How to Choose a Pair of Binoculars

A good pair of binoculars is an invaluable part of any field kit and they provide some of the most memorable wildlife encounters. There is an overwhelming array of sizes and specifications and it can be difficult to choose between them when purchasing a new pair. In this post we will provide a summary of some of the key features of a pair of binoculars, to help you find the best pair to accompany you on surveys, whilst travelling or when enjoying your local wildlife.

Once you have decided on your budget, there are a few key metrics that will help you decide which pair of binoculars will suit you best. With binoculars it really is worth paying as much as you can afford as the glass, lens coatings and specifications improve with every step up in price.

Magnification

Binocular models generally have two numbers in their description. The first of these relates to the magnification. (For example, 8 x 42 binoculars will have a magnification of 8x). In general, binoculars have a magnification between 8x and 12x. As you would expect, the higher the magnification, the larger objects will appear when looking through them. As magnification increases, the field of view can be reduced and you will need to ensure that you have steady hands or use some kind of support.

Lens Diameter

Larger diameter lenses provide brighter images at dawn and dusk. Photo credit: Paulo Valdivieso – www.flickr.com

The second number in the binocular model description (e.g. 8 x 42) refers to the diameter of the objective lens. Standard size binoculars tend to have objective lenses of 32mm to 42mm whilst lenses in compact binoculars usually measure 25mm. Larger lenses can dramatically improve low light performance and are particularly good for use at dusk or dawn. The trade-off is that larger lenses are heavier. The most popular size of binoculars for birdwatching was traditionally 8 x 42, but with advances in manufacture and lens performance, 8 x 32 binoculars now offer fantastic specifications in a more compact body.

Glass Type

The type and quality of glass have a huge impact on image quality. Image by Bicanski via Public Domain Images

The type of glass used to manufacture the lenses can vastly affect the quality of the image. Two types of glass to look out for are extra-low dispersion (ED) and fluoride (FL) glass. These reduce chromatic aberrations giving clearer and sharper colours and reduced colour “fringing”.

 

Fringing is the blurring that can occur between light and dark parts of an image. If your budget allows for an upgrade to ED glass binoculars, you will notice a distinct improvement in clarity compared to binoculars without ED glass. Affordable pairs of ED binoculars include the Hawke Optics Endurance ED and the Opticron Explorer ED.

Lens and Prism Coatings

The primary difference in performance and the brightness of images between different pairs of binoculars is often due to lens and prism coatings. Light is lost as it travels across every surface inside a pair of binoculars and the aim of a good pair of binoculars is to keep light transmission as high as possible between the objective and the ocular lens. Lens and prism coatings reduce the amount of light that is lost helping to produce a brighter and sharper image. Lenses that are multi-coated have multiple layers of lens coatings. High-quality binoculars are fully multi-coated which means that they have multiple layers of coating on all lens surfaces. Roof prism binoculars have a particular problem with “phase shift” where the polarisation angle of the prism causes the light passing through to be split into two slightly out of phase beams. This results in an image that has lower resolution and may look slightly blurred. Prism coatings correct this problem by forcing the split light back into phase. Look out for binoculars with Phase Correction (PC) prism coatings.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina). Photo credit: Ron Knight – www.flickr.com
Key Comparison Metrics

Comparing some of the performance metrics of a pair of binoculars can help when deciding which pair would best suit your purposes. In particular, field of view will be useful if you are looking at large landscapes (e.g. whale or sea watching) and close focus is very important if you are looking at insects.

Field of View – The field of view is how wide an image can be seen at a specified distance (usually 1000m). A wide field of view is useful for large landscapes and for fast-moving animals. Models with a particularly wide field of view include all of the Kite Optics range, the Opticron Discovery, Traveller ED and Explorer ranges, the Bushnell Prime and Forge ranges and the Swarovski EL and SLC binoculars.

The Opticron Discovery range of binoculars has a fantastic field of view and great close focus.

Close Focus – The close focus is the minimum distance at which the binoculars are able to focus. People interested in viewing insects using their binoculars would be advised to choose a model with a small close focus distance. Models with particularly low close focus include the Opticron Discovery and Traveller ranges, the Swarovski EL and the Kite Lynx HD+ binoculars.

Weight – The weight of the binoculars is incredibly important, as it is likely that you will be carrying them around for long periods of time. Higher quality models of comparable specification will tend to be lighter than entry-level models, and those with larger objective lenses will weigh more than those with smaller ones. Binoculars that are particularly lightweight and excellent for travelling include the Opticron Traveller range and the Hawke Optics Nature-Trek and Endurance ranges.

Eye Relief – This is the maximum distance from the eyepiece lens that the eye can be positioned at which the full width of the image is visible without vignetting (darkening of the image around the edges). Longer eye relief is useful for those who wear glasses.

If you have any queries regarding binoculars then our Customer Services team and trained Wildlife Equipment Specialists would be delighted to assist on 01803 865913 or via email at customer.services@nhbs.com.

Recommended Models

Entry Level

Kite Ursus Binoculars
Ease of use and excellent build quality in conjunction with a wide field of view and high image quality make this model ideal for beginner binocular users.

 

Budget Friendly 

Yukon Sideview Compact Binoculars

Lightweight, robust and budget-friendly. These binoculars are ideal for fieldwork in almost any condition.

 

General Purpose

Bushnell POWERVIEW 2 Binoculars 

A high-power , budget option for birders and other outdoor enthusiasts. Light and comfortable with the option for tripod mounting.  

 

Travelling

Black binoculars

Nikon Sportstar EX DCF Compact Binoculars Ultra-lightweight, pocket-sized and weatherproof. Don’t get caught out when away from home with these binoculars.

 

Mid-range

GPO Passion HD Binoculars
Multi-layer lens coating offers unbeatable image quality for the price, and a magnesium rubberised chassis creates a robust housing for the German-engineered optics.

 

Top of the Range

Swarovski NL Pure Binoculars
Enhanced optics offer the widest field of view with almost discernible edges all housed within a revolutionary ergonomic housing.

 

Specialist Models

Kite APC Binoculars 42

Powerful image-stabilising binoculars ideal for use in vehicles or other fast-moving situations.

 

 

Hawke Frontier LRF 8×42 

High-quality optics with an integrated laser range finder.  

 

 

Swarovski Axio

The expected Swarovski quality with integrated Artificial Intelligence identification features brings binoculars into the AI age.  

 

 

Hawke Endurance ED Marine Binoculars 

Ideal for marine surveys, these fully waterproof (IP67) binoculars come with an integrated compass and supplied floating neck strap. 

 

Accessories 

 Viking Swallow Smartphone Adapter

Two available smartphone adapter options allow users to take crisp and stable shots directly down the lens of their binoculars or spotting scope using most smart-phone cameras.

 

Banner image features Northern Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus). Photo credit: Tony Hisgett – www.flickr.com

The NHBS Guide to UK Finch Identification

Finches, in the family Fringillidae, are small to medium-sized birds, often having colourful plumage and short, triangular beaks, though this can vary depending on food preference. They’re found across the world, excluding Australia and the polar regions, and include more than 200 recorded species. The family Fringillidae is split into two subfamilies: Fringillinae and Carduelinae. In the UK, there are more than 15 finch species with breeding populations, along with several migrants and occasional visitors.


Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) 

A Hawfinch perched on a snapped twig in the centre of frame
Hawfinch by Luiz Lapa via Flickr.

Distribution: Mainly found in southern England, with populations in the north and south of Wales as well as southern Scotland. 

Habitat: Woodland, particularly forest canopies. 

Size: Length: 18cm, Wingspan: 31cm 

BoCC5 status: Red  

What to look for: This is the largest finch in the UK, with a large head and thick beak. They are mainly a rusty brown colour, with a darker brown back and wings. Their white undertail, tail tip and wing bars are easy to see in flight. Their head is a warmer orange-brown and they have a grey band around their neck. The black border to the base of their beak stretches down the front of their throat and towards the eye. The prominence of these features can vary between individuals, with females usually paler than males.  

 

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) 

a male bullfinch with a bright red breast sitting on a branch
Male Bullfinch by F. C. Franklin via Flickr

 

Female Bullfinch by Luiz Lapa via Flickr
Female Bullfinch by Luiz Lapa via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

Distribution: Widely distributed across Britain and Ireland. 

Habitat: Woodlands, orchards and hedgerows. 

Size:  Length: 14.5–16.5cm, Wingspan: 22–26cm 

BoCC5 status: Amber 

What to look for: A larger species of finch, the Bullfinch has a thick, black bill and distinct colouring. Males have a vibrant pink-orange breast, with a contrasting white rump, grey back, black cap and tail. Females are duller in colour, with a light reddish-brown breast and back.  

 

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis

A goldfinch sat on a small branch
Goldfinch by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Distribution: Widespread throughout England and Wales, largely absent in upland areas such as northern Scotland 

Habitat: Urban greenspaces, heathland and commons with seeding plants such as thistles, farmland, wetlands and woodland.   

Size: Length: 12cm, Wingspan: 21–25.5cm 

BoCC5 status: Green 

What to look for: A recognisable and colourful finch, the Goldfinch has a bright red face with white cheeks and a black crown. Its golden-brown back is framed with black wing edges and yellow wing patches. Both males and females look alike.  

 

Greenfinch (Chloris chloris

Greenfinch on a tree branch
Greenfinch by Andy Morffew via Flickr

Distribution: Widespread, largely absent in upland areas such as northern Scotland 

Habitat: Urban greenspaces, heathland and commons with seeding plants such as thistles, farmland, wetlands and woodland.   

