Woodland Bird Spotting

David Coultham

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Woodland Bird Guide

This article is dedicated to the diverse group of birds that can commonly be found in woodlands across Scotland, and the United Kingdom; as well as parts of Europe & even Asia. Many of us, think of these birds as garden birds, but of course, this is because these animals have adapted to live in human environments that were once dense woodlands. So before diving into some of the bird species that live in woodlands, it is worth exploring why woodlands are important to bird life.

Why Are Woodlands Important For Birds (& HUMANS)

Trees and Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen (O2) that we can breathe. Woodlands and in particular the trees that sit in the woodlands are a major contribution to this. The more CO2 (and greenhouse gasses) in the atmosphere the warmer the climate becomes. Mature woodlands in particular help control global warming by removing vast quantities of CO2. Of course, the more trees that humans cut down for our ends, combined with human activity of dumping large amounts of CO2 and other gasses into the atmosphere, the more we end up with our current problem of global warming.

In addition, woodlands provide a valuable habitat for birds and other animals. But, the type of woodland is an important and major factor in this. Forests that have been created at the hand of mankind containing rows upon rows of (predominantly non-native) spruce trees, are not particularly beneficial to wildlife. For one thing, wildlife generally needs diverse habitats; quite the opposite of these manmade mono-cultures. In addition, manmade woodlands get felled for wood before trees ever become mature enough to support wildlife. Here are the types of U.K. native woodland that are important to birds and other wildlife:

Types of Woodland

Broadleaf Woodland – This woodland contains trees that do not have needles. The leaves are broad as the name suggests, and vary in shape. Most trees in broadleaved woodlands are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves every autumn. Broadleaf trees are particularly well adapted for life within the U.K.

Wet Woodland – This type of woodland has trees that are particularly well adapted to life in poorly drained and seasonally flooded soil. This includes trees like birch, alder, and willow.

Caledonian Forest – This type of woodland, native only to Scotland has a high concentration of Scots pine trees, mixed with some willow, rowan & birch.

Ancient Woodland – For woodland to be classed as ancient, it has to have been present since the 1600s in England, Wales, & Northern Ireland, and 1750 in Scotland. These woodlands contain plants that are very slow to colonize; such as wood anemone and enchanters nightshade as well as microorganisms.

Did You Know? Only 2.5% of the U.K. is covered in ancient woodland, and accounts for just 609,990 hectares!

Woodland Trust

Of all the types of woodland, the Ancient Woodlands are the most important and are home to many of our threatened species. The reason is that the soils have been undisturbed for centuries, and the cycle of new and decaying wood has created the environments needed for fungi and invertebrates; which woodland birds and other species rely upon.

Why Are Birds Important For Woodlands (& Humans)

Woodland birds shape and maintain biodiversity within our woodlands. They disperse seeds, pollinate flowers, control populations of invertebrates & recycle nutrients.

A Small Selection of Our Woodland Birds

Here is a small selection of the more common woodland birds that you can find around the British Isles. If you enjoy some of the photography, then please check out my Inland Birds Gallery.

Blue tit

Bluetit in dappled forest light
Blue Tit in dappled forest light

One of our most attractive and easily recognizable forest birds, the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) sports a colorful mix of blue, yellow, green, black, and white.

Photographed here in dappled forest light, this little bluetit is searching for food.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker taking a short break

The Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is one of our larger forest visitors, and also one of the most shy and flighty birds. They will typically try and hide from view. They have a very distinctive red, black, and white pattern. The males can be distinguished by a red patch on the back of the head. Youngsters also have a red as opposed to a black crown.

They appear very bouncy in flight and are very adept at moving up and down branches in search of food. Even walking in reverse which is entertaining to see.

Coal Tit

Coal Tit on the hunt for food
Coal Tit on the hunt for food

One of the smaller birds in the tit family, and also one of the least colorful with a distinctive black cap and bib, white patch, and grey back. Coal Tits (Periparus ater) love to feed amongst conifer trees and will roam through forests in search of food, often storing it for later consumption. 

Treecreeper

Treecreeper in search of insects
Treecreeper in search of insects

A relatively common bird in the U.K but easily missed due to its behavior and discreet markings. The Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) is a small and active bird that spends its time in trees searching for insects. They are often spotted climbing gracefully up a tree trunk and then dive-bombing back to the bottom before starting back up again. They have a long, slender, down-curved bill, for plucking insects from underneath bark. Their markings are speckled brown and white.

