Identifying British Birds - Part 2

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This section of the survey and identification guide to UK birds, includes some of the smallest members of avian society that can be found in the British Isles. These includes sparrows, finches, tits and small waterbirds that live beside rivers rather than swim on them as with ducks and swans. Habitat can help separate out these small birds, where some are drab in plumage and similar in appearance. Others are covered in bright colours, the finches for instance, which makes them harder to mistake for birds of the same size. Slightly larger birds include members of the thrush family and woodpeckers.


Wood peckers in The UK consist of the Green Woodpecker, which is green on the back, with a light grey/green underside and a red flash on the top of its head. The Greater Spotted Woodpecker is about the size of a Blackbird and has black and white plumage. It is distinguishable from the rarer and smaller Lesser Spotted Woodpecker by the white bars running down its back, when in a resting position (they both have red rear ends, visible under the tails and red caps but the Lesser Spotted’s markings are more like horizontal spots, running across the back and the Greater’s cap is more at the back of the head).


Members of the thrush family include Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, smaller and browner backed compared to the other native British thrush, the Mistile, which is much paler in colouration but both having spotted chests. Commonly seen Scandinavian immigrants during winter periods, include Redwings, similar to Song Thrushes but with red flashes under the wings, and Fieldfares which arrive in flocks and have a grey head, grey lower back, a reddish brown chest and wings, plus denser spotting than you normally find in other members of the species. The Ring Ouzel is another resident member of the species, which you can distinguish from a similar coloured Blackbird, by the white bib under its neck. It is rare and lives in the mountains. Skylarks may resemble small thrushes but the crest, nesting in the long grass and long, drawn out song, while flying high up in the air, distinguishes them from the thrush family.


Small water birds include the Kingfisher, which there is only one of as a species, so it is easy to recognize. It has a blue head and wings, plus iridescent, lighter blue back. Its chest and abdomen are bright orange and it has white areas round its head and neck areas. It nests in holes in river banks and can often be seen resting on branches suspended over the water’s surface or as a bright flash, diving into the water after fish. The Dipper, a relative of the Wren, can often be seen in mountainous rivers, walking under the fast flowing waters, trying to catch small insects like Caddis Flies. Their plumage consists of black wings and tail, with brown head and abdomen, as well as a very noticeable white area under the beak. Other river dwellers include Wagtails – the pied variety being black and white in plumage, hence the name (pied means having two colours). Grey wagtails have a more noticeable grey back and head than the yellow variety. They also have black under their chins. All in all they look more crisper in coloration than the yellow version of the bird, which like young Blue tits, seem to have their brighter colouring bleed through into the darker colour, turning the grey into yellow/grey.


Warblers are small birds about the size of sparrows but not related. Their singing voice or warbling, helps separate them from sparrows as does their longer pointed beaks. The most distinct bird of this family is the Blackcap, with its light underbelly and darker topside. The female has a chestnut coloured cap which distinguishes it from the male. The Whitethroat is the only other really distinctive bird of this family, having a grey head, white throat (as the name implies), a brown back and buff coloured underside. The female has a brown head, making it less outstanding than the male. While some of this family can be found by the coast or water, it doesn’t imply they all are.


Above the water you will often see House Martins and Sand Martins, trying to catch insects. They both have forked tails and long wings but the latter has a bar across its chest. It is also drab brown as the former is more blue but both are white on the underside. Sand Martins nest in holes wherever they can dig burrows but their counterparts build mud nests on the eaves of houses. Swallows can be distinguished from Martins by their red chins and longer fluked tails, plus the white area on their bodies stretches part way onto the wings. They too build mud (and straw) nests but usually inside old farm buildings. All of these birds will be seen at the end of summer, perching on telephone wires, flocking in preparation to emigrating back to where they came from. Swifts (all over brown birds but with a white chin) look similar to these other birds but are not related. They are found in the countryside, just like Swallows are but nests in crevices and holes in old buildings. It also flies home as winter approaches but doesn’t gather on telephone lines.