Size: Length: 15cm, Wingspan: 26cm 

BoCC5 status: Red 

What to look for: Adult Greenfinches are, as their name suggests, green, but their wings and tail are mostly grey with a bar of bright yellow. They have a grey patch on their cheeks and a pink bill and legs. They have two distinct calls: a long wheezing call and a more melodic call consisting of trills and fast whistles.  

 

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs

Chaffinch standing on grass
Chaffinch by Sid Mosdell via Flickr

Distribution: Widespread. 

Habitat: Woodlands, hedgerows, urban greenspaces, farmland and heathland. 

Size: Length: 14.5cm, Wingspan: 24.5–28.5cm 

BoCC5 status: Green 

What to look for: One of the most common garden birds in the UK, the Chaffinch has a loud, distinctive song and colourful plumage. Males are memorable for their chestnut-orange breast and back, contrasted with a blue-grey crown and white shoulder patches. Females are less colourful, featuring a light brown breast and back.  

 

Linnet (Linaria cannabina

Linnet on a small branch
Linnet by Alan Shearman via Flickr

Distribution: Widespread in Britain and Ireland, absent from upland north Scotland.  

Habitat: Commons, heathland, farmland, saltmarshes and urban greenspaces. 

Size: Length: 13.5cm, Wingspan: 21–25.5cm 

BoCC4 status: Red 

What to look for: A smaller, slenderer finch, the Linnet is historically known for its melodic song. The male Linnet boasts a crimson forehead and chest, with a grey head and brown back. Females are paler in appearance and showcase the characteristic streaky brown hue of the species, though lacking reddish patches. Linnets may be found in large flocks during winter, often mixing with other seed-eating finches.  

 

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)  

Male Siskin on a pine branch
Male Siskin by Caroline Legg via Flickr  
Female Siskin on a broken piece of wood
Female Siskin by Caroline Legg via Flickr.

Distribution: Found across the UK, most abundant in Scotland and Wales.  

Habitat: Tree tops in coniferous and mixed woodland, urban greenspaces. 

Size:  Length: 12cm, Wingspan: 20–23cm 

BoCC5 status: Green  

What to look for: A streaky green finch with a narrow bill, the Siskin is a resident breeder in the UK. Males have a distinct black crown and chin, with yellow cheeks and breast, and yellow streaks on black wings. Less colourful, females are a dull yellow on the head and back, with a streaky breast and underside. Both have a forked tail. Often found gathered in groups over winter with other finches.   

 

Serin (Serinus serinus

Serin bird sitting on a small branch covered in lichen
Serin via RSPB

Distribution: An occasional visitor in southern England and the Channel Islands

Habitat: Coniferous woodland, farmland and urban greenspaces 

Size: Length: 11–12cm, Wingspan: 18–20cm 

BoCC5 status: Not assessed, former breeder 

What to look for: A small, brown streaky finch with a stubby bill. Males feature a vibrant buttercup-yellow head and breast, with brown patches on the crown and cheeks. Females are less eye-catching, browner in colour with soft yellow hues. Both males and females have a forked tail and yellow streaks on brown wings.  

 

Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus

Common Rosefinch breeding-male sitting on a branch
Common Rosefinch breeding male by Birds of Gilgit-Baltistan via Flickr
Common Rosefinch female by Imran Shah via Flickr

Distribution: A rare visitor, mainly observed in the northern Isles, east coast of Scotland and southern England. 

Habitat: Woodland, scrubland and urban greenspaces. 

Size: Length: 13.5–15cm 

BoCC5 status: Not assessed 

What to look for: Common Rosefinch are similar in size to a Chaffinch. Males have a striking scarlet head, breast and rump. The wings are a woody-brown, contrasted with a pale, whitish underside. Juveniles and adult female Common Rosefinch have a lightly streaked olive-brown plumage and a short beak. Juveniles are mostly observed in autumn during migration, and adult males may be seen in spring.  

 

Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and Parrot Crossbill (Loxia pytyopsittacus

 Common Crossbill: 

Common Crossbil (male) by Ashley Wahlberg via Flickr
Red Crossbill (female) by Luiz Lapa via Flickr

 

Parrot Crossbill: Female (left) by Tero Laakso via Flickr, Male (right) by Alan Shearman via Flickr 

Parrot Crossbill (female) by Nina Laakso via Flickr

 

Red Crossbill (male) by Ashley Wahlberg via Flickr

Distribution: Common Crossbill: widespread throughout Britain and Ireland. Parrot Crossbill: rare resident in Caledonian pinewoods of north-eastern Scotland. 

Habitat: Coniferous woodland. 

Size: Common Crossbill: Length: 16cm, Wingspan: 29cm. Parrot Crossbill: Length: 16–18cm, Wingspan: 30–34cm 

BoCC5 status: Common Crossbill: Green, Parrot Crossbill: Amber 

What to look for: Common Crossbill: Named for their distinctive crossed beak, the Common Crossbill is a large finch with a forked tail and colourful plumage. Showcasing a vibrant, brick-red head, breast and underside, a male Common Crossbill is easily distinguished from its female counterpart. Instead of the characteristic vibrant plumage, females have an olive-green colour on the head, breast and belly, with a yellow rump and grey wings. Juveniles have a grey-brown streaky appearance. Parrot Crossbill: A slightly larger species, with a deeper, heavier bill, the Parrot Crossbill is difficult to distinguish from their common cousins. Males feature a similar, orange-red head and breast with muted grey wings and tail. Females also have olive-green plumage with the characteristic crossed bill.  

Did you know? A close relative, the Scottish Crossbill (Loxia scotica), is endemic to the Caledonian pine woods of Scotland. They are the only bird to be found in these forests and nowhere else in the world.  

 

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea) and Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret) 

Common Redpoll by Lisa Hupp/USFWS via Flickr
Lesser Redpoll by Signhmanb via Flickr

Distribution: Common Redpoll: Visitor to the UK in winter during migration, seen in eastern Scotland and England. Lesser Redpoll: Widespread. 

Habitat: Birch, Larch or Alder woodland, urban greenspaces, farmland. 

Size: Common Redpoll: Length: 12–14cm, Wingspan:20–25cm. Lesser Redpoll: Length: 12–13cm, Wingspan: 22cm 

BoCC5 status: Common Redpoll: Red, Lesser Redpoll: Not Assessed. 

What to look for: Common Redpoll: Paler than their vibrant cousins, Common Redpoll are streaky brown from above, with a pale white plumage from below. Displaying a vibrant red forehead and pink breast in summer, they are remarkably similar to their smaller cousins. Lesser Redpoll: Slightly smaller, Lesser Redpoll are a similar streaky brown with red colouring on the crown and pink-red breast in summer. They have a black bib under a small, yellow bill. Females appear similar to male counterparts, without the pink flush on the breast. Juveniles are streaky brown and do not have a red crown or pink flush. 

 

Twite (Linaria flavirostris

Twite by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr

Distribution: Found in upland England, Wales and coastal Northern Ireland during summer months. East coast of England in winter. Widespread in Scotland.  

Habitat: Moorlands, coastal saltmarshes, coastal crofts. 

Size: Length: 14cm, Wingspan: 22–24cm 

BoCC5 status: Red 

What to look for: A small, streaky brown finch with a forked tail and a short bill. Twite have a brown back with dark streaking, a pale underside and streaking on the breast. During summer months the bill is grey, where it turns yellow for winter. A rich golden-brown face and upper breast are also present during winter months. Males are distinguished by a pink rump during summer.

 

Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla

Brambling by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Distribution: Widespread in the UK during winter 

Habitat: Beech woodlands, hedgerows, stubble fields, farmland and urban greenspaces.  

Size: Length: 14cm, Wingspan: 26cm 

BoCC5 status: Green 

What to look for: A brightly marked winter visitor, Brambling are of similar size to a Chaffinch. They have a rust-orange hue over the breast and shoulder which is more vibrant and extensive among males. Males have a blue-grey head which transforms to a sleek black during summer breeding. During winter, they sport a flecked black and brown plumage, contrasting a white belly and rump. Wings are dark in colour with orange bars. Females have a softer orange breast than males, and a brown head with two pronounced dark lines running across the head and down the nape. When part of a larger flock, Brambling are recognisable for their white rump and a yellow bill during winter.  

The NHBS Guide to UK Birds of Prey

As we enter the warmer months, many of us will find ourselves wandering through nature more often, perhaps while camping or taking an evening walk through wild areas. We might encounter birds of prey during these times, and many of us will ask ‘Which one is that?’. Here we look at a selection of the 15 birds of prey in the UK, covering every group of predatory bird aside from vultures.  


Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

A red kite shown flying from below with its wings spread out.
Red Kite. Image by Countryfile.

Conservation Status: On the Green list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Listed as least concern under the IUCN Red List.  

Distribution: Widespread and common throughout the UK. Estimated 4,600 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Red Kites are large birds with a wingspan of up to 2m. Easily identified by their angled red wings, reddish-brown streaky body and a long, forked tail. These birds have a distinctive white patch underneath their black-tipped wings. Adults have a grey head and a yellow beak with a grey-black hook.  

Best places to spot: Red Kites can be seen year-round and are active during the day. They can be found in woodland, open countryside, farmland and increasingly in suburban areas and towns. The Chilterns, central Scotland and southern England are great places to spot Red Kites in the UK, although the species is commonplace and can be found across the country.  

 

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Grey sparrowhawk resting on a mossy treestump
Sparrowhawk. Image by Caroline Legg via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the Amber list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5.  

