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Birds to spot through the seasons

A swallow in flight against a blue sky
Migrating barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in flight over Trevose Head, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/Nick Upton

The activity and types of birds are one of the ways we mark the changing seasons, from the noise and bustle of spring to migratory birds coming or going in autumn, and winter’s feeding frenzy. Discover what birds you may spot and where to see them, whether that's in your local area or at the places we look after. Please remember to not feed waterbirds while you're out enjoying some birdwatching.

Top tips for bird spotting

If you’re confused between two species, try reading about them and then seeking each species out in its natural habitat. The more you read up on its description and the more you experience its behaviour, the better you’ll get at spotting it.

Understanding the structure of birds’ bodies and the terms used – particularly for different groups of feathers – is useful knowledge to have to hand in the field, especially when using identification guides.

Feeding birds safely

Always avoid feeding waterbirds such as ducks and swans. To safely feed garden birds, follow these top tips:

• Buy accredited bird food from reputable sources
• Only provide food for a few days or feed in moderation to avoid food going off
• Keep bird feeders separated so birds aren’t in too close contact
• Regularly clean and disinfect feeders
• Wash your hands thoroughly after handling bird feeders/faeces

Signs of spring in birdlife

Spring is a season of rapid change and activity for birds, and a great time of year to get out and see what you can spot.

In early spring, winter visitors like fieldfares (colourful thrushes with an upright, purposeful hopping movement) and redwings (small thrushes with a distinctive cream strip above the eye and red-orange patches below their wings) head back to their breeding grounds. Meanwhile, resident birds will be busy nesting.

The places in our care are home to a wide variety of native and visiting birds. Here’s what to look out for in spring and where to see some of these incredible moments in nature’s calendar:

Wren chicks peer out of a mossy nest under a metal roof
Nesting wren chicks at Harewoods in Surrey | © National Trust Images/Andrew Wright


Some of our resident birds are busy making nests. Spot groups of rooks in their rookeries as early as February, building nests in the treetops from twigs and sticks. From the top of the keep at Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, you can look down into a rookery. Robins and blackbirds soon follow, nesting in March. Robins make cup-shaped nests close to or on the ground in enclosed spots, such as among tree roots. If you see a nest in spring, keep well back to avoid disturbing the birds.

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Migrating birds arrive for summer

Bird migration has fascinated people for millennia. And now science is unravelling the mystery, revealing that the birds’ journeys are even more amazing than we had thought.

The uplifting sight of migratory birds like swallows, swifts and house martins signify summer for many of us as they start to arrive in late spring.

How to distinguish swallows, swifts and house martins

Swallows glide gracefully, low to the ground or in treetops. They have a red throat, white underside and a distinctive forked tail with streamers. Swifts live on the wing and, as their name suggests, they fly fast and high. They’re a dark sooty brown, with a short forked tail and crescent-shaped wings in flight. House martins are smallest of the three and have the shortest wings, zooming around in flocks at mid-height. They have a short forked tail, blue-black upper parts and a pure white underside.

Summer visitors at the places we look after

At Croome in Worcestershire, large numbers of house martins and swallows return to their nests at the RAF buildings and the Court each year, while the stableyard is the home of choice for swallows at Ilam Park in Derbyshire. At Longshaw in the Peak District, there are more than 100 nesting boxes to welcome rare pied flycatchers (smaller than house sparrows, with a distinctive white patch on the folded wing) as they arrive from Africa.

Swallows are often seen in the summer
Swallows are often seen in the summer | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

All change in autumn

With many of our summer breeders departed, it’s time to welcome our winter visitors.

After breeding in Arctic Canada, light-bellied brent geese fly to spend winter in Ireland, north-west England and Wales. These geese are small – about the same size as a mallard duck – with dark heads, and adults have a small white patch on the neck. Around 90 per cent of their population will winter at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.

Clues from distant shores

For some species, the numbers arriving tell a story of conditions elsewhere. For the waxwing, an unusual, plump, pinkish and crested bird, it's feast or famine. Usually a couple of hundred birds arrive in the UK every winter. But if the berry crop in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe is meagre then tens of thousands come.

Here are some of the birds you might see arriving for the winter, from shoreline to farmland:

A flock of knot birds stand on a pebbly spit at the water's edge
A flock of knot (Calidris canutus) in Norfolk | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward


Brick-red in summer and grey in winter, knots get their name from another famous shoreliner, King Canute (their scientific name is Calidris canutus). A short-legged, stocky wading bird, look out for flashes of their pale underwing as they turn in flight. Knots wintering on estuaries in the UK come from Canadian islands but may be joined by birds from Siberia en route to South Africa. Spot them at Blakeney Point in Norfolk.

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Birdwatching in winter

Feeding garden birds in winter is one of the easiest ways to get close to wildlife.

The number and variety of birds you’ll see through the season is likely to be driven by the weather. In mild conditions, you may only have small numbers of your regular feathered visitors. But a cold snap could get exciting as more birds arrive in search of food and unfrozen water sources.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch happens every January and is a great way to take part in some citizen science from the comfort of your home.

Find out about the Big Garden Birdwatch

Here are some of our favourite garden birds with plumage to brighten your winter:

Two goldfinches sit on snowy branches
Goldfinches (carduelis carduelis) in the snow | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates


Goldfinches are a modern success story with a huge increase in population since the mid-1980s, thought to be due in part to feeding in gardens. Look out for their long, fine beaks, which help them extract seeds from teasels and thistles. With ruby-coloured faces, bright yellow flashes on the wings and musical twittering, it’s easy to see why flocks are known as ‘charms’.

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