Somewhat unfairly, the UK is not renowned as a birdwatchers’ paradise. Many of our most familiar birds belong a group of birds that twitchers refer to as ‘little brown jobs’, indistinct greyish-brown species that sometimes frustrate birders due to a lack of features that help with identification.
But with changes to the climate as well as some successful reintroduction programmes our avian fauna is becoming much more diverse. As a result it’s becoming easier to see birds that you might not expect to find in our northern European landscape.
This guide takes a closer look at 10 of the more exotic-looking birds that can be found in the UK.
The bluethroat is a small songbird that sits in the same family as the European robin. The male has a brown back and electric blue throat and upper breast with black, white, and rufous bands below. Females are much duller and usually lack the blue. Both sexes have a chestnut patch underneath the tail.
Two subspecies of bluethroat visit the UK; one has a red spot on its throat, the red-spotted bluethroat, and the other a white spot, the white-spotted bluethroat, and a much rarer visitor.
Just like robins, bluethroats will fiercely defend their territories. Their song is a strong, clear whistle with a variable flourish, and they are capable of mimicking other birds.
Warm winds in the spring bring bluethroats to the east coast. Look out for them in reedbeds, marshes, thick vegetation, and near water. They can be hard to spot but you may see one on open ground running and hopping while dipping its slender tail. They can also be seen during autumn passage between August and October as they return to their wintering grounds in Africa.
The common crane is a huge, stately, waterside bird standing about a metre tall. It has a pale grey body with long black-tipped plumes that extend over the tail. The face and throat are black, the nape is white, and it has a bare red crown. Males are slightly larger and heavier than females.
It flies with its legs and head outstretched on flat wings, unlike the grey heron which pulls its neck into its body and flies with arched wings. It has a loud, trumpeting call in flight which can be heard from a considerable distance.
Like other species of crane, the common crane is known for its complex dancing displays which it performs all year round.
The crane is a scarce spring and autumn migrant but a reintroduction programme in the Norfolk Broads has seen their numbers increase and the UK is now home to a number of breeding birds. Look out for them on marshy wetlands.
The ring-necked parakeet, sometimes known as the rose-ringed parakeet, is a fairly large, slim parrot with a long, pointed tail and a round head. It has pale green plumage with a yellowish belly and bluer feathers on the tail. In males the conspicuous neck ring can be blue, black, or pink while in females it is much weaker. It has a short, thick, curved red bill.
Ring-necked parakeets have a fast flight during which they emit loud, frenzied squeals and screeches. You may hear a flock of ring-necked parakeets before you see them as they come flying overhead.
It is the UK’s only naturalised parrot and despite its tropical origin has thrived despite the cold weather, particularly in urban parks and gardens. Escapees from collections have been living in the wild for centuries, but it was only in the 1960s that they began to breed and since then their numbers have swelled to nearly 9,000 pairs.
In their native habitat they usually eat only plant matter but in the UK ring-necked parakeets are omnivores and will readily visit bird tables and feeders. However, these gaudy birds are officially considered a pest due to the damage they can do to crops and the impact they may have on native wildlife.
The hoopoe is a beautiful ground-feeding birds with barred black and white wings and tail and sandy-orange on the head and back. They have a large orange crest with black and white tips which usually lies flat on their head in a narrow wedge shape, but when raised appears as a semi-circular fan. Male and female hoopoes are similar.
They have an erratic, bounding flight accompanied by flickering wing beats of their broad, rounded wings, which are particularly striking in flight. Their call is a simple repetition of low, hollow sounds, that although is fairly soft, carries quite far.
Hoopoes visit the UK from southern Europe. Up to 160 arrive each year between March and October, and they have bred. Look out for them on the edges of woodland and open ground foraging for insects and spiders before they leave to winter back in southern Europe and Africa.
The spoonbill is a large white bird that lives near water. It has a spiky white crest that can be drooped or raised and may blow to one side in the wind, and breeding season a yellow patch on its chin and breast. Its long legs are black and it has a spatula-shaped bill that is unique in Europe; long and black with a broad, flat yellow tip.
In flight it looks a little like a swan, but with much quicker wing action. It flies silently with its neck outstretched and legs trailing behind with wing beats that are faster and stiffer than egrets.
Spoonbills stand in shallows with their heads tucked back under a wing when sleeping. It feeds by slowly wading through water, elegantly sweeping its bill from side to side dredging for aquatic insects, amphibians, and small fish. They feed in flocks and tend to be inactive during the day, preferring to feed at night.