Distribution: Widespread throughout the UK except for the Scottish Highlands and offshore islands. Around 31,000 breeding pairs.   

Identification: A small bird of prey with a wingspan of around 60cm, the Sparrowhawk is around the size of a blackbird (although females can be as large as a Feral Pigeon) and weighs up to 300g. Males have a bluish-grey back and cap with white and orange barred underparts. Females are browner in colouration and have brown/grey barring on their underside. The species have broad, rounded wings and bright yellow/orange eyes. The chin and cheeks of both males and females are a reddish orange.  

Best places to spot: Sparrowhawks can be found year-round in grassland, woodland, heath and moorland, farmland and suburban areas. Good places to spot Sparrowhawks are: Bowers Marsh, Basildon; Blean Woods, Canterbury and Wolves Wood, Ipswich. The Sparrowhawk is also a good species for garden watchers – often feeding on finches, tits and sparrows, you may be fortunate enough to see one in your own garden.  

 

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon resting on a tree branch
Peregrine Falcon. Image by Countryfile.

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

Distribution: Nesting occurs in the north and south-west of England, also in Wales and Scotland on coastal cliffs. There are around 1,750 breeding pairs in the UK.  

Identification: The Peregrine Falcon has a large wingspan measuring up to 1.2m and a muscular, heavy-set profile. From above, this bird appears a dark slate-grey with pointed wings and a shorter tail. From below, it appears white with thin, dark stripes across the chest and belly. This species also has a white throat and cheek with a black mask and moustache. 

Best places to spot: Peregrine Falcons can be found nesting along coastal cliffs and rocky coastlines. They may also be found in urban areas as their range expands and have famously been found at the top of Derby Cathedral. Great places to spot Peregrine Falcons include Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire; Saltholme Nature Reserve, Cleveland and Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve, Essex. 

 

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey flying in-air with its wings widespread
Osprey. Image via BBC Wildlife.

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Osprey can be seen from March to September before they migrate to west Africa for the winter.  Osprey breed in Scotland, Wales, Cumbria and the east Midlands. Breeding populations are estimated to be between 200–250 pairs.  

Identification: Ospreys are large birds with a wingspan of up to 1.7m. The species have brown and white plumage – a dark brown upper contrasting with a white chest, underside and head. The wings are long, barred and appear angled during flight.  A ‘necklace’ of slightly darker, mottled colouration may be present, and is more visible in females.  

Best places to spot: Osprey have a fish-based diet so are best spotted in freshwater and wetland habitats. Loch Ruthven, Lock Lomond and Loch of Kinnordy are reported to be good locations for Osprey spotting.  

 

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

Common buzzard resting on a wooden post
Common Buzzard. Image by Caroline Legg via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. 

Distribution: The UK’s most common bird of prey, the Common Buzzard can be seen year-round almost everywhere in the UK. The population has an estimated 63,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: A large bird with broad, rounded wings, the Common Buzzard has a wingspan of up to 1.2m. In flight, their wings have a distinctive ‘V’ shape with dark coloured wingtips. Their plumage can vary from shades of dark brown to paler hues, and individuals often have a ‘necklace’ of colour beneath the breast. Their underside is white, some more so than others, and their tail feathers have light brown barring. Their beak is sharp and yellow in colour with a dark brown/black hook.  

Best places to spot: Buzzards can be found in farmland, grassland, woodlands and urban areas with green spaces. West Sedgemoor Nature Reserve, Taunton; Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye and Labrador Bay, Torquay are reported to be good places to spot these birds.  

 

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Kestrel resting on a wooden fence
Kestrel by Andy Morffew via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Populations are declining.  

Distribution: This species is widespread and can be found year-round across the UK, although absent from north-west Scotland, central Wales and Shetland. There are an estimated 46,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Slightly larger than a Feral Pigeon, Kestrels have a wingspan up to 80cm. This species is often seen hovering mid-air, and has distinctively pointed wings. The head and tail of male Kestrels is grey, with a black band at the bottom of the tail feathers. Their backs are gingery-brown with a black-speckled cream underside. Females have a more uniform colouration, with a lighter brown plumage and dark bands on the wings and tail. The chest and underside have a lighter, almost-cream plumage with brown spots. The species have a short, yellow/grey beak with a sharp hook.  

Best places to spot: Kestrels can be found on open grassland and farmland, wetlands and urban areas. This species is often observed by roadside hedges and may be seen perching on fences or lampposts.  

 

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

Goshawk resting on a mossy fallen tree
Goshawk by Andy Morffew Via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Found dispersed across the UK in localised populations. Strongholds are present in south and east Scotland, northern England and Wales. There are an estimated 620 breeding pairs.   

Identification: This species has a wingspan of up to 120cm and is around the size of a Buzzard. Goshawks have broad wings which appear grey on top. Females have a slate-grey upper and males have a blue-grey upper, both with white, barred underparts. The species has long, thick legs and a rounded tail. Goshawks also have a distinctive white line above their eyes.  

Best places to spot: This species can be seen year-round in wetlands, farmland and coniferous woodland. Goshawks are commonly seen in late winter and spring during aerial displays over their breeding grounds. Sites of particular interest are Kielder Forest, New Forest and the Forest of Dean.  

 

Merlin (Falco columbarius)

Merlin resting on a fence post
Merlin by Veir via Flickr.

Conservation Status: On the red list under the Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  

Distribution: Widespread across the UK. Merlin are seen nesting in north and south-west England, Wales and Scotland. Up to 1,500 breeding pairs are estimated in the UK.  

IdentificationThe UK’s smallest bird of prey, the Merlin is around the size of a Blackbird (Turdus merula). This species is often seen low to the ground or hovering in breezy areas. Males have blue-grey plumage from above with cream-slightly brown underparts with black streaks. Females also have dark streaking underneath but are instead more brown in colour. The species has broad wings with pointed tips (wingspan up to 60cm) and a square, blunt tail. As with other raptors, they have yellow legs and a grey tipped beak.  

Best places to spot: This species can be seen year-round in moorland, coastal marshes and farmland where they nest in heather. Orkney, Loch Sunart and Dee Estuary are reported to be excellent places to spot Merlin.  

 

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)

Tawny owl resting on a mossy tree stump in front of shallow water
Tawny Owl by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the amber list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. 

Distribution: Widespread in the UK, but absent in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. An estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the UK. 

Identification: Tawny Owls are the largest common owl in the UK and have a wingspan up to 100cm. They appear a mottled reddish-brown with a paler underside. Their large, round head has a dark ring around its border, and they have characteristically large dark eyes. The species has an olive-yellow hooked beak  

Best places to Spot: Tawny Owls can be spotted year-round in broadleaved woodland, farmland and urban green spaces. 

 

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Barn Owl by Caroline Legg via Flickr

Conservation Status: On the green list under Birds of Conservation Concern 5. Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

Distribution: Widespread across the UK but absent from the Scottish Highlands. An estimated 4,000 breeding pairs.  

Identification: Barn Owls are best known for their distinctive heart-shaped face and snowy white feathers. Their back and wings are mottled grey and beige, with a pure white underside. They have a white face with large black eyes and a short, curved beak.   

Best places to spot: Barn Owls can be seen year-round at dawn and dusk. The species may be seen in farmland, grassland and wetland. Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk; Middleton Lakes, Staffordshire and Bempton Cliffs, East Riding of Yorkshire are reported to be good places to spot Barn Owls in the UK.  

The NHBS Guide to UK Weevil Identification

Weevils are beetles belonging to the superfamily Curculionoidea. They are generally characterised by their elongated snout, or rostrum, although this is not present in all species. The similarly named Curculionidae family exist within this superfamily and contain the “true” weevils. These true weevils have long snouts and geniculate or sharply hinged antennae that end in small clubs. There are several other families of weevil including Belidae, the primitive weevils, and Anthribidae, the fungus weevils.

As of 2012, over 600 species of weevil had been recorded in Britain. The total number of species worldwide is unknown, but estimates suggest that there are between 40,000–97,000. They can be found in a variety of habitats including gardens, parks, woodland, farmland, heathland and wetlands. They are usually found on plants but they can also be found on the ground. Some weevil species, such as vine weevils and rice weevils, feed on grains and can become an infestation inside pantries and cupboards. They aren’t harmful to humans or pets but they can cause damage to stored foods as their populations grow rapidly once they are inside containers of flour or cereals.

Identification of weevils can be difficult in the field as many species look alike to the naked eye. A hand lens, specimen pots and a good field guide can help. There are several ways to look for specimens, such as using a sweep net or beating tray or simply searching by eye. However, as weevils are very small, often less than 6mm in length, it is important to be careful when surveying.

In this post we will look at some of the most commonly found weevils in the UK, providing some key identifying features and information on similar or confusion species.

Glossary

– Elytra – Protective wing-cases covering the hindwings (singular, elytron)
– Geniculate antennae – Antennae having elbows
– Pronotum – Section of the body directly behind the head
– Rostrum – Snout-like projection extending from the head
– Scutellum – Large triangular shield or plate located on the back
– Setae – Stiff bristle-like hairs (singular, seta)
– Striae – Longitudinally depressed lines or furrows (singular, stria)
– Tarsi – Foot or contact surface of the leg (singular, tarsus)
– Tibia – Fourth segment of the leg (from the body), located between the femur and the tarsus

Common UK Weevils
Vine Weavil by AJC1 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

VINE WEEVIL (Otiorhynchus sulcatus)

Distribution: Widespread throughout Britain.
What to look for: Black body mottled with small brown patches. Their elytra, the hardened forewings that serve as protective cases for the hindwings, have longitudinal grooves, or striae. Their pronotum is pebbled in texture.
Similar species: There are several dark, grooved species, and the Large Pine Weevil (Hylobius abietis) is visually similar but has orange or creamy-yellow spots resembling bands and their elytra lack defined grooves.

