Some of the numerous woodland and hedgerow bird species are included in the Gardens section of this website, because they are arguably the commonest types found in that habitat whenever there is easy feeding from peanuts, sunflowers and other seeds.
One sadly which cannot strictly be included anywhere is the Red-backed Shrike (wingspan 26cm), a smaller bird than most people realise which became extinct in the 1990s but has nested on Dartmoor in 2010. However, since they are so attractive, and used to be found across virtually the whole country, no apologies for mentioning them. By 1960 the population was down to about 250, with heathland in Suffolk one of the last outposts, and it is claimed the main problem was that they were on the edge of their range. With the colder conditions that prevailed for most of the 20th century we are told their chances of maintaining a presence were questionable.
There may be truth in this but it is worth pointing out that in Poland, which has a similar climate to Britain though colder winters - Red-backed Shrikes migrate - the species has always been common. The accompanying image was taken there in 2011. There must be a chance that it was a lack of food, perhaps caused by changes in farming and gardening practices, which contributed to their downfall. Food consists of insects, birds and small mammals and is planted on thorns, giving the species its colloquial name 'Butcher Bird'.
One of our best-loved woodland birds, and one found exclusively in the south-eastern half of Britain, is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos, wingspan 24cm). They arrive from their wintering grounds in tropical Africa in April and depart from late July onwards, up to September.
In colour both sexes are relatively drab if one manages to spot them - the species tends to be decidedly secretive amidst the new spring growth of trees and shrubs. But the male's song in the breeding territory from arrival until the end of May or early June, through the day as well as at night, is unarguably the richest and most varied of any songbird. The pictured bird was photographed at the RSPB's Pulborough Brooks reserve in West Sussex.
With around 8,000 singing males in Britain each year Nightingales are on the Amber list of Birds of Conservation Concern. Given their varied diet, mostly invertebrates and berries in the autumn, along with a reasonable amount of suitable habitat thanks to improved woodland management including coppicing, they seem secure here at least. As with all migrants though, alterations in conditions in their wintering grounds can have a detrimental effect on their prospects.
The Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) is slightly smaller than the Nightingale and the male also has a marvellous fluty song. They are pretty numerous, with over 900,000 breeding territories in Britain every spring, and although formerly entirely migratory some are now wintering here too. They move rapidly through trees and bushes and are not always easy to follow.
The Jay (Garrulus glandarius, wingspan 55cm), much more than other members of the crow family, is a skulking bird which keeps itself to itself in woodland and wooded parkland. By far the most colourful of the family, and with a call, or shriek, which can chill the blood of sensitive souls, they come at the bottom of a pecking order headed by the Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone), then the Rook (Corvus frugilegus), Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) and Magpie (Pica pica).
Their food is varied - invertebrates, fruit, seeds including acorns, and the fledglings of smaller birds - and in the autumn they store acorns by the thousand, carrying up to nine in the gullet and managing to remember where the vast majority are buried. Those they forget assist the regeneration, or centuries ago assisted the creation, of Oak (Quercus sp) woodland.
Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, wingspan 25cm) have declined dramatically in the last 30 years and are a species of high conservation concern. The decrease has followed a good period in the 1940s and 1950s which might have been a consequence of the virtual disappearance of the Sparrowhawk from the countryside (see below). Hedgerow removals plus a decrease in commercial orchards, and fruit trees generally, has not helped since Bullfinches can feed heavily on fruit buds and shoots in the spring.
The virtual absence of seed-rich stubble fields in winter due to changes in farming practices means that some finches are finding life a lot tougher than formerly at that time of year. However, the Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, wingspan 27cm) is one of the commonest birds in Britain, with around six million pairs breeding in any year. They are essentially a woodland species, ideally suited by the mixed deciduous variety but capable of functioning even in coniferous forests.
Equally, they are adaptable - the key to any species enjoying the sort of success the Chaffinch has - and can be found in hedgerows, parks and gardens even in large conurbations. Food consists of a variety of seeds, and invertebrates in the breeding season.
Quite similar in appearance to the Chaffinch, and found with them in wintering flocks, is the Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla, wingspan 28cm), which breds in northern Europe but comes to Britain in vast numbers some winters, with a million or more. Their gait is more upright than that of the Chaffinch but they are lovely birds: the female loses nothing in comparison. Brambling.
The Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, wingspan 26cm) is less numerous than the Chaffinch, with getting on for 800,000 breeding pairs, and recently they have been harder to find in some of their old haunts than formerly. Like the Chaffinch, the species used to be associated principally with natural woodland but can be found virtually anywhere nowadays. There were a dozen in my garden in March 2013, a bitterly cold month, which was the largest number I had ever seen locally.
In fact gardens are among the best locations because they provide an increasingly prolific and, barring cats, safe habitat for seed-eating birds in both summer and winter. In the wild, Greenfinches eat the seeds of fleshy fruits, notably rose hips, discarding the flesh. Seed feeders in gardens make life much simpler.
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, wingspan 24cm) numbers have fluctuated in the last couple of decades, but generally they are doing reasonably well with a population between 200,000 and 300,000 pairs.
Goldfinches require locations with abundant seeds, especially Thistle (Cirsium/Carduus sp) and Burdock (Arctium sp), making them less of a woodland species than the Greenfinch or Chaffinch. They are often found in the vicinity of human habitation and can forage in large numbers. Despite the bright colouring, it is often not until they fly off that an observer knows how many are lurking in a thistle bed.
Unfortunately some are still taken illegally for the cage bird trade, mainly for southern Europe. While not involving anything like so many as in the 19th century, one Maltese trader is believed to have caught, or had caught, at least 50,000 wild songbirds (mainly finches) in Britain in the late 1990s, selling them on for around £40 a time.
