Staff blog: Winter birds on the canal

In her latest blog, Community Engagement Officer Claire takes us into winter. Read on to find out what winged creatures you might see on the canals this season.

As the seasons change and the leaves turn yellow, orange and red and tumble to the ground, turn your eyes to the bare branches above and see what you can spot. Winter is the perfect time to look out for birds along the canal, whether in the trees lining the towpaths or on the water itself.

In the winter many of our birds seem to become more visible, but there are also some seasonal visitors around.  When out for a wander on a chilly winters day, take a second look at any berry trees, such as rowan or hawthorn, and you may spot some thrushes and blackbirds enjoying the fruit. If you’ve ever seen a bird in winter which looks a bit like a thrush but not quite right, the chances are that it was a redwing or a fieldfare.  These relatives of our native thrushes travel to Scotland each winter, most redwing from Iceland and the majority of fieldfare from Scandinavia. Although it may seem strange to us, our relatively mild winters provide the perfect climate for these birds, allowing them to avoid the harsh winters of their home countries.

male mallard

There is plenty to see on the water too. Mallards, mute swans and moorhen are all fixtures on the canal throughout the year, and at this time of year there are plenty of goosander around too. These ducks are resident in Scotland throughout the year, but tend to move from the uplands to the lowlands in winter, which can explain their sudden appearance on your local patch of the canal. Winter populations are also boosted by some migrants from Northern Europe. Goosanders are from the sawbill family, named because they have serrated edges along their bills to help them catch and grip fish, their main food source.  They are diving ducks and often disappear under the water’s surface for up to a minute at a time, popping up after searching the depths for fish.

male goosander

Other fish-eaters you may spot along the canal include grey herons, which can often be seen lurking in the vegetation at the water’s edge, stock-still as they watch intently for signs of movement below the surface. If you’re very lucky, you may even catch a flash of bright, tropical blue fly past. Kingfishers seem to be a more and more frequent sight along our canals – I’ve been lucky to spot two recently, one along the Forth & Clyde canal near Kirkintilloch and another on the canal at Maryhill. On a sunny day the light catching on the colourful feathers is startlingly bright and beautiful, so keep your eyes peeled on your next canal wander.

Although winter is a great time of year to spot birds, some of our smaller feathered may struggle to feed themselves as the weather grows colder and natural food supplies dwindle.  Why not give them a helping hand by putting out some food in your garden, in a hanging feeder or even a small tray on the ground. Small garden birds like robins, chaffinches, blackbirds, blue tits and many more often rely on a little extra food from gardens at this time of year. Sunflower seeds are a favourite food of our garden birds, and are very nutritious too, or why not try offering some suet cakes on cold days? You could even make your own by softening some lard and mixing with seeds and other tasty treats.  Your local birds will certainly be grateful, and you can enjoy the pleasure of sitting at the window with a cuppa and watching them flock to your garden – the perfect way to spend an hour on a chilly day!

For more information about how to feed the birds in your garden, check out the RSPB’s top tips.