the nightingale is one of Britain's rarest birds

10 Rarest Birds In The UK

Experts believe that the UK has a breeding bird population of around 84 million pairs[i]. Despite this, there are many bird species in the country considered ‘rare.’ This may mean that they are infrequently spotted, or they’re endangered and possibly even extinct. The figures for some of these birds seem dire, but many bird watchers still go on the hunt for them, hoping to prove that these beautiful creatures are still thriving in the wild.

What is the rarest bird in the UK?

We can’t say for certain what the rarest bird in the UK is as population sizes change frequently, but the Ruff and Red-backed Shrike have very small breeding pair numbers which have put them high up on the conservation list.


The Top 10 Rarest Birds in the UK

The UK is home to many birds considered rare. A bird is labelled rare if it doesn’t breed in its province and has travelled past the recognised limits of its species range. Many of these bird populations have reduced drastically over recent years; however, you can still catch a glimpse of them, if you know where to look.

1) Hen Harrier

hen harrier
  • Scientific Name – Circus Cyaneus
  • Current Population – 630 breeding pairs[ii]
  • Conservation Status – Red

This bird of prey got its name from its natural predation on free-range poultry. However, the effect on farmer’s livelihoods continues to cause disputes and has had a severe effect on their population.

Identification: Male hen harriers are pale grey in colour while females are brown with a white rump, and both have a long, barred tail that provided their nickname of ‘ringtail’.

Diet: Despite their favour for fowl, hen harriers will also feed on small mammals, such as voles, and birds, which they fly low to the ground to catch.

Location: The preferred habitat of these hawk-like birds is open spaces with little vegetation, and they are often found in the moorlands of Northern England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

2) Capercaillie

Capercaillie
  • Scientific Name – Tetrao urogallus
  • Current Population – 1100 individuals[iii]
  • Conservation Status – Red

The habitat of the capercaillie is vulnerable and rare, which has played a huge part in their population loss. Because of the rapid population loss, it’s believed that the Capercaillie is at an extremely high risk of extinction for the second time.

Identification: Male capercaillies are large with primarily black feathers, whereas females are smaller with brown and white feathers.

Diet: Capercaillies are mostly ground feeders, with their regular diet consisting of the berries, shoots, stems and buds of local trees and plants.

Location: The capercaillie is a breed native to Scotland, found only in native pinewood areas.

3) Nightingale

the nightingale is one of Britain's rarest birds
  • Scientific Name – Luscinia megarhynchos
  • Current Population – 5,095 – 5983 individuals[iv]
  • Conservation Status – Red

Famous for their clear, rich song that very few species can match, nightingales populate woodland areas, creating their nests in the protective undergrowth there. It’s believed that their decline in population is due to the rise in numbers of deer that have been exploring the nightingales habitats, trampling the woodlands that they nest in.

Identification: Nightingales are slightly larger than robins, coloured a similar shade of brown with a broader tail.

Diet: They feed mostly on insects, particularly ants and beetles, and are extremely territorial during breeding.

Location: Nightingales are more commonly seen in woody areas of the southeast of the UK, including Essex, Sussex and Kent. 

4) Nightjar

nightjar
  • Scientific Name – Caprimulgus europaeus
  • Current Population – 4600 breeding males
  • Conservation Status – Amber

Nightjars are a nocturnal species, hunting at dusk and dawn. Their population has been in decline since the early 2000’s due to the loss of their habitat, which is primarily heathlands, moorlands, open woodlands and sometimes conifer plantations.

Identification: Nightjars are about the same size and shape as kestrels, with brown and cream feathers and a long, thin tail.

Diet: They feed mostly on insects, including moths and beetles, but are believed to be able to secretly steal milk from goats.

Location: Similar to Nightingales, Nightjars are more commonly found in southern England, with high numbers being reported in Dorset, Surrey and Suffolk. 

5) Roseate Tern

Rosetate Tern
  • Scientific Name – Sterna dougallii
  • Current Population – 100 breeding pairs[v]
  • Conservation Status – Red

Roseate terns are coastal birds whose habitats and nesting areas are constantly threatened by humans and predators alike. This is because the terns make their nests in the ends and breaks of beaches, and other species constantly interfere with these spaces. To protect their nests, roseate terns breed in colonies, often including other species of bird, however breeding in the UK has been restricted to only a handful of colonies.

