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Bird Life at Hardknott Forest

"BIRD LIFE AT HARDKNOTT FOREST: A SEASONAL STORY" by John Hincks, Site Officer, January 2024

Our mixed habitats provide for the needs of the many different bird species that may be seen at Hardknott Forest. Some are resident throughout the year, others come and go as the seasons change. Restoring the forest from commercial timber plantation to broadleaf woodland is benefiting many of our birds. Our native tree species provide the perfect habitat, with a greater diversity of invertebrates and flora. We conduct annual bird surveys (see here), which will reveal how the populations change in number, and move throughout the environment as the habitats change and develop. Here are some of our birds and their seasonal activity.


The bad weather and general reduction in available food during colder months is hard work for many wild animals, especially our smaller birds. Unable to store significant quantities of fat within their bodies, they are constantly on the move, searching for the calories they require to keep them going in the cold. Flocks of Siskins feed on seeds high in the canopy, while family groups of Long-tailed Tits move through the lower branches searching for invertebrates. Robins often appear when we are working, for example felling or planting trees. You may be familiar with this behaviour in the garden at home. In times past our woodlands were home to wild boar, also people turned pigs out to forage. Rooting around in the forest floor, the swine gave Robins a chance to grab a tasty snack. In the absence of this natural disturbance, we are the next best thing. If pigs make an appearance at Hardknott Forest, we may be able to see this behaviour again. One of the farmers in the valley has just invested in a few pigs for his farm, so watch this space.

At this time of the year small flocks of mixed species can be seen. Usually made up of birds such as Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and Chaffinches, they move through the branches searching for a meal. By flocking together they have better protection from predators, Sparrowhawks in particular are the nemesis of small birds. These predators are avian assassins, using the element of surprise to snatch their prey from the air. With the leaves gone from the canopy, there is less cover to hide in for the smaller woodland birds, so they may seek safety in numbers. Another survival strategy used by some birds is communal roosting. Long-tailed Tits will cram many individuals into a nest box or tree hole to reduce heat loss on bitter nights. Wrens too are known to huddle up with others of their own kind in cold weather, usually in small numbers, but there are records of several dozen roosting together. These communal roosts are initiated by the male within whose territory the roost is located. He attracts other Wrens with short flights in and out while calling.

One tree, one branch, one month...some of the bird species at Hardknott Forest. There are at least eight species in this clip.

Tawny Owls make the most of the long hours of darkness. These nocturnal predators mainly prey on small rodents, but will also take roosting birds. They may be hard to spot during the day as they rest, but during the night they may be heard calling to one another. Often thought make the noise “twit twhooo”, it is in fact the female that calls “keewik” while the male calls “twhooo”. Tawny owls are very territorial, and during January and February they become especially vocal, as they pair up and establish territories. Owl pellets are another sign of their presence in the woods. These consist of indigestible fur and bone left over from the owl’s last meal. Close examination of pellets can reveal exactly what species the owl has consumed. The mature Oak woodland at Hardknott forest is ideal habitat for them to hunt and breed in.

A dissected owl pellet showing small mammal bones and undigested fur.


A change in behaviour may be observed among some of our resident birds quite early in the year. Ravens are one of the first birds to get the nesting season underway. Usually on an inaccessible crag, construction starts around January with the female sitting on eggs by February. It might seem a bit odd that these large birds, (the biggest members of the corvid family), start domestic arrangements so soon in comparison to others, but it’s all about the timing. Late winter / early spring is the hardest time of the year for our wild animals, with fat reserves running low and the flush of new spring growth yet to appear. There are those that succumb to the rigours of winter and carrion is an important food source of Ravens. And as spring moves on deer calves are born, lambing begins, and the accompanying afterbirths provide a delicacy for hungry young chicks.

An increase in bird activity is marked by signature sounds. Courtship song and territorial “keep out” calls reveal the intentions of our residents. The Mistle Thrush begins to sing before most other birds, with a broken, plaintive song delivered from the top of a high tree. Great Spotted Woodpeckers aren’t known for their singing voice, but they can drum. Males attract mates and establish territories by producing this sound from a suitable branch. Not just any branch will do, usually they are hollow so that the sound resonates throughout the woods, with a single male having a number of “drumming posts”. Green Woodpeckers are also present at Hardknott forest, and have a very distinctive “laughing” call. The old Cumbrian dialect name for them is “yaffel”, which means laugh. Wood ants are a favourite meal of the Green Woodpecker, and there is a good population in the forest. They mop up the ants using a long tongue to extract them from underground. The Woodpeckers may also benefit from the acid which the angry ants squirt at the attacker as a defence mechanism, as this could help to deter other parasites from biting the bird.