Green Immigrant Leaf Weevil by Tim Worfolk via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

GREEN IMMIGRANT LEAF WEEVIL (Polydrusus formosus)

Distribution: Widespread, increasing population.
What to look for: A metallic green species with round scales and pale antennae that end in a dark club. Their elytra are longitudinally striated and do not have any setae (stiff structures that resemble bristles). Older specimens may be darker in colour as their scales can wear off, showing their black under-colour. Their legs have some metallic green covering but with an orangey under-colour.
Similar species: There are several visually similar species, therefore specimens need to be examined closely. Identification in the field may be difficult.

Pea Leaf Weevil by Danny Chapman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

PEA LEAF WEEVIL (Sitona lineatus)

Distribution: Widespread in England and Wales.
What to look for: This is a buff species with dark longitudinal stripes that can appear dark brown or reddish. Its rostrum, or snout, is very short, unlike those of many weevil species.
Similar species: There are several similar Sitona species. Identification in the field may not be possible and dissection is often needed to confirm species.

Acorn Weevil by Lukas Large via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

ACORN WEEVIL (Curculio glandium)

Distribution: Widespread, more common in the south of Britain.
What to look for: The Acorn Weevil is a brownish-rust colour with darker markings on its elytra. It has a long, striking rostrum and a paler scutellum.
Similar species: Very similar to Curculio nucum but can be distinguished by the shape of the antennal club which is more elongated and narrow than that of C. nucum.

Nettle Weevil by Danny Chapman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

NETTLE WEEVIL (Phyliobius pomaceus)

Distribution: Common in England and Wales, rare in Scotland.
What to look for: A black beetle covered in metallic, bluish-green scales, which are oval. There is a prominent tooth on the front femur.
Similar species: There are multiple similar species in the Phyllobius genus. The Nettle Weevil is the only one with oval scales.

Cabbage Seed Weevil by Gilles San Martin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

CABBAGE SEED WEEVIL (Ceutorhynchus obstrictus)

Distribution: Fairly widespread in England and Wales.
What to look for: The Cabbage Seed Weevil has a round grey body with grey legs. They are covered in small, white scales. They have a long, curved rostrum and small, bent antennae. If disturbed, this weevil will fold its rostrum and legs against its body, resembling a small pebble.
Similar species: Several other Ceutorhynchus species are very similar to C. obstrictus but they can be distinguished from some by the colour of their tarsi, the last part of the insect leg, which are black to dark-brown rather than reddish-yellow. C. Obstrictus also lacks a tooth on the hind femora.
Synonym: Ceutorhynchus assimilis, Cabbage Seedpod Weevil.

Willow Gall Weavil by Line Sabroe via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

WILLOW GALL WEAVIL (Archarius salicivorus)

Distribution: Widespread in Britain.
What to look for: A short, black weevil with a tapered body and long snout. Its antennae are midway along the rostrum. It has a paler underside and a small pale scutellum, the small section of the exoskeleton in the middle of the back between the pronotum and the abdomen
Similar species: The Strawberry Blossom Weevil (Anthonomus rubi) is visually similar but has a less rounded appearance when viewed from above and a less barrel-shaped pronotum than the Willow Gall Weevil.

Large Pine Weavil by gbohne via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

LARGE PINE WEAVIL (Hyblobius albietis)

Distribution: Widespread.
What to look for: This is a large dark brown weevil with orange to creamy-yellow patches on its elytra, which form bands. They have black or deep red legs with a distinct tooth on the femora and at the end of the tibiae. They also have eyebrow-like patches on their head at the base of their rostrum.
Similar species: The Vine Weevil (O. Sulcatus, see above) is also dark with lighter patches, but these are brown and their elytra have more distinct striations. They also have a more distinctly ‘pebbled’ pronotum.

The NHBS Guide to UK Caterpillar Identification

Caterpillars are part of the life cycle of moths or butterflies which is known as complete metamorphosis. This life cycle includes four stages: egg, caterpillar (also known as the larval or feeding stage), pupa (the transition stage) and adult (the reproductive phase). With over 2,600 species of moth and 60 species of butterfly in the British Isles, there are a large variety of caterpillars present in our countryside.

There are several stages of caterpillar growth called instars, during which the caterpillar sheds its skin as it grows. Colouration, size and patternation can vary between these instars. Additionally, species can have different variations of caterpillars, including different colour forms. Several species are listed below, grouped by key characteristics such as colour, patternation and features.

Hairy caterpillars

Collage of 8 images of hairy caterpillars.

  1. Knot Grass moth (Acronicta rumicis): Colour can vary between light gingery brown to near black, with patches of rusty brown hair and a broken line of white dorsal patches. They also have a wavy white line on their sides, broken with bright orange/red spots. They grow up to 40mm in length. Can be confused with the caterpillars of Brown-tail and Yellow-tail moths. Foodplants include Knot Grass as well as Broad-leaved Dock, plantains, Bramble, Hawthorn, Common Sorrel, heather, and Purple Loosestrife  [Image by author]
  2. Fox Moth (Macrothylacia rubi): Very hairy, up to 70mm long, dark brown with an orangey stripe down the length of its body. Caterpillars in earlier stages of development may have distinctive orange or yellow bands. Commonly feeds on heathers, Bilberry, Creeping Willow, Bramble, Meadowsweet and Salad Burnet. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr]
  3. Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja): Also known as the woolly bear caterpillar due its very long hairs. Grows up to 55mm long and has a dark red dorsal area with white tipped hairs,an orangey red underside, and small white markings along its sides. Feeds on a variety of herbacious and garden plants including Common Nettle, Broad-leaved Dock, burdocks and Hound’s-tongue. [Image by Dean Morley via Flickr] 
  4. Brown-tail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea): Can measure up to 30mm long, black with white markings down its sides and two distinctive orangey red ‘warts’ on its back near its tail. Be aware that its hairs are toxic to humans. Feeds on plants in the Rosaceae family including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Plum, Cherry, Rose and Bramble. [Image (cropped) by Chris Cooper via Flickr] 
  5. Miller moth (Acronicta leporina): Up to 35mm long with very long white or yellow hairs that swirl to one side. The body is often a pale green to brown depending on the development stage but this can be hard to see under the hairs. Usually found on birch or Alder trees. [Image by janet graham via Flickr 
  6. Pale Tussock moth (Calliteara pudibunda): Greenish yellow hairs with a black body showing through in bands between tufts. The hairs can vary in colour and can be white, brown or pink. They also have a tail tuft that varies in colour but is usually brown, pink or red. This can be absent in some individuals. The four, tussocky tufts on their dorsal are frequently white, brown or yellow. Feeds on a variety of broadleaved trees and shrubs including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab Apple, oaks, birches and Hazel.[Image by gailhampshire via Flickr] 
  7. Sycamore moth (Acronicta aceris): Up to 40mm long with thick hair that is either yellow, brown or orange . They have bold white spots down their back, outlined in black, as well as tufts of dark orange or bright red hair on their back. Foodplants are most commonly Sycamore, Field Maple and Horse-chestnut. [Image by Jon Brinn via Flickr] 
  8. White Ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda): Approximately 40mm long with a red, orange or pale dorsal line. Caterpillars at later development stages are covered in spines that can be reddish brown, dark brown or even black. [Image (cropped) by Odd Wellies via Flickr 

There are many ecological functions of hair-like structures on caterpillars including defence and camouflage. These hairs, called setea, can be almost invisible to the naked eye, while others make them easier to see. Two types of caterpillar hair can cause harm to humans and pets: urticating, which are itchy, non-venomous hairs that can irritate the skin, and stinging hairs, which are hollow spines that have poison-secreting cells that can cause a range of health issues if they enter the skin.  

Brown caterpillars

Collage of 4 images of brown caterpillars.

  1. Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor): Thick bodies that grow up to 8cm in length, usually dark brown but bright green forms also occur. The name derives from their smaller, trunk-like head that extends from its more bulbous neck. They feature a spiked tail and four eyespots, although the second pair can be less visible on darker individuals. Most frequently found on Rosebay Willowherb, Great Willowherb, other willowherbs and bedstraws. [Image by Aah-Yeah via Flickr] 
  2. Square-spot Rustic moth (Xestia xanthographa): Greenish ochre in colour, with pale lines on its back and edged with dark, long, slanted markings on its sides in a row. Mainly feeds on grasses, plantains and Cleavers. [Image (brightness adjusted and cropped) by David Short via Flickr] 
  3. Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba): Grows to a length of 45–50mm. Its body can be various shades of brown and green, with three lines down its back and dark patches on the inner side of the outer two lines – similar to the Square-spot Rustic. They also have darker sides with a lighter stripe above the legs. Feeds on a wide range of herbaceous plants and grasses including docks, brassicas, marigolds and Foxglove. [Image by rhonddawildlifediary via Flickr] 
  4. Dot Moth (Melanchra persicariae): These caterpillars can reach up to 45mm in length and can be different shades of brown and green. They have three pale, distinctive lines on the dark prothoracic plate behind their head, as well as dark and light chevrons along a pale dorsal line down their backs. Feeds on a wide range of herbaceous and woody plants including Common Nettle, White Clover, Ivy, Hazel, Elder and willows. [Image (cropped) by Martin Cooper via Flickr].  

Many of these caterpillars can also have a green form.   

