Other December pages: Woodland and hedgerow • Flowers • Weather
For photos, sound clips and more information on the birds mentioned in this section, see the RSPB website.
The disappearance of foliage in November is a boon to birdwatchers in December. Suddenly birds can be seen as they feed busily on trees and bushes. Some of the smaller ones can lose up to a third of their body weight keeping warm on cold winter nights, so it is a race against time to feed up enough during daylight hours.
Despite this, birdsong also seems to get a bit more prominent in December as several species approach their mating seasons. How much song there is varies with the weather - sunshine can increase it, though a very cold frost overnight may dampen it and on grey cold days you hear almost nothing. There is no doubt also that there more song near human habitation than in fields and woods.
The most sustained birdsong in December comes from the aggressively territorial robin. Their fearlessness when confronted with humans and the fact that they choose obvious perches overlooking open ground (from which they pounce to feed) makes them one of the easiest birds to spot. Both male and female robins maintain territories, so in order to mate they have to overcome their fierce rivalry. This starts to happen in January, so maybe in December you are hearing the opening salvos in the courtship. As well as their somewhat formless song, they also make a rapid clicking noise when agitated.
Great tits also make a variety of sounds - including a double cheep followed by a rattle, and a "see-choo-choo" call - and you can also hear the occasional one bursting into its see-saw mating song. Generally this is not sustained - you get a few minutes of it and then the bird stops. The birds are limbering up for January, when their mating season starts in earnest.
From mid December, you can also hear lone blue tits singing their mating song, a rapidly repeated note, though it is not always easy to distinguish this from the "zee-zee zit" call which they make while they feed, which can sometimes be extended. They also rattle away to each other as they hop around the branches, their rattle having a slightly rising note at the end which distinguishes it from the great tit's.
Other formal songs you may just hear include the rather random riff of the dunnock, though more normally in December they just make a single 'tseep' as a call. Wrens may burst into voice from time to time - the key to identification here being a trill in the middle of a rapid run of notes. The nuthatch sometimes makes its "de-dit de-dit" call.
Another bird that is sometimes moved to sing is the song thrush, whose elaborate song, repeating phrases, is otherwise more associated with spring. From 2009 to 2011 this was heard in quite widespread locations through the winter, puzzling orthnithologists, but in 2012 and 2014 the birds were silent and in 2013 and 2016 only some occasional practice phrases were to be heard. In very mild December 2015 the practising was perhaps a bit more in earnest and sometimes spilled over into full scale song. Mistle thrushes may also very occasionally be heard singing in December, a clipped song of a few phrases which always seems to be in the far distance.
Nothing like as common as they once were but still found now and then, flocks of sparrows cheep away as they do all year, often from inside a bush. Blackbirds don’t sing, but they indulge in prolonged bouts of tup-tup-tupping towards dusk to mark their territories.
Later in the month you can also sometimes get a "yaffle" (a sort of hysterical laugh) from a green woodpecker (this seems to happen some years but not others). The"hoo-hoo hoo" of collared doves is also heard from time to time, the first time the bird has sung since the summer. Very occasionally you hear a stock dove.
Otherwise, you sometimes see birds in flocks, feeding in the branches of trees or bushes. Particularly restless are long-tailed tits – balls of fluff with a long tail - which let out regular (but almost inaudible) high-pitched squeaks as they hop through treetops in a frantic search for food. Goldfinches give themselves away by their excited chattering (for example when eating ash seeds) but despite this are astonishingly hard to spot, seemingly always high in trees or concealed in thick bushes.
Chaffinches are supposedly found in quite big flocks too - apparently numbers of this bird are swollen in winter by migrants from continental Europe - but they make relatively little sound and so are often overlooked. They can sometimes make a "chink chink" call, but generally this noise comes from great tits.
On bare arable fields you can see large flocks of starlings, rooks or jackdaws feeding (the latter two often mixed together in one flock). Starlings can form great congregations that wheel in unison before they roost (for example around Brighton Pier, where as many as 25,000 sleep in winter), while rooks and jackdaws greet dusk with a great deal of discordant cawing and flapping about in their tree top roosts (apparently this is not just squabbling - research suggests they are also telling each other about feeding grounds).
If you see a flock of thrushes they are almost certainly fieldfares or redwings (who have a dash of red by the wing just as their name suggests). These come from Scandinavia to spend the winter in England. So too do siskins, a yellow finch that generally lives among conifers but can be lured into alder or birch trees in winter.
You may think that there are no insects around in December but you would be wrong. Look carefully and one can see swarms of winter gnats on windless days. They are performing their mating dance and presumably evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.
If you turn over a rotting log in woodland you might also be surprised to see woodlice or spiders. These are all inactive in winter, but not actually hibernating, a term which only applies to mammals. Instead what the insects are doing is known as "diapause": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. The same is true of ladybirds, flies, and bumble bees, all of which sometimes make an appearance on sunny days. With all these insects if you leave them alone they will soon go back to their state of suspended animation.
Peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, comma and some speckled wood butterflies also diapause as adults - Second World War pillboxes are apparently one favoured spot. Quite a few other butterfly and moth species spend the winter as dormant caterpillars - one of the things the great and blue tits are looking for as they feed.
Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, or in the shape of one fertilised queen (as with bumble bees and wasps). Honeybees remain closeted in their hives, living off the stores of honey they have hopefully built up over the summer. Every species has to have some strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer.
More December pages:
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