Small birds include finches, sparrows and tits. The Bullfinch has a black cap and a bright pinkish breast plus a blue / grey back, which distinguishes the male from the female. The female can be mistaken for a sparrow initially because it is a drab brown but the beak is squatter. It resembles more the female Chaffinch, its relative but again the beak is the most obvious giveaway as are the white flecks on its wings. The male Chaffinch is not as bright as the Bullfinch but again has a pinky coloured chest, more toned down. Its face is also pink but with a grey cap, stretching down to the back of its neck. The pinky / red colour also continues on the upper part of its back and like the female, it too has white patches on its wings. The Goldfinch has a red face, with a white bar behind that and a black cap and strip beside the white one, with a white patch at the back of the head, making it a very distinctive bird. It also has a yellow bar on its wings, which is where it derives its name from; other features include a brown back of the same tone as a Jay’s main coloration and an off-white chest and abdomen. Young Goldfinches lack the head markings but still retain the bright yellow wing strips.

Greenfinches are green all over but with a hint of grey on the wings, plus a flash of yellow on the wings like the previously mentioned cousin. The Siskin, a relative, is commonly mistaken for a Greenfinch because it too is green but it has a black cap and black markings on the wings and tail. The Crossbill eats pine seeds and as its name suggests has a peculiar shaped beak for doing this. It has a reddish coloured body with dark wings and tail. The female by contrast is green in colour but the beak distinguishes it from the Greenfinch. It is most usually found in Scotland because of the profusion of commercially grown conifers. Linnets again look like sparrows but have a splash of red on their chests, giving the impression that they have just been shot. They are known for their call and like canaries were kept as cage birds. The Yellow Hammer looks like a different coloured version of the Greenfinch but is not related, being a bunting instead.


The House Sparrow has a buff coloured chest, brown back and wings, grey cap, white cheeks, brown patch on the back of the head, black patch under the beak and round the eyes. The female has a drab grey chest like the males, brown cap and patch on the back of the neck, of the same colour, plus brown wings and tail like its male counterpart. The young takes after the mother in appearance, being identifiable by the yellow lips of the juvenile. The Tree Sparrow is very similar in appearance to the House Sparrow but has a black spot on the white cheek patch. Also the cap is brown, not grey. The Dunnock is often considered by the public to be a sparrow but is no relative, despite the same grey chest and brown back colour. Their beaks give them away, being long and thin, not stubby like true sparrows. They resemble the Robin but it is easy to differentiate the two because the latter has a red breast and face. The Wren is another drab looking brown and grey chested bird but its upwardly raised tail makes it stand out from the other birds of this appearance.


The members of the this group, include the most commonly seen, which is the Blue tit. It has a blue patch on the top of its head, white face, dark line running through the eyes and round the back of the head, a small bar under the chin, running down to connect with a ring that goes round its neck, to also connect with the back of the head. Its front is yellow, its back drab green and its wings and tail dull blue. The Great tit is also yellow underneath with a green back but has a distinctive black cap, white cheeks and a line that runs down its chest, from the black ring round its neck, meeting round the back of the neck. The Cole tit resembles the Great tit but is smaller and duller, having a drab off-white lower body and grey back, plus a white stripe down the back of its head and no line down the chest. The Marsh tit is even rarer, having a black cap, white cheeks, dull grey/ green back and off-white front. It too has a beard that ends on its chest but no ring going the neck to the back of the head, unlike the previous birds mentioned.

The Crested tit as the name implies, has a distinctive crest on its head, is buff underneath and brownie/grey on the back and wings. It also has the distinctive beard running down to the chest and round the back of the head but it curls up to the top, not completes itself at the base of the neck. It also has white cheeks but the black line visible in the Blue tit, running from the eye back, curls down towards the neck instead, looking like a chicken’s wishbone on its face. The Long Tailed tit has a very small body but a long tail, hence its name. Its plumage is black and white, resembling a Pied Wagtail in miniature. Its nest is very distinctive as mentioned earlier, being made of moss and feathers, with an entrance hole part of the way up.

As can be seen, smaller birds are numerous in variety. They inhabit woodland (woodpeckers), fields (skylarks), marshlands, rivers and gardens. They can be more colourful than larger birds (finches and tits) but this is no guarantee they will be. Some birds display bright colours to attract a mate, whereas others try to blend into the background, to avoid predators. They can be found close to human habitation or avoiding it altogether, depending upon their lifestyles i.e the food they eat and where it is to be found plus their nest site preferences. Altogether they make up an interesting part of the United Kingdom’s bird population for amateur bird watchers and burgeoning ornithologists alike.

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