Black and yellow/orange patterned caterpillars

Collage of 6 images of black and yellow/orange caterpillars climbing along leaves.

  1. Large White butterfly (Pieris brassicae): Pale green-yellow in colour with black spots along its body. Visibly hairy. Also known as a Cabbage White due to its preference for cabbages as a food plant. [Image by S. Rae via Flickr]
  2. Buff-tip moth (Phalera bucephala): Distinctive caterpillar with a trellised black and yellow patterning and covering of pale hairs. The face is black and has an inverted yellow V. When fully grown this caterpillar measures up to 75mm in length. Most frequently found on sallows, birches, oaks and Hazel. [Image by Tristram Brelstaff via Flickr]
  3. Six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae): Caterpillars feature a series of yellow and black dots on a green or greenish-yellow body. Feeds on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil or occasionally Greater Bird’s-foot-trefoil. [Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr]
  4. Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae): Caterpillars are initially black but show increasing variation in colour, with many developing pale yellow lines down their back and sides (some, however, may remain pure black). They have small clusters of short yellow spines and are fully grown at 30mm. Usually found on Common Nettle leaves. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  5. Mullein moth (Curcullia verbasci): One of the most striking and distinctive caterpillars to be found in Britain, they have a mixture of repeating black and yellow markings on a pale bluish-grey body. When fully grown they measure almost 50mm in length. Foodplants include mulleins, Common Figwort, Water Figwort and buddleias.[Image by Amanda Slater via Flickr]
  6. Box Tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis): Box Tree moths were introduced accidentally from south-east Asia and are a pest of Box trees. Caterpillars have green and black stripes running the length of the body, and the head is shiny black. Each of the body segments has white hairs and eyelike markings. [Image by hedera.baltica via Flickr]
 Black and spiky caterpillars

Collage of 4 images of Black and Spikey caterpillars climbing on leaves.

  1. Peacock butterfly (Aglais io): Unlike the brightly coloured adult Peacock butterfly, the Peacock caterpillar has a velvety black body with small white spots and short spines on each segment. Most commonly feeds on Common Nettle and Hops. [Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr]
  2. Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui): Often found on thistles, Painted Lady caterpillars live for 5-10 days in a loosely woven silk nest inside which they feed continuously. They have dark bodies with pale narrow yellow-cream stripes. Particularly on younger larvae, spines can be alternating light and dark. [Image (cropped) by ahh-yeah via Flickr]
  3. Marsh Fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia): Caterpillars are black and hairy and initially live in groups on a larval web which is woven on the bottom-most leaves of Devil’s Bit Scabious plants. Prior to pupation, at the end of April, caterpillars will finally disperse to live independently. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  4. Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta): Caterpillars are black and spiny with a yellow stripe down each side and fine hairs along the body. They can be tricky to spot as they use silk to bind nettle leaves together to make a protective tent inside which they feed. [Image by Benny Mazur via Flickr]
Green caterpillars

Collage of 8 images of green caterpillars on leaves and rocks.

  1. Lime Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae): Caterpillars are distinctive having a large green body with pale yellow streaks on each segment and a bluish ‘horn’ at the tail end. Turns purple a short time before pupation. Foodplants include Limes, elms, Downy Birch, Silver Birch and Elder. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr]
  2. Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi): A thick and chunky, bright green caterpillar with faint yellow lines running diagonally along the body. The tail end has a yellow ‘horn’ and some individuals have small, dark spots. Food plants include poplars, sallows and willows. [Image by Patrick Clement via Flickr]
  3. Privet Hawk-moth (Sphinx ligustri): Bright, lime-green caterpillar with white and purple stripes and a pale yellow spot on each segment. The tail end has a black curved hook. Usually found on Wild and Garden Privets, Ash, Lilac and Guelder-rose. [Image by Jo Garbutt via Flickr]
  4. Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellata): Closely resembles the Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar in that it is bright green with diagonal yellow lines. When mature it can be distinguished by its bluish tail horn. Foodplants include Apple, willows and sallows. [Image by Julian Smith via Flickr]
  5. Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria): Bright green with faint dark green and yellow stripes running longitudinally along the length of the body. Feeds on False Brome, Cock’s-foot, Yorkshire-fog and Common Couch. [Image by Dean Morley via Flickr]
  6. Pine Hawk-moth (Sphinx pinastri): Dark green caterpillar with a brown stripe along the centre of its back and cream dashes that run either side of this. It has a brown head and a black tail horn. Feeds mainly on Scots Pine.[Image by Aah-Yeah via Flickr]
  7. Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Lacanobia oleracea): Green caterpillar with a bright yellow line along its sides and tiny black spots. Found on a variety of herbacious and woody plants such as Common Nettle, Fat-hen, willowherbs, Hazel and Hop. Sometimes a pest of cultivated Tomatoes. [Image by Ben Sale via Flickr]
  8. Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum): Caterpillars are mainly green and have a thick, cream-yellow stripe running along the sides with a white line above. The tail horn is black with a yellow tip when mature. Feeds on Lady’s Bedstraw, Hedge Bedstraw and Wild Madder. [Image by liesvanrompaey via Flickr]Collage of 5 caterpillars.
  9. Straw Dot moth (Rivula sericealis): Green caterpillar with two cream stripes running along the back creating a repeating hourglass pattern between them. Covered in long fine hairs. Not often seen, the caterpillars feed on a variety of grass species. [Image by Mick Talbot] 
  10. Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma): Relatively easy to identify as it has only two sets of prolegs (small fleshy stubs beneath the body) and a rear clasper which means it walks with an arched body. It has a green body with a series of white wavy lines which may be broken by pale circles in later instars. Feeds on a range of low-lying herbacious plants including bedstraws, clovers, Common Nettle, Garden Pea and Cabbage. [Image by Artur Rydzewski via Flickr] 
  11. Kentish Glory moth (Endromis versicolora): Large green caterpillar with diagonal pale stripes on each segment. Usually found on Silver Birch and less often on Downy Birch and Alder. [Image by Harald Supfle] 
  12. Emperor Moth (Saturnia pavonia): Green with black hoops containing yellow wartlike spots. Common in scrubby places whether they often feed on heathers, Meadowsweet, Bramble, Hawthorn and Blackthorn, amongst others. [Image by Odd Wellies via Flickr] 
  13. Angle Shades moth (Phlogophora meticulosa): Usually green but can be mixed with shades of brown and/or yellow. A fine pale line runs down the back and a pale band runs down the sides of the body. Foodplants include a range of herbaceous and woody plants such as Common Nettle, Hop, Red Valerian, Bramble and Broad-leaved Dock. [Image by author] 
 Others

Collage of 8 caterpillars of other species.

  1. Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon): Striking bright green caterpillar with black bands and orange spots. British Swallowtail caterpillars feed solely on Milk-parsley. [Image by Frank Vassen via Flickr]
  2. Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae): Easy to identify having bold gold and black stripes. Most commonly feeds on the leaves and flowers of Common Ragwort where they can be found in their hundreds. [Image by Smudge 9000 via Flickr]
  3. High Brown Fritillary butterfly (Argynnis adippe): Black caterpillar with a checkered pale pattern and yellow/buff spines. Covered in fine black bristles. Feeds on Common Dog-violet and Hairy Violet. [Image by Darius Bauzys via Flickr]
  4. Magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata): Distinctive caterpillar with a creamy-white body, rows of black and white spots and an orange stripe that runs along the length of the body on the lower sides. Feeds on a range of deciduous trees such as Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Hazel as well as currant and gooseberry bushes. [Image by Conall via Flickr]
  5. Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas): Slug-shaped caterpillar covered in tiny white hairs. Exists in two forms: a purely green form and a green and pink striped form. Main foodplants are Common Sorrel and Sheep’s Sorrel. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  6. Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album): Mainly coloured brown and black with a large white mark towards the rear end of its back. Preferred foodplant is Common Nettle. [Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr]
  7. Yellow-tail moth (Euproctis similis): Black caterpillar with a small hump behind its head. Two red/orange lines run along the back with a row of white markings wither side of them. They are covered in long black hairs and shorter white ones. Feeds on a wide selection of broadleaf trees and shrubs including Hawthorn, Blackthorn, oaks, roses, Hazel and willows. [Image by gailhampshire via Flickr]
  8. Lackey moth (Malacosoma neustria): Large orange, blue and white striped caterpillars that are covered with fine orange hairs. Often feed in large groups on broadleaved trees and shrubs including Blackthorn, Hawthorn, cherries, Plum and Apple. [Image by gailhampshire via Flickr]

The NHBS Guide to UK Amphibian Identification

The UK is home to seven native species of amphibian. Over the winter, these frogs, toads and newts have all been hibernating, but it will soon be time for them to venture out to their breeding ponds and pools. If you’re lucky, you will be able to spot them when you’re out and about.

In this blogpost we will provide you with some of the key characteristics of each species which will help you to identify exactly what you’re looking at. For those of you who are keen to find out more, we have also provided a list of field and identification guides at the bottom of the page.


Newts

Newts are members of the salamander family and have a lizard-like body shape. They are semi-aquatic, spending part of the year on land, returning to the water in spring to breed. Eggs are laid in the water where they hatch into tadpoles and then proceed to develop front and back legs, along with gills for breathing. They leave the water in late summer once their gills have been lost.

The three species of newt which are native to the UK are the Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris), the Palmate Newt (Lissotriton helveticus) and the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus).

Smooth Newt:

Image by gailhampshire via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale spotted throat. Image by gailhampshire.

