish over the Solway and barn owls hunt the fields at dusk to feed their young in the various farm buildings in the area. It's also a good place to see skylarks and tree sparrows. For more information, visit http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/caerlaverock.
TIP: Check out the relatively new Sir Peter Scott observatory to get a really close peek at the wintering wild whooper swans.
The Farne Islands would likely be on any reputable birder’s list for the UK, mainly because it offers spectacular views of one of the largest seabird colonies in the UK. Composed of 10 to 15 islands depending on the state of the tide, they're not difficult to access either. Sometime between May and July, just take a trip to the tiny port town called Seahouses about an hour north of Newcastle and it's a short boat ride to the Farne Islands.
Seabirds to be seen include oystercatchers, fulmars, shags, three species of gull, black-legged kittiwakes, three tern species, and of course, the fan favourite: the 36,000 pairs of clown-like puffins! See https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/farne-islands for more information.
TIP: If you're planning to go anywhere near the Arctic tern colony during their breeding season, wear a hard hat to avoid getting a peck on the head!
• While it's true that one might encounter a much greater array of species birding in places like Africa and South America, birding in the UK is especially rewarding because there are so many dedicated birders there and there is such a terrific support network for reporting rare species. No less than 3 million adult birders in the UK cannot be wrong!
• There's a wealth of information on the internet about great places to see birds in the UK, tips on where and when to go, and special birds and/or spectacles one might see. Perhaps the top five are:
• When birding in the UK or anywhere for that matter, always respect the Birders’ Code of Ethics. In general, always keep the birds’ interests foremost in your mind by avoiding disturbance to them and their habitats. Respect other bird-watchers and most importantly, do not trespass on private property without landowner permission. If you do see a rare bird, think twice before passing the sighting on to other birders if it's located on someone’s property or if it is breeding.
• If you want to help conserve our wild bird populations and help others enjoy bird watching, consider submitting your sightings to the County Bird Recorder and the Birdtrack website (http://app.bto.org/birdtrack).
David M. Bird is Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Biology and former Director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre at McGill University. As a past president of the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, a director with Bird Studies Canada, and a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union, he has received several awards for his conservation and education efforts. Dr. Bird is a regular columnist for both Bird Watcher’s Digest and Canadian Wildlife and is the author of several books and over 200 scientific publications. He is the consultant editor for DK’s Birds of Canada, Birds of Eastern Canada, Birds of Western Canada, and Pocket Birds of Canada. Visit his website at askprofessorbird.com.