The UK is brilliant for birdwatching, offering a huge range of different habitats. There are numerous bird reserves and plenty to see when out walking in the town or country. Your caravan is the ideal way to start birding, where and when you want. And once we can all travel abroad again, you will find plenty of opportunities to see even more birds. Find out where to go and what to see with our Wildlife Spotting Guide to Birds, courtesy of keen birdwatcher Mick Statham.
Before you travel, search the internet for birding options, en route and at your destination.Wherever you tour, it is well worth taking your binoculars and bird ID book with you. The latter needs to be pocket-sized and durable. Mine is a battered copy of The Birdwatcher’s Pocket Guide, by Peter Hayman and Rob Hume. Binoculars don’t need to be mega-expensive; I find 8x40s are best.
Garden, parkland and campsites
If you feed the birds at home, you will see plenty in your garden. Near woodland, one of the most iconic birds is the great spotted woodpecker, with striking black-and–white markings and red on the back of the head (mature male) and lower abdomen. You’ll hear them first, knocking on trees to attack a mater or mark their territory.
Mountains, moors and farmland
Flocks of noisy lapwings are quite common on agricultural land. They are also known as the peewit, which is a fair representation of their call. These birds’ black feathers are actually iridescent green, and they have a long black crest.
The buzzard, a very successful species, can be recognised by ts lazy, spring circling flight on rectangular wings, often with ‘eyes’ and ‘fingers’ at the tips (about 130cm span). They will also be spotted perched on fenceposts, when you’ll see a distinctive large ‘U’ on their chest. Listen for the high-pitched, whistling call – not quite what you’d expect from such a beefy-looking bird.
The red kite, bigger than a buzzard, is now common in Wales, especially at the Red Kite Feeding Station, inland from Aberystwyth.
The golden eagle is high on most birders’ lists. The Scottish Highlands and Islands are the place to go – we have seen them on Arran.
On the river
Dippers are plump, sparrow-sized birds, black with a white chest. Look for droppings on rocks in the river. They ‘swim’ in the water, against the current, on the lookout for food.
Kingfishers can be spotted on rivers and canals – look for a flash of electric-blue with a coppery-orange chest, flying across the water or perching on a branch about 10ft overhead.
Herons – tall, grey-and-white birds with a long beak – have a lazy flight with curved wings.
The RSPB manages more than 200 nature reserves across the UK, some of which are accessible for wheelchair-users and those of limited mobility.
Many of the reserves are on marshland, so good for spotting waders and divers. The RSPB website will direct you to one en route or near your tour destination. North Norfolk Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is especially great for birding.
On the UK coastline
Anywhere on our magnificent, unspoilt coastal paths will offer you the chance to observe a wide variety of birdlife. For example, there are in excess of 20 difference gull species to be found across the UK. The challenge is to tell the difference! This is achieved by looking at the bird’s beak and leg colour, as well as the head and body, clearly shown here by this bald-headed gull.
Beaches and dunes
There are a number of waders to be spotted on and around the waterline of our beaches. One very striking example is the oystercatcher, with a bold black upper and white lower body, and orangey-red beak and legs. Often seen in large flocks, they have a distinctive, loud whistling cry.
A more rocky environment favours the turnstone, a stocky little wader whose name describes its behaviour – it turns over stones in search of food.
A long way out over the water, you might spot splashes and flashes of white. These will be gannets feeding, diving from 20-30ft above the waves. The head and neck are pale yellow and the wing-tips look as though they have been dipped in black paint.
Cliffs and coastal paths
There are specific places where you can see large colonies of seabirds. Skomer, for example, hosts a huge influx of puffins (mid-April to mid-August). Boat trips to the island are available, with motorhome parking close to the harbour.
Bempton and Bridlington, in Yorkshire, are renowned for gannets, guillemots, puffins and barn owls, while South Stack, just off Holy Island, Anglesey, is great for guillemots, peregrine falcons, puffins and razorbills.
The South West Coat Path and Pembrokeshire Coast Path are excellent for observing seabirds, wherever there are cliffs.
Lakes and reservoirs
Most lakes and reservoirs are managed by the local water provider. There are a number with specific projects to protect breeding ospreys. In March, these 1.5m-wingspan fishing birds of prey come to the UK from West Africa, to breed and rear their young, returning to Africa in August. The fully grown chicks depart after their parents, navigating the 3000-mile journey alone. How do they do that?
Among other divers are the tufted duck, which is small, mainly black with a white central band, and yes, a tuft on its head.
Male and female goosanders are quite easily distinguished – the male has a black upper and white lower body, and dark neck and head, while the female has a grey body and tan neck and head. Both have a hooked beak.
Among the many excellent locations are Dyfi, in Powys: Rutland Water; Poole Harbour, Dorset; Loch Garten, Strathspey; Bassenthwaite, in the Lake District, and Glaslyn, Snowdonia.
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
You can see a spectacular variety of birds at any of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserves. Set up by renowned ornithologist and conservationist Sir Peter Scott, the WWT’s mission is to conserve not only individual species of birdlife, but also the environment in which they live.
There are 10 WWT centres across the UK, and we have visited Barnes (London), Martin Mere (Lancashire) and Slimbridge (Gloucestershire). At around £16 for adults and £10 for children, this is a great day out for the whole family.
Birding on the Continent
As travel abroad becomes available, there are plenty of birding opportunities to enjoy. One notable trip that we made took us along the Atlantic coast of France to Le Teich, where we stopped at an aire on the marina, right by the reserve. We saw 25 bird species there!
We crossed into Spain and drove to Peniscola on the Mediterranean coast, to the Serra d’iata Natural Park, with 15 miles of unspoilt coast.
On our way north, we stayed at L’Orangeraie Calig campsite, where we saw and heard the beautiful golden oriole.
We diverted inland to the village of Arnes, in Catalunya, to look for griffon vultures in the magnificent Els Ports Natural Park. We were not disappointed, seeing a number of adult birds and their chicks in nests on the cliffs. On another trip, to Cres in Croatia, we spotted six griffon vultures flying effortlessly by, just above us.
Other birding opportunities in Spain include the Ebro Delta, for avocets, Aiguamolls Natural Park, for waders, and La Cola Reserve, for bee-eaters, black-winged stilts, purple herons and marsh harriers. On the return journey, it is well worth diverting to the Camargue, in France, to see flamingoes in their hundreds.
- Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
- Red Kite Feeding Station
- Norfolk Wildlife Trust
- Rutland Water Nature Reserve
- Glenelg Tourist Information
- Farne Islands
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DID YOU KNOW THAT? You can spot more than 20 different gull species across the UK