10 UK Bird Watching Spots
If you are new to bird watching and want to visit somewhere which will have the maximum potential for seeing a variety of birds then you can’t go wrong with one of these spots chosen by Stephen Moss. Go on your own for some serious birding or take the family for a fun day out.
Caerlaverock WWT Centre, Dumfries and Galloway – October to March
As autumn arrives in the Scottish borders, so do thousands of ducks, geese and swans flying in from places as far away as Iceland and Spitsbergen, to enjoy the relatively mild winter in the British Isles. Whooper swans travel in family parties and enjoy the daily feeding sessions that take place at dusk throughout winter. Nearby, Mersehead RSPB reserve attracts huge numbers of barnacle geese, so-called because before our ancestors realised birds migrated they thought they hatched from the goose barnacles found nearby.
Castle Espie WWT Centre, Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland – October to March
On Northern Ireland’s north-east coast, a short drive from Belfast, Strangford Lough is one of the UK’s most important wildfowl refuges. It is famous for the rare pale-bellied form of the Brent goose, which migrate here each autumn from Canada and it is also a winter home for thousands of ducks and waders. The Castle Espie WWT centre is the ideal introduction to this avian wonderland with hides, guided walks and family facilities.
Exe Estuary, Devon – November to February
Take a cruise along the English Riviera but make sure you wrap up warm, because this is a winter trip to see one of the most beautiful birds in Britain, the avocet. The avocet is the symbol of the RSPB, and the stately black and white wader is also one of the UK’s greatest conservation success stories. The Exe estuary is home to about 25,000 wintering birds and a boat trip is the ideal way to experience these wild creatures where they really belong. Cruises depart from Exmouth or Starcross and last for about three to four hours.
Farne Islands, Northumberland – May to July
When it comes to great wildlife spectacles, you don’t have to travel to far-flung, exotic locations – Britain’s seabird colonies are some of the biggest and best in the world. If you don’t believe that then head to the little port of Seahouses, an hour or so north of Newcastle, and take the short boat trip across to the Farne Islands. Watch puffins loafing around their burrow entrances, get mobbed by terns, and enjoy a chorus of kittiwakes calling out their name.
Gigrin Farm, nr Rhayader, mid-Wales – All year round
In the 1970s, red kites were one of the UK’s rarest birds, found only in a handful of valleys in the heart of Wales. Today, thanks to a reintroduction programme, they can be seen in many parts of Britain. But to watch them where they really belong, visit this delightful farm, whose owners feed the kites every afternoon. The sight of these acrobatic birds swooping down to snatch pieces of meat is truly astonishing.
Isles of Scilly, Cornwall – April to October
These warm and welcoming islands off the tip of Cornwall have long been a destination for twitchers eager to see rare birds. But the islands offer a lot more, including seabirds in summer, and a range of spring and autumn migrants. Avoid October if you want to miss the crowds: a trip in late April or May will be just as productive, less frenetic, and with better weather.
Loch Garten, Scottish Highlands – April to August
This year is the 50th anniversary of the launch of RSPB’s Operation Osprey, set up to guard the nest of this rare bird of prey. They also took the far-sighted decision to make the location public. Since then, more than 3 million visitors have enjoyed watching these magnificent fish-eating birds. In the surrounding Abernethy Forest, watch out for Britain’s largest and most impressive gamebird – the capercaillie, whose call sounds like a whinnying horse followed by the popping of a champagne cork.
Minsmere, Suffolk – May to June
The RSPB’s showpiece reserve at Minsmere is home to the famous avocets. This elegant wader is just one of many attractions at the reserve which is also home to bitterns, marsh harriers and the widest range of breeding birds in the country. Come in May to enjoy the sound of nightingales in the woods and see the sand martin colony in the old car park. Binoculars are available for hire.
Rutland Water, Rutland – August
Britain’s smallest county is home to the UK’s largest annual gathering of birders: the British Birdwatching Fair, held for three days every August. After you’ve wandered around the marquees and stalls, explore the nearby wetland reserve, home to reintroduced ospreys and other waterbirds, including the comical Egyptian goose. Before you leave, check out the colony of tree sparrows – one of the UK’s scarcest songbirds – by the visitor centre.
Slimbridge WWT Centre, Gloucestershire – November to March
The original and still the best – Sir Peter Scott’s first Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre has something for everyone. Children love the captive wildfowl, where they can hand-feed the birds; while dedicated birders can visit the famous Holden Tower hide, with superb views over the marshes. On a winter visit look for geese, ducks, and the famous Bewick’s swans, each of which can be individually recognised by markings on its bill.