In 1963 the Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, wingspan 60cm) was virtually extinct in ten eastern and southern English counties and doing badly elsewhere, largely because of the development of organochlorine pesticides including DDT. Being at the top of the food chain, they suffered more than the species below them.
With banning or restrictions placed on those pesticides, the situation has changed hugely, to the extent that Sparrowhawks now outnumber Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) with more than 40,000 in Britain. They feed almost entirely on birds and while most taken are up to the size of Blackbirds (Turdus merula), the female, who like all raptor females is about a third heavier than the male, can take Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus).
The pictured male had caught a Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) and spent the best part of quarter of an hour feeding before flying off with the remains to the nest. All that was left was a characteristic ring of feathers - Sparrowhawks pluck their prey before getting down to eating.
The Sparrowhawk's speed and aerial skill in a habitat with plenty of useful cover but no shortage of hard obstacles has to be seen to be believed, and sometimes cannot be believed even then.
Unfortunately, due to ignorance regarding the function of predators, they are probably the least popular raptor in the country because nowadays many of them catch their prey in gardens. In what amounts to bizarre ignorance of the natural world, a lot of people take exception to this quick-fire dealer in death snapping up songbirds that are visiting garden feeders. In other words, only birds which do not visibly harm anything cute when doing what comes naturally are allowed on the premises.
This is patently absurd. If they are successful and present in good numbers, predators indicate an environment that is healthy from top to bottom. Sparrowhawks and all the others are not self-destructive. They are naturally regulated by the number of prey species. And their impact on the latter does not endanger these overall, however deadly it is to individuals.
The calls of the male and female Tawny Owl (Strix aluco, wingspan 100cm) are synonymous with deciduous woodland, and with an estimated 19,000 pairs of the species they are readily heard. Based on a nationwide survey by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in 2005-6 the numbers are stable. Tawny Owls hunt from dusk to dawn, catching a wide range of prey including small mammals, birds, amphibians and worms. The pictured bird was in captivity at The British Wildlife Centre in Surrey.
Nuthatches (Sitta europaea, wingspan 25cm) are among the most elegant of woodland birds with their pastel colouring and streamlined shape. They can travel up or down tree trunks, though usually down, and have 'attitude', being able to dominate all the finches and tits with which they come into contact in gardens or woodland. The sharp and powerful beak is principally a tool for feeding on invertebrates and seeds but it makes a dangerous weapon as well.
For nesting, Nuthatches take advantage of natural holes in trees or those abandoned by woodpeckers, making the hole the required size for safety by infilling with mud. Unlike some woodland birds, they are gradually increasing in numbers.
In contrast, Treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, wingspan 19 cm) can travel only up tree trunks in search of food, assisted by very long hind claws. They normally nest in tree trunks, using crevices or gaps behind bark, with the nest of twigs sometimes in a pretty confined place. The pictured bird, with what looks a very large piece of wood to use in construction, was making a second nest in the pollarded willow trunk while the pair was still feeding chicks from the first brood.
As the image above shows, food for the youngsters is packed systematically in the beak and includes a fair variety of invertebrates. As with plenty of birds, fecal sacs are removed and deposited some distance from the nest to try and avoid drawing the attention of predators to the location.
The Willow Tit (Parus montanus, wingspan 18cm) is hard to distinguish from the Marsh Tit (Parus palustris) and they are both species of high conservation concern due to a rapid decline in breeding numbers.
In 1990 there were 25,000 breeding pairs, which had dropped to 8,500 by 2005. We have fewer than half the total in the Netherlands, for instance. Willow Tits are commoner than Marsh Tits in wet woodland, where they dig their nest holes in decaying wood, the only tit species to do this routinely.
All the species shown on this page so far breed in Britain but there are winter visitors that do not, the most colourful of which is the Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, wingspan 34cm). The dashing crest and touches of yellow and red in the plumage make any appearance by Waxwings a highlight for naturalists, especially as the birds are not that hard to approach.
Like Redwings and Fieldfares, they breed in colder climes, notably Finland, Sweden and particularly Russia, where there may be as many as a million pairs. In the summer Waxwings feed on invertebrates but in winter berries are one of the main sources and if the crop of these is poor or the weather is atrocious they can migrate into the rest of Europe, including Britain, in huge numbers.
There are some arrivals every year, mainly in the east, but in 1965-6, probably the biggest irruption on record, 34,000 birds turned up in Baden-Württemberg and flocks of up to 300 appeared in this country. A Waxwing can eat two or three times its own 60gms weight of berries in a day so they don't have much time to do anything else. Nowadays, supermarket car parks, often planted with berry-bearing trees and shrubs, are regular locations for sightings.
Any bird (or rodent or rabbit, for that matter) can fall prey to one of the best-equipped predators in the natural kingdom of Britain. This is the Stoat (Mustela erminea, 30cm), which always has a black tip to the tail even when the coat turns white in winter. Part of the Mustelid family, they are pretty common and are found in almost any habitat. Their breeding sites (dens) can be in hollow trees, burrows or crevices, and they have superb sense of sight, smell and hearing. All these, plus the ability to move fast through cover, enable Stoats to hunt very efficiently; one can travel up to 8km in a hunt, an astonishing distance.
From the same family and also common is the Weasel (Mustela nivalis, 22cm). These are just as effective as Stoats but much slimmer and without a black tip to the tail. Hedgerows suit them, where they catch mostly small rodents supplemented by birds or eggs in season. They live almost anywhere providing cover and prey and often take over burrows from their victims including under tree roots. Weasels are active both day and night and have to find food every 24 hours to avoid starvation. The images of both these Mustelids were taken at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, a fine location for seeing all of our mammals, particularly those which are tough to find in the wild.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.