Five Mountain Birds You Need to Know
Birds can be a bit of a mystery to people. That flying habit of theirs makes identifying them difficult for the uninitiated and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of species you see when you open a field guide. However, knowing what you’re looking at can really enhance your enjoyment of being in the mountains, just in the same way that it’s nice to know the name of the mountain you’ve just spent three hours hiking up.
The best advice I can offer for getting to know birds is to have a good idea of what species commonly occur in the habitat you’re about to go into. That way you can narrow things down a bit (and it stops you from making outlandish misidentifications).
Luckily (or unluckily depending on what point you're trying to make), there aren’t that many commonly occurring birds in the mountain landscapes of Britain. I’ve picked five species that you are very likely to see when hiking here in the UK. Get to know these and the other, scarcer species will stand out too!
Let’s start with the archetypical LBJ ('Little Brown Job' for those unfamiliar with birding vernacular). LBJ is an umbrella term that tends to get used pejoratively, as though these types of birds are so bland and uninteresting that it's hardly worth giving them their own names. This really only speaks of the laziness of the observer though as a closer look at any LBJ often reveals a nuanced and complex plumage, and each LBJ species has its own fascinating ecology.
The meadow pipit is no exception. Its plumage is a cacophony of browns paired with a streaky buff front (other things to look out for are its upright stance and white outer-tail feathers). All of which serve to conceal it amongst the brush in which it skulks. More often than not then, you’ll hear a meadow pipit before you see it. That being the case, it’s worth having a listen to its call. If you’ve spent any time in the mountains it’ll no doubt illicit a response along the lines of: ‘ahhhhh so that’s what it is!’.
It's fair to say that the meadow pipit is a fairly ubiquitous bird up in the hills and, if you see an LBJ fly up from the brush, the chances are it’s a mippit (more birding vernacular!). Like anything ubiquitous though, it tends to become so familiar that it fades into the background, which might explain why the meadow pipit features on ornithological writer Stephen Moss’s list of least favourite birds. But I would urge you to pay this bird a bit more attention when you’re next in the hills, especially in the spring when you might be treated to a performance of its parachuting display flight, perfectly choreographed to impress lady mippits and hikers alike.
Many people think they have seen a raven; they probably haven’t. Unless you are in the right sort of habitat, you are very unlikely to see a raven these days (they used to be far more widespread in the 19th century but numbers dwindled as a result of persecution by gamekeepers and famers). Instead, it’s much more likely that you have seen one of the raven’s less impressive cousins, the carrion crow or rook. That is, unless you are in the mountains, where you’re every bit as likely to see a solitary raven appearing ominously out of the clag on a summit, croaking as it keeps a watchful eye on you, as if waiting for your inevitable demise.
Ravens are enormous, impressive birds and to confuse them with the crow is to do them a disservice. They are a true brute of a bird with a brutish bill to match, and if seen up close you’ll never forget them. However, if you’re unsure that you’re looking at one, have a look at the bird’s tail. The raven has a diagnostically diamond shaped tail in flight. If you’re still unsure, listen out for its call. Like most corvids (members of the crow family), the raven’s name is onomatopoeic. If you listen carefully to its croaking kronk – and use your imagination - you can just about make out the word raven. Essentially, it calls its own name so you really can’t go wrong!
Buzzards are a bit of a lesson for birding in general: if you learn the most commonly occurring stuff, the rarer stuff will stand out when you do see it. Buzzards are the most commonly occurring bird of prey in the UK so they are definitely worth getting to know.
If you are in Snowdonia or the Lake District and you see a large bird of prey soaring above, it will more than likely be a buzzard. If you are in the Cairngorms or the Highlands, it is still more than likely going to be a buzzard but, if you’ve got to know your buzzards, the golden eagle will stand out like a sore thumb!
Looks wise, the buzzard can probably be seen as the blueprint for bird of prey design, its lack of notable features being notable in itself. Its plumage can also be confusingly variable with various different iterations of browns, buffs and whites. You’ll often see buzzards perched on fences or telegraph poles, but when soaring in flight look for its broad wings, short neck and medium length tail. Listen out too for its mournful, foreboding mewing call.
There are of course other birds of prey to look out for when you’re in the mountains and I’m not saying you won’t see a hen harrier or a white-tailed sea eagle, but it’s good to know what you are really looking at so that it’s even more exciting when you do see those scarcer birds.
One more thing whilst we’re on birds of prey: not everything that soars is one. Corvids and gulls have a habit of soaring on thermals too so don't be fooled!
The red grouse is about as British as it gets when it comes to birds. Not only does it invoke the thoughts of tweed and whisky, it is also an endemic species which it means it only occurs here in the UK and Ireland (it is a sub-species of the willow grouse found in mainland Europe). Its gobbling call will be familiar to any hill walker. Often, you’ll see a whirring blur of a bird after inadvertently flushing one or two from the heather.
The red grouse is arguably one of the most important birds in the UK. That is because red grouse – or more accurately the people who rear it to shoot it (think tweed!) – have changed the landscape of much of the uplands in England and Scotland. Much of our moorland only looks the way it does because it is managed to produce and sustain maximum numbers of red grouse to be shot at by paying clients. Many upland birds of prey, such as the hen harrier which preys on red grouse chicks, find themselves persecuted as a result too. This is an inflammatory topic though so I will leave it there. If you’d like to find out more though (if only to understand why the landscape looks like it does), I recommend Mark Avery’s book Inglorious, named after the Glorious Twelfth, the name given to the start of the grouse hunting season on the 12th August.
First things first, the wheatear is a summer migrant so you’re only going to see this bird between late March and August. It breeds in west and northwest Britain but spends its winters in sub-Saharan Africa. These days it favours upland habitats and you’ve a good chance of encountering one of these striking birds whist hiking in the summer, particularly in Scotland.
Generally seen on its own, the first thing that you’ll notice is its incredible posture, it having a remarkably upright stance. Its bandit’s mask eye stripe will also likely catch your eye as it hops along the ground. But perhaps its most striking feature is that which gives it is name: its white T-shaped rump. This flash of white on its behind is as diagnostic as it is eponymous. It's why in times gone by people called it the ‘wheteres’ or…white arse!
The meadow pipit photograph is by Ben Andrew, an award winning UK based wildlife photographer. Check out other images by Ben here.
Many thanks to Ben and Dan for letting me use their images.