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Winter brings many visiting birds from the north and east in search of milder winters and greater abundance of food. These include many types of wading birds and ducks as well as less common species of swan. Some wader species like Sanderling, Dunlin, Turnstone and Grey Plover are divided about their preferences for overwintering: some of them choose to remain in the UK whilst others continue south to winter in Africa.

There are also species which we consider ‘resident’ in the UK due to there being a number which choose not to migrate; however, their cousins from summer breeding grounds further north will pass through in autumn on their way to wintering grounds further south. For example, Strumble Head near Fishguard is a popular place for observing passing flocks of migrant Skylarks, Finches, Starlings and Thrushes. These can be seen from mid-October.

Where to see water birds in winter

Waders are almost exclusively to be found on estuaries and mud flats close to the sea. Some ducks just like any water whilst others prefer the fresh water of lakes and reservoirs to brackish sea water.

Winter behaviour

The many resident inland birds often change their behaviour in winter; for example, Bluetits and Great Tits flock together with other members of the same family and are sometimes joined by two or three pairs of Long-Tailed Tits. Garden bird tables are attractive to these foraging parties, as they are to other species which might be elusive in the breeding season such as Nuthatch and Siskin – especially when food is scarce in severe weather.

Other birds which flock together in winter are Fieldfares and Redwings, both members of the thrush family. A covey of smallish, greyish birds flashing white or red under their wings, rising from fields in front of your vehicle will most likely turn out to be these. Or you might get quite close to them as they descend to a holly tree to strip it of berries.

Offshore birds

There are many pelagic birds around our coasts – that is those which spend most of their lives at sea. In fact, some spend so little time on land that their legs are barely functional! Examples are those belonging to the Petrel family such as Manx Shearwater and Fulmar. You will read on our Birds to see in Summer page that many nest on cliffs around our coast but spend the rest of the year further south. Some of those which breed here hang around our shores all year and sometimes appear close to the coast in stormy weather. These include Kittiwake, Fulmar and Gannet. Some, such as Terns and Skuas are only passing migrants to be seen spring and autumn. Trying to spot these birds provides a chance to make the most of some less than clement weather: get your togs on and head out to the mouth of one of the estuaries or a headland such as Strumble with a good pair of binoculars.

Cardigan Bay is a key wintering ground for divers (Red-throated and Great Northern) and Grebe (Great Crested and Red-necked). Mainly offshore are Scaup, Eider, Long-tailed duck; Common and Velvet Scoter. Several varieties of Skua and Tern can also be seen on autumn passage. Divers can also be seen in Carmarthen Bay.

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Winter Visitor

Bar-tailed Godwit

Godwits similar to curlew (53cm) but much smaller. In winter grey-brown with brighter rusty chest and streaks on back. Bill slightly upcurved, pink/orange at base with dark tip. Legs: dark and shorter than black-tailed godwit. Tail: pale brown and white. In flight, brown wings and white on rump makes V on back.

Size: 37cm Where: Sea coast
Winter Visitor

Black-tailed Godwit

Tall, stands upright, striking in flight and colourful in spring. Winter plumage plain: grey upper side and pale underparts.  In Flight: white band along wing and white patch above black tail; long black legs trail behind. Bill: long, pale orange at base, then dark. Less streaky than Bar-Tailed in winter.

Size: 40cm Where: Sea coast
Winter Visitor


Fringilla family same as Chaffinch and often hangs out with them. Orange, black and grey plumage. Rosy breast. Flocks in beech woods in winter. Hops and rustles around under trees. Sometimes bird tables in very cold spells.

Size: 15cm Where: Inland
Winter Visitor

Golden Plover

Size of pigeon. Likes fields. Round head with big, dark eye, short, straight, dark bill, yellowish chest and bright white belly. It stands still, often tilting head before walking or running a few steps, tipping forward to pick at a worm. In Flight: underside of pointy wing flashes white.

Size: 28cm Where: Sea coast, Inland
Winter Visitor


Sitting on the water it is stocky with a big head and rounded, thick bill. Male has white spot on dark green head; dark upper wing and white underparts. Female has brown head and otherwise greyish. Looks dark on water. Both show white inner wing in flight.

Size: 40-48cm Where: Sea coast, Inland, Fresh water
Winter Visitor


Often largest bird in mixed flocks of water fowl. Male: dull greenish black head, pinkish white breast. In flight wings are half white, half black with white innermost. Bill: dark red, thinning to tip with large hook. Female has dark reddish brown head and white chin and blue-grey with white inner wing and belly.

Size: 63-69cm Where: Sea coast, Fresh water
Winter Visitor

Great Crested Grebe

Very elegant with long neck, which is hunched when swimming. Same size as mallard. Bill is like a dagger and pale pink. In flight shows large stripes of white at front and back of wings. Legs trail.

Size: 45-51cm Where: Sea coast, Fresh water
Winter Visitor

Great Northern Diver

Coastal sea. A large, chunky bird, it has a big, dark dagger-like bill. In flight: neck outstretched with legs trailing. Winter: loses its 2 rows of fine white stripes from neck and checked pattern on back is less vivid. Appears dark on top with whitish underparts including throat and front of neck.

Size: 75-85cm Where: Sea coast
Winter Visitor


It is delicate and elegant (Redshank dumpier). Very quick – dashes along, splashing. Green legs can look dull grey. Head: pale, grey (whitish in winter). Bill: grey base and upcurved. In Flight: Legs stick out behind and it shows breast pale grey with white belly; white V shape up its back; very dark wings.

Size: 30cm Where: Sea coast
Winter Visitor

Grey Plover

Pigeon-size like Golden Plover and has same big eye in round head. Pale, mottled brownish grey. Feeds alone or as couple but flocks to roost. Bill: short and heavy, dark colour. In flight: pale underside but striking black ‘armpits’; patch on rump and stripe along wing both white. Loud whistling call travels far.

Size: 28cm Where: Sea coast
Winter Visitor

Hen Harrier

Stays in uplands in summer but descends to lower ground in winter. Flies low, gliding and dashing in on prey. Slimmer than buzzard with long tail and narrow wings. Head a bit like owl. Male grey with white belly, black wing tips; female brown mottled – much more barred than buzzard.

Size: 48cm Where: Inland
Winter Visitor


Small, dumpy body, bill and legs medium-length. Feed and roost in huge flocks; may fly in twisting clouds rather like starlings. It has few distinguishing marks apart from behaviour. Adult bird mostly grey with pale belly. In flight: shows pale grey rump with fine darker bars. Pale stripe on wing like Grey Plover.

Size: 25cm Where: Sea coast

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