• Size: Grows to around 10-11cm in length.
• Colour: Males brown/olive; females light brown. Belly is usually yellowy orange with black spots. The throat is pale with darker spots.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: Spring to early summer in ponds and pools (frequently found in garden ponds). Late summer under logs and stones near to water.
• Other notes: The male has a wavy back crest during the breeding season.

Palmate Newt:

Image by Laurent Lebois via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Look for the pale throat without spots and a dark stripe through the eye – this can help you to distinguish it from the smooth newt. Image by Laurent Lebois.

• Size: Grows to around 7-11cm; slightly smaller than the smooth newt.
• Colour: Males olive brown; females yellowish brown. The throat is white/pale pink and does not have spots or speckling. The eye has a dark stripe running horizontally through it.
• Skin Texture: Smooth
• Habitat: During the breeding season (early March to late May) in shallow ponds, often in heathland bogs. During summer in woodland, ditches and gardens near to water.
• Other notes: During the breeding season, the male palmate newt has a ridge running along its back and a tail which ends in a filament. Its back feet are also webbed.

Great Crested Newt

Much larger than the smooth or palmate newt, the male has a large crest which is broken where the tail meets the body. Image by Chris H.

• Size: Up to 15cm in length. Females may be even larger than this.
• Colour: Dark brown or black with white/silver dots on sides. Underside is orange with black spots. Pale throat.
• Skin Texture: Warty
• Habitat: March to May in deep ponds with vegetation. Great crested newts often range further than smooth or palmate newts during the summer and can be found in gardens, ditches and woodland.
• Other notes: The male has a very distinctive crest during the breeding season which is broken at the point where the tail meets the body. The crest also has a silver stripe.


Frogs

Frogs are short-bodied, tailless amphibians that largely lay their eggs in water. These eggs hatch into aquatic larvae, known as tadpoles, before metamorphosing into froglets and then adults.

There are two native species of frog in the UK: the Common Frog (Rana temporaria) and the Pool Frog (Pelophylax lessonae).

Common Frog

Keep an eye out for dark patches behind the eyes and dark barring on the back legs. Image by Erik Paterson.

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Olive green to yellow-brown. Usually spotty or stripy with dark patches behind the eyes and darker barring on hind legs.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: From late February to early October in all sorts of ponds and pools. Common in gardens.
• Other notes: Moves by hopping. Common frogspawn is gelatinous with black embryos and tadpoles are initially black but turn speckled brown. (This is a useful way of distinguishing them from toad tadpoles, which remain dark until development).

Pool Frog

• Size: Adults grow to 6-9cm in length.
• Colour: Usually brown with dark spots. Light yellow back stripe.
• Skin Texture: Smooth and moist.
• Habitat: Currently only present in localised spots in East Anglia.
• Other notes: Males have prominent vocal sacks on the side of the mouth.


Toads

Toads are characterised by dry-looking, warty skin and short legs. They usually move via a lumbering walk, as opposed to the hopping motion used by frogs. As with frogs, most toads lay their eggs in water. These hatch into tadpoles before growing legs and metamorphosing into the adult form.

Within the UK there are two native species of toad: the Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and the Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita).

Common Toad

The common toad moves with a lumbering walk and has distinctive bulges on the back of its head. Image by stanze.

• Size: Females grow up to 13cm whilst males are smaller and usually reach only 8cm.
• Colour: Brown to grey-green. Paler on the underside.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: From late February in damp, shady spots near to breeding ponds. During the summer in woodlands, gardens and fields.
• Other notes: The common toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a lumbering walk or small hop. Eggs are laid in strings in a double row. Upon hatching the tadpoles are dark and, unlike frog tadpoles, remain so until they develop. 

Natterjack Toad

The natterjack toad has a yellow stripe down the spine. Image by Bernard Dupont.

• Size: Females grow up to 8cm whilst males are slightly smaller.
• Colour: Pale brown/green, often with brightly coloured red or yellow warts. Yellow stripe down the spine.
• Skin Texture: Dry-looking and warty.
• Habitat: Coastal dunes and lowland heath, often in open, unshaded habitats. The natterjack toad is very rare in the UK.
• Other notes: The natterjack toad has amber eyes with a horizontal pupil. Moves with a running motion, rather than hopping. Lays strings of eggs in a single row.


Further reading:

 

Amphibians and Reptiles

Amphibians and Reptiles
A comprehensive guide to the native and non-native species of amphibian and reptile found in the British Isles. Professor Trevor Beebee covers the biology, ecology, conservation and identification of the British herpetofauna, and provides keys for the identification of adult and immature specimens as well as eggs, larvae and metamorphs.

 

 

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians
This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.

 

FSC Guide: Reptiles and Amphibians

A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Ireland
This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and covers the 13 species of non-marine reptile and amphibian which breed in Britain, as well as the five species which breed in Ireland. These include frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards.

 

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe
This excellent field guide covers a total of 219 species, with a focus on identification and geographical variation. The species text also covers distribution, habitat and behaviour. Superb colour illustrations by talented artist Ilian Velikov depict every species.

 

The Amphibians and Reptiles of ScotlandThe Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland
This book is designed to be an interesting and informative guide to the amphibians and reptiles that are found in the wild in Scotland. The authors have focused on those species native to Scotland, plus those which are non-native but are breeding in the wild.

The NHBS Guide to UK Reptile Identification

Slow worm image by Smudge 9000 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The UK is home to six native species of reptile – three snakes (adder, grass snake and smooth snake) and three lizards (common lizard, sand lizard and slow worm). In early spring, snakes and lizards begin to emerge from hibernation – if you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of one in your garden or when out walking in the countryside. (Interesting note: adders have now been recorded as being active during every month of the year in the UK, a behavioural change which is thought to be linked to overall warmer weather).  

This article aims to provide you with some of the key characteristics of each species which will help you to identify what you’re looking at. You will also find a list of field and identification guides at the bottom of the page which will give you lots more information about each species and help you with your ID.

Snakes

Snakes are part of the suborder Serpentes and, though they vary greatly in size and colour, their limbless, elongated bodies make their overall form very distinct (although some legless lizards, such as the slow worm, may often be mistaken for a snake). The skin of a snake is covered in scales and is a smooth, dry texture – this skin is shed periodically throughout the snake’s life. All snakes are carnivorous and many species have specialised skulls with extra joints enabling them to swallow prey much larger than their heads. Most species are non-venomous and either swallow their prey alive or kill it by constriction. 

All three snake species in the UK reproduce by producing eggs. However, both the adder and smooth snake incubate eggs internally whereas the grass snake lays them in rotting vegetation such as compost heaps. 

Adder (Vipera berus)

Adder image by Jo Garbutt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 60-80cm in length.
• Colour: Greyish with a dark and very distinctive zig-zag pattern down its back. Red eye.
• Habitat: Prefers woodland, heathland and moorland but may also be found in grassland or on the coast.
• Interesting fact: The adder is the only venomous snake in the UK. However, bites are very rare as adders are reclusive and would prefer to retreat than confront a human. 

Grass snake (Natrix helvetica)

Grass snake image by Bernard Dupont via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 90-150cm in length.
• Colour: Usually greenish in colour, with a yellow and black collar, pale belly and dark markings down the sides.
• Habitat: Favours wetland habitats but can also be found in grassland and gardens, especially those with a pond.
• Interesting fact: The grass snake is the longest snake found in the UK.

Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)

Smooth snake image by Odd Wellies via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 50-70cm in length.
• Colour: Usually dark grey or brown in colour. Similar to an adder but with a more slender body and without the zig-zag pattern along its back.
• Habitat: Very rare. Mainly found on a few sandy heaths in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey, although a couple of reintroduced populations exist in West Sussex and Devon.
• Interesting fact: The smooth snake is a constrictor, coiling around its prey to subdue it and crush it to death.

Lizards

Most lizards have four legs and run with a side-to-side motion. However, some, such as the slow worm, are legless. Lizards are mainly carnivorous and often employ a ‘sit-and-wait’ approach to catching prey. In the UK, lizards feed primarily on insects, molluscs and spiders.

Although all three species of UK lizard lay eggs, both the common lizard and slow worm incubate these internally, ‘giving birth’ in the late summer. Sand lizards lay shelled eggs that are buried in the sand where they are kept warm by the sun. 

Common lizard (Zootoca vivipara)

Common lizard image by Gail Hampshire via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

• Size: 10-15cm in length.
• Colour: Variable, but most commonly a brownish-grey, with rows of darker spots or stripes down the back and sides. Males have bright yellow or orange undersides with spots, while females have paler, plain bellies.
• Habitat: Heathland, moorland and grassland.
• Interesting fact: If threatened by a predator, the common lizard will shed its tail which continues to move – the lizard uses this distraction to make its escape. Although able to regrow its tail, the new one is usually shorter than the original.

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)

Sand lizard image by xulescu-g via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

• Size: Up to 20cm.
• Colour: Female sand lizards are a sandy-brown colour, with rows of dark blotches along the back. Males have green flanks that are at their brightest during the breeding season, making them easy to spot.
• Habitat: The sand lizard is very rare and can only be found on a few sandy heaths in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey with a few reintroduced populations in the south east, south west and Wales.
• Interesting fact: Sand lizards dig burrows for overnight refuge and hibernation. 

Slow worm (Anguis fragilis)

Slow worm image by Oliver Haines

• Size: 40-50cm.
• Colour: Smooth, golden-grey skin. The males are paler in colour and occasionally have blue spots. The females tend to be larger with dark sides and some have a dark line down their back.
• Habitat: Slow worms live in most of Great Britain apart from Northern Ireland and are also present on most of the islands in Scotland and the Channel Isles.
• Interesting fact: Although similar in appearance to a snake, the slow worm has eyelids (which snakes do not) and can drop its tail when threatened by a predator.

