This month saw the announcement of the winner of Britain’s National Bird, a bird that represents the whole nation in its popularity, characteristics and distribution. This made me wonder...which birds would appear on the list of the walker’s best feathered friends?
More than 224,000 people cast their ballot in the National Bird Vote with robin taking 34%, followed by barn owl and blackbird, at 12% and 11%. It’s territorial, chippy and punches above its weight – and that’s why Britons have voted for the robin to be the country’s national bird, according to the organiser of a nationwide poll. The choice seems fairly fitting to me. The robin is perhaps the country’s most recognised bird, a favourite on Christmas cards, the gardener’s best friend and a regular visitor to bird tables in gardens across the country.
The National Bird Vote got me to thinking though... when we are outside of our gardens and exploring the various countryside habitats across the UK, which birds are our best companions? The birds we see whilst out walking are very different from our common garden birds and it is always a privilege to see them thriving in their various habitats.
The first one that sprang to mind, and the winner in my eyes, is the red kite. Red kites had been driven to extinction in England by human persecution by the end of the nineteenth century. The false belief that red kites killed lambs and game birds led to their widespread persecution when, in fact, they mainly scavenge on dead animals and hunt just very small mammals. A small population had survived in Wales, but there was little chance of these birds repopulating their original areas. The reintroduction programme started in 1989 has turned out to be one of the UK’s most successful conservation projects. There are now more than 1,000 breeding pairs across the Chiltern Hills. Visit the on a clear day and you’re almost guaranteed to be rewarded with a site of this magnificent bird soaring through the sky. With a wingspan of almost 2 metres they are a beautiful sight and a welcome addition back into the Chilterns glorious landscape.
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Red Kite: Red Kites and Ridgeways
Another bird rarely seen in gardens (unless you have a fish pond!) is the grey heron. When out walking we often see the grey heron alongside rivers, lakes, estuaries and canals, poised ready to strike at a passing fish. If you are quiet enough, they will simply watch you as you pass by so you will be able to have a close look at this gentle giant. Grey herons are unmistakeable: tall, with long legs, a long beak and grey, black and white feathering. They do not migrate and so are resident in the UK all year round, simply waiting to be discovered by waterside walkers.
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Grey Heron: The Old Orchard and Colne Valley
Within woodlands, birds are more regularly heard than seen. Sometimes the chorus of noise as you journey through the trees is startlingly loud. It is nice to take the time to pick out the individual songs of the various woodland birds and one of my favourites is the chiffchaff. One of the harbingers of spring, this migratory bird gets its name from its ‘chiff-chaff’ song. It is a small brown warbler that flits about foraging for insects high in the canopy.
Best iFootpath Walk to hear the Chiffchaff: Banstead Woods Nature Trail
When it comes to open moorland and grassland in the spring and summer months, ground nesting wading birds (particularly the skylark, the lapwing, the curlew and the snipe) truly are the walker’s companions.
To look at, the skylark is the sort of bird that could easily be overlooked. A small brown bird, somewhat larger than a sparrow but smaller than a starling, it is streaky brown with a small crest, which can be raised when the bird is excited or alarmed, and a white-sided tail. Often inconspicuous on the ground, it is easy to see when in its distinctive song flight. The Lapwing, also known as the peewit in imitation of its display calls, is another ground nesting bird. Its proper name describes its wavering flight and its black and white appearance and round-winged shape in flight make it distinctive, even without its splendid crest. Both the lapwing and skylark have suffered significant declines and are on the Red List, the highest conservation priority.
The curlew is the largest European wading bird, easily recognisable by its long, down-curved bill, brown upperparts, long legs and evocative call. In contrast, the snipe is a medium-sized bird with a long straight bill. On early spring mornings in moorland the males can often be heard giving their drumming or bleating display.
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Skylark: Gedling Country Park Trail
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Lapwing: Allenheads and Byerhope Bank
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Curlew: Grassington Meadows and the River Wharfe
Best iFootpath Walk to see the Snipe: Greenhow and Nidderdale Way
Wherever you are venturing for your next walk, be sure to keep your eyes peeled and ears pricked for our feathered walking companions.
30 June 2015