Until recently they were a rare migrant to the UK. Conservation efforts have seen it return to the east of England where it has recently bred. Their breeding grounds are kept secret but you can see them on coastal sites in the north west, south west, and east of England all year round.
The golden oriole is the only Old World oriole found in the UK and one of Europe’s most brightly coloured birds. It is about the size of a blackbird but with elongated wings. The adult male is brilliant yellow with ink-black wings and black patch around its eye and a dark pink bill. Females are paler with greenish upperparts and pale grey underparts.
They have a fast, gently undulating flight with powerful wingbeats. During courtship the male will perform elaborate displays with dives, hovering, and tail-fanning for the benefit of the female. The call sounds strained and harsh, but the song is a short, rich, flute-like whistle that may be repeated for long periods.
Golden orioles are secretive birds. They can be spotted on passage from Europe in early summer on the south or east coast of England. Listen out for them at dawn as they sing from the tops of trees in woodland, forests, parks, and gardens.
The European bee-eater is a brightly coloured slim bird with a long tail, pointed wings, and a downward-curved bill. It is bright rusty-brown on the back with golden yellow shoulders, and pale blue on the underparts. The head is rufous, and it has a yellow throat and black stripe through the deep red eyes.
The bee-eater is mainly an aerial feeder but can be seen perching on a wire or bare branch. In flight its wings are stretched in a triangular shape and there is a pointed central spike on the tail. It flies with quick wing beats interspersed with flat straight-winged circular glides and sudden bursts as it catches flying insects on the wing.
It is a vocal bird that calls with deep, throaty whistles that carry far while it is foraging or migrating. It performs regular dust and water bathing to rid its skin of ectoparasites picked up from nesting in holes.
They are scarce migrants from southern Europe and rarely breed. They occasionally visit in autumn on their way to winters in Africa. Look out for them in dry, sandy, open and bushy places.
The golden pheasant, also known as the Chinese pheasant or rainbow pheasant, is a beautiful multi-coloured ground-dwelling gamebird. Several feral populations have established themselves in the UK after escaping from captivity.
The male’s upper back is deep green, and the lower back and rump are golden yellow. Its underparts are chestnut with a scarlet breast. It has a long black and chestnut tail that measures about half a metre in length and a silky, golden yellow crest on its head. The female is much paler with brown plumage and bars that make her almost invisible on the ground.
Golden pheasants rarely fly; they are clumsy in flight due to their short wings and long tail, but can suddenly burst upwards if startled making a distinctive sound with their wings. It has a wide range of calls including alarm calls, contact calls, and advertising calls, and during breeding season the male makes a metallic-sounding call.
Golden pheasants are scattered throughout the UK, but primarily in the south and east of England where they can be spotted in dense woodland and forests. Look out for them early in the morning when they may emerge into clearings in search of food.
The Bohemian waxwing is the only regular waxwing found in Europe. It is a stocky, short-legged bird about the size of a starling. Overall, it is pinkish-grey with a darker red face and black bib, and a prominent crest on its head. The tail has a bright yellow band, and its black wings are marked with white, yellow, and red that gives the species its name.
It has a quick, dashing or swooping flight powered by its long, pointed wings. Over short distances it flies with steady wing beats, while on longer journeys the wing beats are interspersed with glides. Its call is a far-carrying trill that sounds like a greenfinch or blue tit in spring.
Waxwings are irregular winter visitors that arrive in the UK in their thousands when food is scarce in their breeding grounds in Scandinavia. They can be found in ornamental shrubs, berry-bearing trees and bushes and quickly strip them bare of their fruit in a matter of hours.
The Atlantic puffin is a comical looking seabird sometimes known as the ‘clown of the sea’ or the ‘sea parrot’. It is a small, upright auk that waddles on its toes unlike the guillemot and razorbill that rest on the lower part of their legs. In breeding season adult puffins have black backs and white underparts and a pale grey disc on the face. The large triangular bill is red yellow and grey and it has bright orange legs and feet.
Out of breeding season the face is much darker and the bill is smaller and duller. Juveniles have smaller bills still and a dark face with dusky cheeks and plain black upperwing.
Puffins wings have evolved to propel them forwards underwater but they are capable of flight and fly with fast whirring wing beats reaching speeds of up to 80 km per hour. Away from colonies they tend to be silent but on breeding grounds make low, hard growling sounds.
Puffins are summer residents forming colonies with other seabirds on cliffs and rocky islands around the west and east coasts of the UK. In winter they return to the sea in the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean feeding on fish and marine invertebrates. They are rare visitors inshore during winter.