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Exotic birds that migrate to Herts for winter and where to spot them

PUBLISHED: 11:21 27 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:44 06 February 2017

Golden plovers' striking black and gold plumage becomes buff and white in winter (photo by Tim Hill)

Golden plovers' striking black and gold plumage becomes buff and white in winter (photo by Tim Hill)

Tim Hill

We may think of our winters as cold, but some species come to the UK at this season for the warm weather. Charlotte Hussey of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust spots the birds that call Herts their winter home

Smew are visitors from ScandinaviaSmew are visitors from Scandinavia

There are a minority of sedentary birds that never move far from where they were born, but the majority of birds migrate, with some 40 per cent being regular migrants, rising to 50 per cent in the UK. Some, such a swallows, breed in Europe in spring and summer before flying to much warmer climates in Africa. Other birds find our shores temperate enough to migrate to for our autumn and winter if they are born in much colder climates such as those of Canada or eastern Europe.

Birds migrate for a number of reasons, with the top two being food and reproduction. Food, both animal and vegetable, becomes scarcer when temperatures grow cooler, so regions that offer the insect populations and vegetation that birds depend on for survival are key. Different birds require different environments for breeding, with warmer climates needed for those that usually live in the Arctic and cooler areas for those who live in the hottest tropics.

Our winter birds

Hertfordshire and Middlesex are great places to see feathered visitors from colder shores. Redwings can be found feeding in fields and hedgerows, venturing into gardens only when it is very cold, while the sociable fieldfare can be seen flocking in groups of a dozen to several hundred. Both can be heard on clear, starry nights. If it is particularly cold, you may spot a brambling in beech woodland, where it joins flocks of chaffinches. Britain’s favourite, the robin, is vocal all year and over winter you can hear it singing to re-establish territories and warn off intruders.

Black-cap join members of the tit family in feeding flocks (photo: Andrew Howe)Black-cap join members of the tit family in feeding flocks (photo: Andrew Howe)

If you visit an HMWT wetland reserve, you can spot large populations of visiting waterfowl, including goldeneye from northern Europe, wigeon from Iceland and Russia and, if it’s cold enough, smew from Scandinavia. You will also be able to spot resident birds such as goosanda and lapwing, as well as golden plovers, whose distinctive gold and black plumage is replaced by buff and white colouring in winter.

Roving flocks

While winter is a great time to see migrating birds, you can also spot native birds adapting their behaviour to survive (and indeed thrive) in the colder season. While birdsong generally quietens down outside of the summer breeding window, over the autumn and winter months many birds will group together in roving flocks. Members of the tit family in particular will do this, moving through feeding grounds in noisy crowds. There is safety in numbers, while birds can share the benefit of those who know the best sites for food.

Flocks can vary from 10 to 100-plus birds. Locally, you could expect to see the blue, great, coal, long-tailed and marsh tits in such groups. Other species also join the throng and you may see treecreeper, nut hatch, goldcrest, black cap, chiffchaff and, if you’re very lucky, firecrest.

Reserves to visit this winter

Amwell is a former gravel pit in the Lee Valley near Ware. It supports internationally important numbers of wintering wildfowl, along with outstanding communities of breeding birds.

One of the best birdwatching spots in southern England, Tring Reservoirs, has a diverse range of birdlife to spot.

Fox Covert, just south of Royston, was planted in the late 19th century with beech. During winter the reserve attracts visiting birds such as fieldfare and redwing, while meadow pipits and skylarks are present all year.

To find out more about these reserves and others, visit


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