Chaffinch

A male chaffinch strutting his stuff
A male chaffinch strutting his stuff

The Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) is one of the most common forest birds in the U.K. It is also one of the most vocal, and you will often hear their chirps long before you see them. It is quite a colorful bird, although its patterning does help it blend in, especially on the ground. The males are far more distinctive than the females. They often feed in flocks although the males can be quite territorial, especially in the early spring and the nesting season.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch ready to launch
Nuthatch ready to launch

The Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) resembles a small woodpecker, and like the woodpecker; it is an extremely shy and flighty bird. They are quite plump in size and are blue-grey on top and whitish-yellow underneath. They sport a chestnut color under their tails and a black stripe across their head near their eyes. 

Great Tit

A curious little Great Tit
A curious little Great Tit

The Great Tit (Parus major) is the largest of the U.K. tit family, with a very distinctive black head with white cheeks. Their body color is yellow and green. They can be quite aggressive, and use their size to out-compete smaller birds from food supplies. However, in winter they do tend to form flocks together with blue tits and coal tits in search of food.

Eurasian Jay

The colorful Eurasian Jay
The colorful Eurasian Jay

The Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) is an extremely shy member of the Corvid family of birds. Due to this, they are typically difficult to see and photograph, despite their rather colorful appearance. You will often hear them long before you see them, as they have a very loud and distinctive call. Jays are famous for their ability to bury nuts in the autumn (usually acorns) and then retrieve them in the winter.

Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tit bathed in forest light
Long-tailed Tit bathed in forest light

The Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) has a tail which is longer than its body. They are black and white but with a distinctive pinkish blush of color. 

Long-tailed tits tend to move in flocks which are typically quite flighty and shy. As with many of our more shy woodland birds, you will typically hear them before you see them, as they have a distinctive (and rather cute) tweet. 

Dunnock

The shy little Dunnock
The shy little Dunnock

The Dunnock (Prunella modularis) is a small grey and brown patterned bird. They are extremely shy and quiet, and therefore easily missed. You often see them quietly going about their business on the forest floor, and constantly doing their best to remain unnoticed and unseen. One of the only times you will likely hear them is when two rival males are bickering together for territory.

Blackbird

Male Blackbird in search of food
Male Blackbird in search of food

The Blackbird (Turdus merula) was probably named after the male bird which, as its name suggests, is black. The female however is a dappled brown with streaks of lighter color on its breast.

The blackbird is one of the most common birds across the U.K. and is part of the thrush family of birds.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch in dappled forest light
Goldfinch in dappled forest light

The Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) is a brightly colored bird. They have bright red and black faces, brown and white bodies, and yellow flashes on their wings. 

You will frequently spot goldfinches in small groups, as they are a relatively social bird. One of their favorite foods is teasels and will go out of their way to get to the seeds.

European Robin

European Robin showing you who’s boss!

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) is one of the most recognized birds in the U.K. Possibly because it has been epitomized during the Christian Christmas period for many generations. The robin has a bright red breast, and is fiercely territorial; being extremely aggressive to other robins in its territory. They are often heard singing, particularly towards dawn and dusk.

Robins also has a close relationship with humans. It is thought that this dates back to the following wild hogs around the forest; whereby the hog would disturb the ground and unearth worms and insects. In other words, much the same as humans do in their gardens!

WHERE & When TO PHOTOGRAPH

You will find all of the birds highlighted in this article (and more!) pretty much across the whole of the U.K. Many are garden visitors; having adapted to their loss of habitat. If you want to view them in a more natural environment, then here are a few suggestions:

Scotland

RSPB – Fairy Glen
RSPB – Lochwinnoch

England

RSPB – Flatford Wildlife Garden
RSPB – Hedgerly
RSPB – Church Wood
RSPB – Chapel Wood

As an alternative, if you want a more personalized service, several woodland hides across the U.K. can be hired for exclusive use. Too numerous to mention, but a Google search in your area will locate ones near you.

Camera & Settings

If you are spotting woodland in the open woodland, a longer lens is typically required of at least 300 to 400mm. If you are operating from a hide, then something around 100 to 200mm is adequate, as the hides tend to have props/feeding stations quite close.

For daytime shooting on any type of nature photography, I tend to photograph in auto-focus and on AI Servo to continuously track movement. I use an expanded center point rather than a center spot or maximum focal point for most nature photography. Most nature photographers will tell you to shoot in Aperture Priority and let the camera select the appropriate speed. This works most of the time, particularly from hides, though I normally divert from the norm and shoot in Speed Priority so that I can rapidly adjust the camera between slow and fast-moving action. This has the downside of bumping up the ISO, particularly in lower light situations, but this is something that can easily be taken care of post-processing. Better to have a fast action shot with a little noise as opposed to no shot at all!



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