In addition to the six native reptiles, several species of non-native reptile can be found in the UK – these include the wall lizard, green lizard, aesculapian snake, European pond terrapin and the red-eared slider.

Recommended reading:

Amphibians and Reptiles
#206083
A comprehensive guide to the native and non-native species of amphibian and reptile found in the British Isles. Professor Trevor Beebee covers the biology, ecology, conservation and identification of the British herpetofauna, and provides keys for the identification of adult and immature specimens as well as eggs, larvae and metamorphs.

Britain’s Reptiles and Amphibians
#174837
This detailed guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Britain, Ireland and the Channel Islands has been produced with the aim of inspiring an increased level of interest in these exciting and fascinating animals. It is designed to help anyone who finds a lizard, snake, turtle, tortoise, terrapin, frog, toad or newt to identify it with confidence.

 

Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Ireland
#113260
This laminated pamphlet is produced by the Field Studies Council and covers the 13 species of non-marine reptile and amphibian which breed in Britain, as well as the five species which breed in Ireland. These include snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and newts.

 

Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe
#246563
This excellent field guide covers a total of 219 species, with a focus on identification and geographical variation. The species text also covers distribution, habitat and behaviour. Superb colour illustrations by talented artist Ilian Velikov depict every species.

 

 

The Amphibians and Reptiles of Scotland
#235838
This book is designed to be an interesting and informative guide to the amphibians and reptiles that are found in the wild in Scotland. The authors have focused on those species native to Scotland, plus those which are non-native but are breeding in the wild.

The NHBS Guide to Rockpooling

Rockpooling is an educational and extremely enjoyable wildlife activity that introduces you to a colourful world of creatures that are usually hidden beneath the sea. Rock pools are full of limpets, crabs, whelks, periwinkles and anemones, all of which have fascinating adaptations that allow them to live in this unique place. The intertidal zone is an exceptionally harsh habitat, with animals needing to cope with exposure to saltwater, rainwater, changing temperatures and sun. Rockpooling is a brilliant hands-on activity to introduce children to this unique habitat and discuss how animals and plants cope with living there.

Photo credit: S Webber

Planning a Rockpooling trip

The best time to go rockpooling is in the late spring or summer, when the weather is milder and temperatures are warmer. There are many excellent locations to go rockpooling on the UK coast and, by searching the local area or consulting this list by The Wildlife Trusts, you can find some of the best spots. Once you know which area you are heading to, you need to consult the local tide table. Rockpooling is best done on a low spring tide, because the most interesting range of creatures are likely to be found nearest the sea edge. Pick a day with calm weather conditions and when the low tide point is at a suitable time in the day – you need to time your visit to be there for low tide and then watch carefully for the tide coming back in. Make sure that you take a sun hat, sun cream and wear sturdy shoes, as the rocks can be very slippery.

Rockpooling equipment and method

Photo credit: S Webber

Bucket – a clear or white plastic bucket is great for storing your finds temporarily.

Net –a net can help with catching crabs when used carefully, but avoid scraping along rocks.

ID guide – there are a range of ID guides including laminated FSC sheets and seashore identification guides.

Pots – smaller animals can be transferred carefully to pots for a closer look.

Endoscope – peer deep into the depths of the rockpools and record images and videos with a handheld endoscope.

Approach rock pools carefully, as animals can be wary of noise and shadows appearing above them. Dip your bucket into the water to catch mobile animals or carefully search through with your hands. If you fill your bucket and pots with a little seawater then you can keep any creatures you find in there for a short period of time while you identify them. Watch out for crab claws as they can nip, and anemone tentacles as they can sting. Do not remove any creatures that are attached to the rocks as they may have a specific place that they attach to until the tide comes back in. Turn over stones to find crabs and have a good look to see if there is anything hiding in the seaweed. Once you have finished looking, make sure you return the animals gently back into the pool.

Common UK Rock Pool Inhabitants

Green shore crab (Carcinus maenas)

Photo credit: John Haslam via Flickr

Hermit crab  (Pagurus bernhardus)

Photo credit: Peter Corbett via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common blenny  (Lipophrys pholis)

Photo credit: Duncan Greenhill via Flickr

Beadlet anemone  (Actinia equina)

Photo credit: Deryk Tolman via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snakelocks anemone  (Anemonia viridis)

Photo credit: NHBS (taken with Video Endoscope)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flat top shell  (Steromphala umbilicalis)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limpet  (Patella vulgate)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common periwinkle  (Littorina littorea)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

Recommended reading and equipment

The Essential Guide to Rockpooling
#243734

 

 

Educational Rock Pooling KitEducational Rock Pooling Kit
#192241

 

 

Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides
#249715

 

 

 

The Rocky Shore Name Trail
#228841

 

 

Rocky Shores
#242624

 

 

 

Life Between the Tides
#256239

 

 

 

Rock Pools
#255911

 

 

 

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore
#241750

 

 

 

White Plastic Bucket
#197160

 

 

60ml Collecting Pot
#199488

 

 

 

Hand Held Magnifier
#202230

 

Video Endoscope
#243795

 

Gardening for Wildlife: Creating Habitat

In the first of our two-part series, Gardening for Wildlife: Providing Food, we looked at how to attract wildlife to your garden by including plants for pollinators and providing food for birds and mammals. In the second of our two-part ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ series, we look at how to create nesting or overwintering habitat effectively for the wildlife that visits your garden. Natural nesting sites for birds, insects and mammals have become rare in the broader landscape due to changes in farming, woodland management practices and building construction techniques. Wildlife-friendly gardens can provide fantastic habitat for invertebrates, birds, amphibians and mammals by making a few simple changes and by letting a bit of wildness back in.

Mining Bee © Ed Phillips

Insects

It is easy to provide habitat for insects in your garden just by leaving the lawnmower in the shed. Setting aside a patch of grass to grow longer should encourage wildflowers to grow in your lawn, and will provide food and shelter for insects and small mammals. Creating a log pile in which beetles, woodlice and earwigs can shelter is also an easy way to increase garden wildlife habitat. You can provide additional nesting space for solitary bees or overwintering quarters for other insects by creating or installing an insect house. These can be homemade and constructed to your own design, or you can purchase purpose made houses. These are particularly important for solitary bees, who use tunnels in wood, mortar, plant stems or artificial houses to nest. They lay eggs and place a food source in a series of cells, and then block the entrance with materials such as mud, leaves or fine hair. Other nest sites can be provided by leaving dead wood and stems standing and leaving a patch of bare earth or mud bank for mining bees.

Vivara Pro Seville Nest Box

Bird Boxes

Providing bird boxes in your garden can be an excellent way of helping wildlife, as natural nest sites can be rare due to changes in house construction and woodland management techniques. There is a vast array of nest boxes available for many different species of birds, so it is worth knowing which bird species visit your garden before selecting a box. A good place to start is by providing a nest box with a 32mm entrance hole that is suitable for house sparrows or blue and great tits, who are enthusiastic occupiers of nest boxes. Most nest boxes are made of breathable materials such as wood or wood fibres mixed with concrete (Woodcrete or WoodStone). The advantage of Woodcrete and WoodStone nest boxes is that they are much more durable and can last for 10 years or more. Purpose-built nest boxes are available for many different species such as swifts, treecreepers and even robins. For more details on our most popular nest boxes, please see our series of blog posts on nest boxes suitable for different locations. For more details on where to hang your nest box, please see our blog post

Image by Peter O’Connor via Flickr.

Mammals

Gardens are extremely important for hedgehogs and can provide excellent opportunities for foraging and hibernation. Leaving a pile of fallen leaves or a log pile can give them a place to shelter during the daytime or you can choose to invest in a hedgehog nest box. These can provide a safe place for hedgehogs to sleep or hibernate – there is even the option of installing a nest box camera so that you can watch footage of them using the box.

Hedgehogs can travel up to 2km each night, eating as they go. Allowing them to move freely between gardens is important to ensure that they can obtain enough food and find safe spaces to sleep. If you have a garden fence, cut a hole at the bottom measuring 13 x 13cm to allow hedgehogs to pass through on their nightly wanderings. You could also remove a brick from the bottom of a wall or dig a channel underneath. 

Bats also use gardens for foraging, so increasing the number of invertebrates in your garden will help to attract them. Bats naturally roost in a variety of spaces including holes in trees. With natural cavities being rare, providing a bat box can be a great way of helping them and our series of blog posts on the top bat boxes for different locations, and our advice on where to hang your bat box is a great place to start. The best time to watch them is at dusk when you can sit in the garden and see them whizzing around catching mosquitoes. Alternatively, you can invest in a bat detector and identify the species visiting your garden. For both bats and hedgehogs, connectivity to other patches of suitable habitat is key. Hedgehogs use hedgerows or need access through fences to be able to visit multiple gardens, and bats use treelines and hedgerows when foraging.

Image by Erik Paterson via Flickr.

Amphibians and Aquatic Invertebrates

The easiest way to help aquatic invertebrates and amphibians is by creating a pond or small body of water. Even if you have a small garden, you can create a mini pond with an old belfast sink or a washing up bowl. Choose a warm, sunny spot that will be good for dragonflies and tadpoles, consider planting a few native freshwater plants and wildlife such as pond skaters, damselflies and water beetles should soon find the spot. Please ensure that ponds are positioned with safety in mind if you have children, and that you include rocks or sloping edges so that wildlife can get in and out. There are fantastic guides to creating a pond available, such as the Wildlife Pond Book, and once your pond is up and running you can even try some pond dipping. It is not recommended to collect frogspawn from the wild, but you can encourage amphibians into your garden by providing damp areas such as log piles or a frog and toad house.