Late April sees the arrival of migrant species, many of which have travelled to the forest from Africa, and others that have spent the colder months on our coasts such as the Stonechat. The woods resound with the songs of Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs. Areas that were once coniferous plantation are now thick with naturally regenerating native tree species. Birch, Rowan and Willow are the pioneer trees of this newly developing ecosystem which will eventually become Oak dominated. The dense cover provides lots of insects and shelter for the visitors to set up territories and raise a family in. The Oaks of Great wood attract other breeding migrants, Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers both reside in this part of the forest. Nesting in holes among the old trees and feeding on the insects that thrive there.


On fine sunny days many people head to the river Duddon to enjoy its cool waters and relax on its banks. Away from the busier spots you may see some of the birds which depend on the river for their livelihood. Dippers are our only aquatic songbird, diving under the water’s surface to hunt for insect larvae, and you may just hear their bubbling melody above the rush of the water. They like to sit on a prominent rock midstream to sing and have a peculiar habit of bobbing up and down. No one is quite sure exactly what this behaviour is about (it can also be observed in another riverside bird that can be seen at Hardknott forest, the Grey Wagtail). Some of the other birds that have been sighted along the river are Kingfisher, Goosander and Grey Heron, there was even an Osprey spotted passing through last summer.

Nestlings have long since fledged, and are now busy making the most of the abundance of food available. The adult Cuckoo’s that heralded in the spring will have departed for Africa, having no parental responsibilities to see through, but their fledgling that was fostered by an unsuspecting bird will still be around, gorging on hairy caterpillars which are a favourite meal. There are often lots of these caterpillars to be seen at Hardknott, and the Cuckoos return each year.

If you keep an eye to the sky on a fine, sunny day you may well spot our resident Buzzards. They often fly in family groups as the young learn the aerial skills they need alongside their parents. Thermals give them the lift to soar effortlessly, scanning the ground for prey such as mice, rabbits, lizards and snakes. The poisonous bite of an adder presents no threat to the Buzzard as the scales and feathers of its legs protect from the snake bite. On a couple of occasions I have seen these birds in the air with a snake in their talons, holding it lengthways to the direction of flight much like an Osprey carries a fish, to reduce drag.


Jays displaying at Hardknott Forest.

Jays are present within the forest throughout the year. They are shy, preferring dense cover, but you may hear their rasping alarm calls and catch a flash of colour. Jays are extremely intelligent, being members of the Corvid family of birds along with Crows, Magpies and Ravens. In the winter they often feed on food stashed earlier in the year. Acorns are a significant part of their diet, and they don’t always remember where they have buried them. In areas of the forest that were previously conifer plantation, there are now Oak saplings appearing that we did not plant. These are very likely to have been transported and buried by a Jay which then forgot the location. Jays can be considered “Ecosystem engineers”, as the habit of stashing their food plays an important role in the regeneration of native woodland

Woodcock can be found at Hardknott forest. A breeding resident of the UK, their numbers are greatly increased in the autumn by birds from the continent that come here to over- winter, although overall recorded numbers show the species to be in decline. A type of wader, they prefer woodland to the shore, and have a long pointed beak that they use to probe the ground for invertebrates which they forage for at night. The camouflage of Woodcock is second to none, and you have no chance of spotting one before it sees you and is off. They will sit tight, relying on their ability to blend in with the woodland floor, only getting up if you get to close for comfort. A fast twisting flight through the trees providing a fleeting view as the bird moves on.

Pause the video to see the effectiveness of woodcock camouflage.

Fieldfares may be seen moving through the forest in large flocks, having flown from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia to feast on the fruit provided by our native trees. Berries from Holly, Hawthorn, Juniper and Rowan are some of their favourites and the restoration of Hardknott forest to native woodland is providing more food for the birds throughout the winter. They are members of the thrush family and are about the same size as a Blackbird.

Of the many different bird species that may be seen at Hardknott Forest, the most frequently observed are Willow Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Chaffinch, and Robin. More unusual sightings include Crossbill, Tree Pipit, and Wheatear. Whether you are out for a gentle stroll or a tramp up Harter Fell, bring your binoculars and keep your eyes peeled. Our birdlife is rich and varied, and you never know what you might see!

Have a look at our YouTube channel for more videos of our birds, as well as other wildlife.