Identifying British Birds - Part 3

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This section of the series on identifying British Birds, is all about those found in or by large bodies of water, be it the sea or wetlands. While some can be found in rivers as well as marshlands, they have been included here as their most common, if not most exclusive habitat. The two largest gull species for instance have in recent times moved inland, frequenting rubbish tips and following farmer's ploughs, when digging up the ground but this is not their natural habitat, just a sign of adaption to changing conditions. Cormorants are coastal birds but they too can be seen outside their normal fishing grounds, hunting in rivers for prey.


Water birds include Mallard ducks which are also quite common, the male having a bright green head, with a white band round the neck and a dark reddy/brown chest. It has a light grey underside and back, with wings that have an iridescent blue strip closest to the body, only revealed in flight. The female has this too but has a dull brown flecked body otherwise. The Widgeon’s body resembles a Mallards but its head gives it away. It is dark brown with a yellow tuft on top. The female tends to be dark brown, with white tuft, iridescent green flash above the eye, white under the tail and with a white flash on the wing. Goldeneye’s have noticeably raised iridescent green heads as well, with a white spot near the beaks. They have white bodies and black and white wings. The females have brown heads and dull brown bodies but carry the distinct eye coloration of the males. The Pochard has a chestnut brown head, black chest and tail plus light grey wings. The female is a dull browny/ grey.

Teals have brown heads like the Pochard but have a green eye flash that helps them stand apart. They also have green flashes at the base of their wings. The female Teal resembles a Mallard’s mate but can be distinguished from it, if in the company of a male. The Tufted Duck can be recognized by the long strand of feathers hanging down the back of its neck. Its black head, chest and wings, only broken up by its white underside also help make it easier to recognise. The female is similar in appearance but with a smaller tuft and brown underbelly. Shoveller Ducks have beaks like shovels, hence their name and distinguishing feature, whether male or female. If it wasn’t for this the female would just resemble a Mallard duck. The male does have an iridescent green head, brown torso and green wing flashes, like a male Teal but the white chest and big beak is a giveaway.

The Common Scoter is the only all black duck, so is instantly recognizable because of this feature. The only other birds you might confuse them with are the Coot and the Moorhen, which have short beaks and long legs (the latter is really dark brown on the back and blue / black underneath, plus has a yellow tipped, red beak and patch carrying up onto the forehead as the latter has a white beak and patch going up to the same position). Goosanders and Mergansers are diving ducks, whose thin, flat beaks help distinguish them from other ducks. They both have black and white bodies but the latter has a brown chest and tassels hanging from the back of its green head, while the former has a smooth green feathered head. Lastly in this section comes Pintails which are similar to Long Tailed Ducks but have a longer neck and larger head, plus a grey body. Long Tailed Ducks by contrast have black and white plumage, a light yellow face and are a much rarer and indeed endangered bird.

Sea going ducks include the black and white Eider, whose female is the usual drab brown and black of other females of this family but is noticeably larger than most, as well as being seen in the company of the males as another distinguishing feature. The Shelduck looks like it is on the way to becoming a goose from its body shape and dimensions (long neck, small head in comparison with the body). Its beak is red, its head and neck mostly black but with a white section. It then has a brown ring round its chest, with a black line running down the middle of its body to its rear end, with the rest of the lower body then being white. Its wings are also white but have black edges.


Geese include Barnacle and Canada geese. The latter is a much bigger bird but superficially resembles the former one. They both have long black necks but the Barnacle Goose has a white underbelly and white face, whereas the Canada Goose has a splash of white under its chin that stretches up to the ear area. Its chest also tends to be duller in colour, veering towards brown. The black colour on the neck, also does not reach the chest area, unlike the Barnacle Goose, and its beak is more noticeable.

Mute Swans which are native to Britain, are as big as a turkey at the very least, having a long neck and a pink beak to mark them out from other forms of this variety of bird. Its young tend to be fluffy grey in appearance, usually accompanying their parents. Whooper swans are visitors to these shores. They are as big as Mute swans but have yellow and black beaks, which helps sort them from our native bird. Bewick Swans are very similar in appearance but much smaller, maybe goose size. Black Swans are Australian birds with red beaks, a few of which have escaped captivity and created small breeding colonies. Cormorants have black bodies with short legs and thin black beaks, curved at the tip. They are sometimes seen inland, unlike their cousins, the Shags, that stay by the shore and are further differentiated by having a crest of black feathers on top of their heads.


Gulls are sea going birds that flock inland. The Greater Black Backed and Herring Gulls are similar in size but the former has a dark grey back and the latter a light grey one. This latter bird can also be mistaken for the Common Gull except it is much smaller in stature. The Black Headed Gull is equal in size to this bird but has a black cap to help distinguish it. It look similar to terns because of this feature but they have much shorter legs, shorter necks, smaller bodies and never venture inland. Gannets have yellow heads and black legs, being sizeable birds about the size of a goose. They do not venture inland either but the occasional one may wash up onshore or be seen on rocky outcrops off the shore. Puffins, Razor Bills and Guillemots can also be seen in colonies, again way offshore. The first is a very small bird, black on the back, white on the underside and with a wide, stubby, multi-coloured beak that makes it hard to mistake for any other British seagoing bird. It is the size of a cat and makes burrows to nest in. Guillemots have the same coloration as Puffins but have a long, thin beak which separates them from Razorbills, which have a much noticeably wider beak.


Herons have long yellow legs, snake-like neck as well as long pointed, yellow beaks. Their head and neck is white predominantly, with black broken lines running down the latter. It also has a black eye flash, running to the back of the head where it turns into a couple of tassels. The rest of the body is mostly grey in appearance. It is often seen by rivers, actively fishing or resting by the water. The Little Egret is also spreading across the UK but is smaller and all over white, with a dark bill and white tassel running down the back of its neck. Bitterns are also members of this family but rarely seen as they hide in reed beds and are brown and black speckled in plumage. Males make a distinctive booming noise and you are more likely to hear this than see the bird itself. Curlews have downward curved beaks and are about the size of chickens. They have brown and black feathers, appearing as lines running down their chest. Like most other waders they can be seen by rivers or possibly on the shoreline. Avocets have black and white plumage and while their beak is curved, it goes upwards instead of down It also has noticeable long, blue legs. Oyster Catchers have black heads, wings and back as well as white undersides. They have pink legs and a long, orange beak for prodding below the surface of the sand, to extract shellfish, mostly cockles and mussels. Snipes are similar in body shape to them, having a long bill but their legs are short and they are dark brown on top, lighter underneath and are related to Curlews, Sandpipers and Phalaropes.

Whether sea or wetlands, a great variety of birds are protected by this kind of habitat as it makes it harder for predators to get at them except for aerial hunters like marsh harriers in wetlands. Having said that, islands where some of these sea going varieties were safe, have suffered from predation by introduced wildlife like rats or domestic cats. Mink, escapees from captivity, have also caused havoc with wildlife in the UK because like a lot of introduced species, whether plant or animal, they lack their natural predators here, so run rampant. Human beings also hunt ducks and geese but swans are a protected species because of declining numbers. In Italy small, migrating birds are shot annually by hunters. With all this in mind, is it any wonder several bird species are on the endangered list.

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