Watching Wildlife

Having attracted wildlife to your garden, there are several ways you can get fantastic views up close.  Binoculars give you a great view of wildlife that is further away, but with close focus distances now much improved, they also offer a great way of magnifying insects and aquatic invertebrates. Read our blog post to find out how to choose a pair of binoculars. Alternatively, trail cameras can be used very effectively in gardens to record garden visitors such as hedgehogs and birds. These standalone weatherproof cameras use passive infrared to detect passing warm-bodied animals and take either still photographs or videos. For more information on trail cameras, see our blog post on how to choose a trail camera. For a really close-up insight into what the wildlife in your garden is doing, consider installing a nest box camera. See our guide on how to choose a nest box camera for advice on the different options. A hedgehog nest box camera can also give you really amazing footage of hedgehogs feeding and nesting.

By providing food resources and suitable habitat for wildlife, you can ensure that your garden becomes a sanctuary for the animals around you and a spectacle of nature right on your doorstep.

Recommended Reading

The Wildlife Pond Book
#246688

This offers a fresh and unique perspective on ponds, encouraging readers of any budget to reach for the spade and do something positive to benefit their shared neighbourhood nature.

 

 

Guide to Garden Wildlife
#246618

Even the smallest garden can be an important haven for wildlife, and this authoritative guide enables everyone to explore this wealth on their back doorstep. It covers all the main animal groups – including pond life – likely to be found in a garden in Great Britain and Ireland.

 

Making Wildlife Ponds
#231864

This guide can help you create an aquatic habitat in your garden, home to stunning, brightly coloured damsel- and dragonflies with iridescent eyes, amphibians which choose to breed, and birds and mammals of many kinds that come to drink at such placid waters, including hedgehogs

 

Nestboxes: Your Complete Guide
#241181

Building your own nestbox and watching a pair of birds raise a successful brood will bring pleasure to the whole family, and this book provides all you need to know to get started. Written by Dave Cromack and drawing on the BTO’s expertise, this provides the perfect guide to building, erecting and monitoring nestboxes for a broad range of bird species.

 

FSC Freshwater Name Trail
#175156

Aimed at KS2 and above, this 8-page fold-out chart is a fully illustrated key to help users identify the main animal groups found in freshwater. None of the identification in the key goes beyond family level, and some of it stays at the phylum or class.

 

 

Recommended Garden Products

Bee Brick
#244140

 

 

BeePot Bee Hotel
#244760

 

 

 

 

Vivara Pro Seville 32mm WoodStone Nest Box
#234956

 

 

 

 

Brecon FSC Nest Box
#252721

 

 

 

 

 

Vivara Pro Barcelona WoodStone Open Nest Box
#234963

 

 

 

 

 

Hedgehog Nest Box
#179141

 

 

 

 

Large Multi-Chamber WoodStone Bat Box
#246918

 

 

 

 

 

Magenta Bat 5 Bat Detector
#171849

 

 

 

 

 

NHBS Pond Dipping Kit
#244947

 

 

 

The NHBS Guide to UK Corvid Identification

There are eight species of corvid in the UK, five of which belong to the Corvus genus. They are intelligent birds, with many studies finding species demonstrating self-awareness and tool-making abilities. Their brain-to-body mass ratio is only slightly lower than ours and equal to cetaceans and non-human great apes.

Corvids occur worldwide, except for the polar ice caps and the southern tip of South America. Certain species are a common sight in our urban areas, having adapted to the proximity of humans. Some surveys have even found that fitness and reproduction have increased due to human development. Crows and ravens have been shown to have high reproduction rates and a positive association between annual survival and proximity to human development.

The crow family feature heavily in mythology and folklore, often as omens of ill fortune or death, though magpies can also be considered a herald of fortune. This is thought to have derived from their scavenging behaviour, feeding on carrion at battlefields. They were considered by some to be ‘soul guides’, there to carry to dead into the afterlife. Ravens feature in Scandinavian mythology, as the god Odin had two ravens that would tell him secrets they’d heard. This communication also features in Anglo-Saxon history. This is most likely due to the ability of many corvid species to mimic sounds in their environment, including human speech. They do this by using their two ‘syrinxes’, vocal organs located at the base of the bird’s trachea, which is made of ossified cartilage, muscles and vibrating membranes. As corvids have excellent memories, they can be taught a wide range of words and sentences.

All species are listed as green by the Birds of Conservation Concern 4, with the Eurasian Jay being upgraded from its previous amber status.

Carrion crow (Corvus corone)

Distribution: Common and widespread, although less common in northwest Scotland. They are found across many habitats, including woodland, farmland, heathland and urban areas.
Wingspan:  84–100cm
What to look for: An all-black species, they have a shiny, thick black beak that is of medium length, and black legs. Their black plumage has a glossy sheen. They are fairly solitary and are most likely seen alone or in pairs, but they can occasionally form flocks.

Carrion Crow by Alexis Lours via Flickr
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Distribution: Common and widespread, except for parts of the Scottish Highlands.
Wingspan: 64–73cm
What to look for: The jackdaw is a black species with a distinctive silvery patch on the back of its head. It has pale eyes that are quite easy to see. Their beaks are shorter than carrion crows, though both have an extended patch of feathers on the top of their beak.

Jackdaw by hedera.baltica via Flickr
Rook (Corvus frugilegus)

Distribution: Widely distributed across most of the UK, although less widespread in Scotland and mostly absent from far northwest Scotland. They are mostly seen in open fields but can be found along roadsides and occasionally in parks and villages. They mainly avoid the centre of larger towns and cities.
Wingspan: 81–99cm
What to look for: This species is black, with a distinctive bare, greyish-white face and a peaked head. Rooks also have a thinner, paler beak than other corvids, such as carrion crows. This beak darkens towards the tip. Juveniles do not have a bare face, therefore can resemble other all-black corvids such as crows, but they can be distinguished by their peaked head.

Rook by hedera.baltica via Flickr
Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

Distribution: Widespread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, present in parts of Scotland except in the north.
Wingspan: 52–58cm
What to look for: This colourful bird is a light brown to pinkish-grey, with a pale throat and prominent black moustache stripes. Their forehead and crown are pale with dark stripes. The upper surface of their wings is white and black, with a distinctive bright blue patch patterned with black bars. Their tail is white or pinkish underneath but their upper tail feathers are mainly black.

Jay by Airwolfhound via Flickr
Magpie (Pica pica)

Distribution: Widespread across the UK, except the highlands.
Wingspan: 52–62 cm
What to look for: This species has a distinctive black and white plumage, with a purple-blue shine to the wings and a green shine to the tail. They have a black beak, black legs and black leg feathers.
Did you know? Magpies have long been associated with folklore in many countries, with a wide range of beliefs. Magpies have been thought to signal death, bad luck, good luck, fortune-telling and happiness. They are also the centre of the well-known ‘one for sorrow’ nursery rhyme where the number of magpies signals different events and occurrences. Depending on the version, gatherings of magpies can signal a birth, funeral, wedding, gold, silver, the gender of a child and even the devil.

Magpie by Airwolfhound via Flickr
Raven (Corvus corax)

Distribution: Widespread across Wales, Northern Ireland and the West of Scotland and England. They are found across a number of habitats, including woodland, farmland, upland and marine habitats.
Wingspan: 115–150cm
What to look for: This is the largest member of the crow family, with an all-black plumage, a large bill and long wings. Their necks are thick, with a shaggy appearance. They have a diamond-shaped tail, best seen in flight. They closely resemble the carrion crow, except for their much larger size, but they can resemble raptors such as buzzards in flight.

Raven by Imran Shah via Flickr
(Red-billed) Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

Distribution: Small, isolated populations along the west coasts of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man.
Wingspan: 73–90cm
What to look for: Choughs have a blue-black plumage with a green sheen to their wings and tail. They have a slender, red bill that curves downward. Its legs are red with black claws. Juveniles have an orange bill and either pink or grey legs.
Did you know? In 2002, a pair of choughs raised young in Cornwall for the first time in more than 50 years. They continued to nest successfully for over a decade, raising 46 chicks in total. In 2022, the population reached 200 birds, with 25 pairs successfully raising over 70 young.

Red-billed chough by gailhampshire via Flickr
Hooded crow (Corvus cornix)

Distribution: Present in Northern Ireland, north and west Scotland, and the Isle of Man. In winter, it is present on the eastern side of England.
Wingspan: 93–104cm
What to look for: This species has an ashy-grey plumage, with a black head, throat, tail, wings and thigh feathers. It has a black beak and legs, with dark brown eyes.
Did you know? The hooded crow was thought to be the same species as the carrion crow until 2002 when they were given full species status.

Hooded crow by Ott Rebane via Flickr
Suggested reading and equipment:

Marzluff, J. M., and Neatherlin, E., 2006. Corvid response to human settlements and campgrounds: Causes, consequences, and challenges for conservation. Biological Conservation, 130(2), pp. 301-314

Møller, A. P., 2010. The fitness benefit of association with humans: elevated success of birds breeding indoors. Behavioral Ecology, 21(5), pp. 913-918

Twenty years of cornish choughs and another bumper year.

Europe’s Birds: An Identification Guide

 

 

 

 

 

Collins Bird Guide, 3rd Edition

 

 

 

 

 

 

RSPB Spotlight: Crows