Guest blog by RSPB NI Head of Species Anne-Marie McDevitt


While house sparrows were perched in top spot in the Big Garden Birdwatch in Northern Ireland in 2019, here we take a look at other less usual visitors that you might be lucky enough to see in your garden during the Birdwatch at the end of January – among them redpolls, goldcrests, siskins, bramblings, fieldfares, redwings, waxwings and sparrowhawks.

So what are the less frequent flyers that you might spot visiting your garden at this time of year?
An interesting one is a larger bird that might just target the smaller birds that feast on the birdfood in your garden feeders: a sparrowhawk.


Adapted for hunting in dense woodland, the sparrowhawk has no problem navigating small gardens, even those in a very urban setting. Sometimes people will contact us to say they think they’ve seen a buzzard or a peregrine falcon in their garden, but buzzards aren’t adept enough to go for small garden birds and peregrines like wide open spaces. So if you’re seeing a bird of prey in your back garden, it is most likely a sparrowhawk.

Waxwings (pictured at top) are another stunning bird you may have the pleasure of seeing in your garden or local green space. Slightly smaller than a starling, plump, coffee-coloured but with a crest and waxy red and yellow bits on the wings and tail, waxwings really stand out from the crowd! They breed in Scandinavia and in years when they have a great breeding season and food runs out they can ‘irrupt’ here. This month, a flock in Ballymoney attracted a host of birdwatchers. They are berry lovers so check out any flocks of birds on berried bushes, especially rowan, hawthorn and cotoneaster, and listen for their lovely tinkling call.


Bramblings (above) are another uncommon winter visitor that might turn up in your garden.  You might describe them as a ‘funny-looking chaffinch’ – more orange than pink and with a white rump! As the weather gets colder at this time of year, you’ll often see birds that wouldn’t normally venture into gardens to look for food. One of my favourite birds to see is a goldcrest, our smallest bird, but you might also glimpse siskins or redpolls, which normally are in the trees feeding on the seeds of alder, birch and conifers, or flocks of long-tailed tits.

People are used to seeing thrushes – especially if you have plants with berries on them – but look out for redwings and fieldfares (pictured, below), thrushes that come to us for the winter from farther north. Thrushes can be very aggressive about defending trees full of berries, with mistle thrushes making a distinctive football rattle call.


Personally, I would be hugely excited to see a firecrest. They’re a more common winter visitor in England and Wales, but were spotted on Rathlin in March this year. You never know what species might be blown over to Northern Ireland at any given time!

An interesting one that we’ll sometimes here about via the Big Garden Birdwatch is the great spotted woodpecker. These have been spreading across Northern Ireland in the last number of years. Obviously they’re more often heard drumming in woodland areas in the summer months than spotted, but you can occasionally see them on garden feeders on the hunt for food.


So take part in the Birdwatch between January 25 and 27 - you never know what interesting birds might turn up!

To register to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch (January 25-27), please visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

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