Dave’s winter birds of the Kent Downs, 2021

Anonymous Kent birder Dave, gives his seasonal tips on what ornithological delights are in store for us on winter walks (when they become possible again).

Encountering winter birds on the walks can certainly add a dash of excitement, mystery and awe to the enjoyment of experiencing these landscapes so close to London. The underlying chalk and greensand, the blend of medieval and modern influences, the ponds, rivers, ancient woods and hedgerows, and wonderful big skies allow us the chance to appreciate some fantastic birds bringing life to a dormant winter landscape. On dull days it’s hard to see much beyond silhouettes but the lack of leaves at least makes picking out birds easier.

So, what birds might you meet?

The walks on this site criss-cross such a mix of landscape and habitats that it won’t be long before you encounter something that catches your eye or makes you stop and listen: perhaps a Buzzard soaring over the Pollhill, Downe and Ide Hill, or small groups of Siskins and Lesser Redpolls calling and twittering as they feed in the alders and birches by the Darent river.

Goldfinch on my battered old seed feeder
Adam McCulloch

The birds you see or hear will be quite active, as they will be spending most, if not all, of the limited daily hours feeding to fuel them through the long cold nights. Colder periods of weather will influence behaviour further, resulting in birds moving around the landscape to locate food resources. At such times birds displaced from other parts of the UK and Europe might well appear in the area, and this winter has already seen an influx of Barnacle and White Fronted Geese – birds from the Arctic, Greenland and Siberia – at Bough Beech and in the vicinity of Lullingstone, along with Goosanders, the strange waterfowl with “teeth” (really serrated edges to its bill).

Read more detail about birds and the terrain on these Kent walks on Dave’s main birding page

Hopping over from Scandinavia

Other winter migrants will be encountered in locations with the right food. Two classic common winter birds are the Fieldfare, a beautiful large thrush with a harsh chattering call, and the Redwing, its smaller, redder, creamy-striped cousin. Both are from Scandinavia and have a fondness for apples, berries and the worms and invertebrates of open grassland which means flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, might be seen at many locations, from Underriver, Petts Wood/Chislehurst and Hever and the many points in between, especially where walks are near old orchards. They can also be seen in trees, parks and on playing fields in south-east London.

Wikimedia Commons

More open countryside, but with plenty of thick hedgerows and scrubby, neglected weedy corners, mean chances of colourful Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Linnets. Many of these birds will be winter immigrants to the area but although really big flocks are, sadly, a thing of the past you have a good chance of meeting these on many of the Shoreham walks, especially the Fackenden Down, Romney Street and “eastern valleys” routes. If you’re incredibly lucky, you may time your country walk just right to catch on influx of waxwings heading to our shores on an east wind from Russia. But again, like some of the other birds, they’ll also be present in car parks and along verges in suburbia – they don’t care for pleasant scenery!

Ominous ticking and hysterical laughter

Many of the walks involve crossing stretches of woodland, but although these may seem quite silent in places birds are still present, especially at the edges or where different tree groups meet. Even on a cold day its worth stopping for a few minutes to listen out for “ticking” Robins, the harsh persistent call of Jays and Wrens, and the slightly frightening, almost hysterical echoing laughter of Green Woodpeckers. Later in the winter these woodpeckers and Great Spotted woodpeckers will be drumming, and if you are exceptionally lucky you might bump into the sparrow-sized Lesser Spotted high in the tops of oaks and ashes. Walks near Knole, One Tree Hill, Igtham Mote and Chiddingstone offer a good range of woodland birds and stopping for a few minutes means roving flocks of Great, Blue and Long tailed tits might pass just feet away in their endless search for food, maybe with rarer Marsh tits tagging along too.

Francis C. Franklin/Wikimedia Commons

Goldcrests and Tawny Owls

As the evening draws in and the temperature drops you might find yourself hearing the thin, high-pitched calls of Goldcrests calling to each other in woodland (especially near evergreens) as they prepare to roost communally, clumped together to keep warm in low dense vegetation. These are the UK’s tiniest birds and can lose 20% of their weight overnight in cold weather. Lastly, and as dusk finally arrives on the winter walks there’s every chance of hearing Tawny Owls proclaiming their territories in woodland such as at Downe, One Tree Hill, Ide Hill and Chartwell; and perhaps you might be lucky enough to see Barn Owls ghosting over the fields by Ightham Mote, Bough Beech or Bore Place – surely a wonderful experience to end any walk.

• Want to find out more about wintering birds in the area? The Kent Ornithological Society (KOS) maintains a daily birds news database, while the British Trust for Ornithology/KOS winter bird atlas, although dated, gives a fascinating insight by species maps on birds you might yet encounter in the county and the landscape and habitats of western Kent and London border. Also, search Twitter (if you can bear it) for birding specialists in Kent: @wrothambirder and @fcackett are two who post regularly. An excellent read on birding and natural history in the region can be found on NorthDownsandBeyond: its author most often walks the Surrey Hills but his knowledge and ability are legendary, and much of it will apply to our ‘patch’.