Identification: Roseate terns are similar to regular terns, only they are a brighter white with longer tail feathers. Their name is derived from the pinkish colour that the underparts of adults turn in the summer.

Diet: They favour a diet of fish and crustaceans, which they are able to plunge-dive to retrieve.

Location: Roseate terns are mostly spotted off of the Northumberland coast and around Anglesey in summer. Passage birds may be seen around the south and east coasts.

6) Ring Ouzel

ring ouzel
  • Scientific Name – Turdus torquatus
  • Current Population – 7300 breeding pairs[vi]
  • Conservation Status – Red

The ring ouzel, an uncommon bird even before its population decline, is often mistaken as a blackbird. There are signs of decline in several countries that the ring ouzel is known to populate, and this is believed to be due to climate change.

Identification: They can be distinguished by their white upper breast, slightly smaller size and longer tail, although their sleek black feathers are easily confused.

Diet: Ring ouzels feed on insects, particularly earthworms and beetles, and berries.

Location: They prefer grasslands, usually complete with the cover of heather and bracken, though they can be found on rock ledges. Although migration can lead them to the east and south coasts, ring ouzels are usually spotted in Scotland, Northern England and North Wales. 

7) Willow Tit

willow tit
  • Scientific Name – Poecile montanus
  • Current Population – 2750 Pairs
  • Conservation Status – Red

Recent population declines have seen the Willow Tit enter the Red status conservation list.

Identification: Relatively small in size, the Willow Tit is characterised by a distinctive sooty, black cap and soft, grey back feathers with a snowy underbelly.

Diet: Insects, berries and seeds

Location: The Willow Tit lives in woodland, but can also be found in urban and suburban locations.

8) Ruff

ruff
  • Scientific Name – Philomachus pugnax
  • Current Population – 820 wintering birds and 0 – 11 breeding females
  • Conservation Status – Red

The population of Ruff in the UK has been dwindling. They are migrating birds who come across to the UK from Scandanavia and then move on to Africa during the summer.

Identification: Medium-sized bird with a long neck and slightly curved bill. Black, grey and white feathers with orangey-red legs.

Diet: Insects, crustaceans, worms, frogs, small fish and seeds

Location: They live in wetland sites. You can find Ruff on the coast of Norfolk in Titchwell.

9) Red-Backed Shrike

red backed shrike
  • Scientific Name – Philomachus pugnax
  • Current Population – 1 – 3 breeding pairs, 250 passage birds
  • Conservation Status – Red

This is one of the rarest birds in the UK, with few remaining breeding pairs (they are practically extinct in that respect). Known for their striking reddish-chestnut coloured back, they can be found more easily in other countries.

Identification: Similarly sized to house sparrows. Off-grey head and yellowish underbelly with a black, short bill. Distinctive red-chestnut feathers on the back.

Diet: Insects, smaller mammals and birds

Location: There are only a few breeding pairs native to the UK, but you can spot the Red-Backed Shrike in passage whilst they are migrating. Look out for them in coastal areas of the UK during spring and autumn.

10) Honey Buzzard

honey buzzard
  • Scientific Name – Pernis apivorus
  • Current Population – 41 breeding pairs
  • Conservation Status – Amber

Another rare bird that is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, the Honey Buzzard only makes an appearance in the UK in the summer.

Identification: Large bird of prey, long wings, grey-brown upper plumage with a paler underside. Their necks jut forwards.

Diet: the larvae of bees and wasps, small mammals and worms

Location: Honey Buzzards nest across the UK. Some locations you can find them are east and north England, and Northern Scotland.


What Is the Rarest Bird In The World?

Currently, the rarest bird in the world is the Bahama Nuthatch.

Labelled as critically endangered but commonly believed to be extinct, this species can only be found on Grand Bahama Island, where habitat loss, predators and extreme hurricanes have impacted the population numbers. The last sighting of this rare species was in the spring of 2018[ix], yet conservation efforts are being consistently increased in hopes that we can save this rare bird before it is too late. 


Rare Birds Around the World

Although the UK is home to some beautiful, rare birds, the rest of the world has its own fair share too. The current population of many of these birds remains uncertain; however, that doesn’t stop many enthusiastic bird watchers from hoping to help their conservation.

  1. Madagascar Pochard – Found on the small island of its namesake, the Madagascar Pochard is a diving duck that was feared as extinct until 2006. In the latest survey, it was estimated that there were only 20 Madagascaran Pochards left; however, the hope is that these aquatic birds have evolved to live in different habitats. The Peregrine Fund began a captive breeding programme, which is hoped to protect this rare bird.
  • Cebu Flowerpecker – Found in Cebu, a province of the Philippines, this flowerpecker was last seen in 1992, when only 0.03% of forest cover was left[vii]. Unfortunately, the small part of forest that is left there remains under threat, meaning this bird’s population hangs precariously in the balance. The Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation has been working on rebuilding the Cebu Flowerpecker’s habitat and have been implementing conservation programmes to help protect this species’ future.
  • New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar – This elusive species hasn’t been spotted in the wild since 1998 and has been an uncommon bird since its first record. Very little is known about this bird, but the population isn’t believed to number more than 50 individuals. Native to New Caledonia, just off the coast of Australia, this owlet-nightjar is believed by many bird watchers to be extinct, but experts continue their efforts to find and conserve the species.
  • Stresemann’s Bristlefront – The Stresemann’s Bristlefront is native to Brazil, where it was last spotted in 2018. This renewed hopes that the species could be saved, and conservation attempts have been improved since. Unfortunately, this bristlefront is limited to one of the most vulnerable forests in the Americas, with an estimated population of only 15 individuals[viii]. 

The Bird Watcher’s Code 

Bird watching is a hobby with ever growing popularity, but there are several practices that all bird watchers are expected to follow no matter their level of experience.

These guidelines are known as the bird watcher’s code, and are designed to keep both people and birds safe at all times. The five main things it is vital for bird watchers to know in relation to the code are:

  1. The bird’s interests always come first. This means viewing the animals only from a distance, and not disturbing them or their nests. 
  2. Be an advocate for birdwatching. Be enthusiastic about your hobby, and answer questions from passers-by politely as this may encourage them to try their hand at the enlightening hobby.
  3. Be aware of the rules and laws for anywhere you go to partake in bird watching, and ensure you stick to them.
  4. Report what you find. Send your findings, particularly rare bird sightings, to the local County Bird Recorder and the Birdtrack website. Registering your rare bird sightings will help experts understand them and help their conservation. 
  5. Consider the interests of other people and wildlife species before publicising news of any rare bird sightings, especially during their breeding season. 

How Can You Help Birds?

Birds are an important part of the world’s ecosystem and allowing population levels to continue to decrease could be fatal. You can help birds, rare or otherwise, from the comfort of your own home.

  1. Provide Food – Leaving out water, suet for birds and a variety of seed mixes can provide them with an important nutrition source and keep them going during periods of food scarcity.
  2. Places to Nest – Hanging nesting boxes around your property will give birds safe place to breed and rest throughout the year. 
  3. Re-wild Your Garden – Plant flowers, hedgerows, and allow patches of your garden to become ‘overgrown’ to encourage a variety of wildlife. Provide a varied landscape with hides and food sources.
  4. Get Involved – You can volunteer with a number of bird conservation charities, such as Bird Aid, The RSPB and The British Trust for Ornithology.

Sources

[i] https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/publications/population-estimates-of-birds-in-great-britain-and-the-united-kingdom-2013.pdf 

[ii] https://www.gwct.org.uk/wildlife/research/birds/raptors/hen-harrier/   

[iii] https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob3350.htm 

[iv] https://www.bto.org/community/news/201806-new-population-estimate-nightingale 

[v] https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob6140.htm 

[vi] https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob11860.htm

[vii] http://www.edgeofexistence.org/species/cebu-flowerpecker/

[viii] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/almost-extinct-brazilian-bird-observed-in-nest-for-the-first-time-video/ 

[ix] https://www.audubon.org/news/the-bahama-nuthatch-thought-be-lost-hurricanes-not-extinct-yet 

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